What’s Your Story?

Whats your story John Seamonby beCause Associate John Seaman and his Saybrook Partner Robert Ferguson

Storytelling is all the rage these days.

In a world that is swimming in content, more and more organizations have begun using stories to sell products and services, build support for a strategy or agenda, or shape public perception. Unfortunately, many of the stories they choose to tell are superficial or inauthentic, serving only to undermine the very goals they hope to achieve. For truly compelling stories, organizations should look to their own heritage.

What kind of stories work, and why

Storytelling may be popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fad. In fact, the power of stories is well documented in the literature on narrative psychology. As social creatures, our happiness and well being, sometimes even our survival, depends in large part on the relationships we forge with others. Stories let us understand and empathize with those around us, giving us the confidence we need to make common cause. Stories also trigger emotional responses that are powerful drivers of motivation—more powerful than rational argument.

Telling stories, of course, does not come naturally to busy executives who are accustomed to communicating through data and metrics, not character and plot. And when times are good and consensus is easy to achieve, there is no reason for them to step out of their comfort zone. But when the economy turns south, crisis engulfs their firm, or competition bites, or when they just need to take the organization in a new direction, leaders realize they must articulate a compelling narrative: where we are, how we got there, and where we need to go. To craft such a story, many of them turn to the mini-industry of experts—”brand storytellers” or “chief storytelling officers” are popular monikers—that has sprung up to support them. Some, as Fast Company recently pointed out, go so far as to hire novelists.

This is treating the symptom, not the disease. Even the most artfully crafted story is worthless if is inauthentic, which is to say unrecognizable in the context of the company or person telling it (just ask any of current crop of US presidential candidates who have spent millions on advertising only to see their poll numbers fall through the floor). In our experience, the most powerful story of all—one that is compelling, authentic, and true—is rooted in one’s own experience. Smart organizations and their leaders know this. They act deliberately to capture what we call “heritage stories”— founding myths, remembered events, survival stories—and use them to help crystallize a sense of purpose, engage people in transformational change, and make them feel a part of something larger than themselves.

Five heritage stories and their impacts

1. Instill a sense of mission and purpose

KPMG, the accounting firm, is one such organization. In 2014, faced with a growing, increasingly disconnected global workforce, the firm launched a major employee engagement initiative that hoped to unite people around a common, higher purpose. They captured hundreds of stories, past and present, that illustrated the impact of KPMG’s auditing and tax work in historic events: the administration of the Lend-Lease Act during the Second World War that provided US military aid to Britain and other allies; the resolution of conflicting financial claims that facilitated the release of US hostages in Iran in 1981; and the certification of the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as the first president of post-Apartheid South Africa. By focusing more on the firm’s transcendent purpose (how it helps people) and less on its transactional purpose (what it does or sells), KPMG’s initiative had a dramatic impact on employee retention and morale, making it the number one ranked Big Four firm among FORTUNE’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.

2. Pave the way for a next generation of leaders

At Dimensional Fund Advisors, heritage stories became a vital part of succession planning. As the firm approached its 30th anniversary, Dimensional’s founder and co-CEO, David Booth, knew that a series of forces—geographical expansion, a proliferation of new funds, a large influx of new employees, and structural changes in organization and management—had combined to transform the enterprise he had built. He also knew that 30 years in business was no accident; it was the consequence of discrete decisions, many of them taken early on, that had permanently shaped the firm’s culture and values. So he engaged historians to help him craft an authoritative narrative that described those early decisions, put the firm’s subsequent development in perspective, and explained how all of this made the firm distinctive. The narrative became the basis for ongoing dialogues with young leaders and new hires, and was integrated into formal orientation and training programs.

 3. Build confidence in a time of crisis

Mylan, the global generic drug maker, used an early survival story to inspire resilience at a moment of crisis. Founded in 1961, Mylan had flirted with bankruptcy not once but twice in its first decade before ultimately establishing a foothold in the market. Tales of those early near-death experiences later became part of the company’s culture—not only teaching employees to take nothing for granted but also motivating them to overcome fresh challenges. When Mylan’s stock price plummeted in October 2008, at the onset of a deep recession, executives took care to remind people that Mylan had seen worse and could survive once more. “A track record speaks volumes,” said Heather Bresch, the CEO and a 20-year veteran of Mylan. “Here’s what we’ve been doing for 50 years. We’ve persevered.”

4. Bring an authentic identity to the marketplace

In 2011, Motorola spun off its once-mighty consumer business (since bought by Google). That left its enterprise communications business, renamed Motorola Solutions, to present a different face to customers and employees used to understanding it primarily as a business-to-consumer company. Executives looked to the early history of the company, which revealed a founding emphasis on public safety dating to the 1930s car radio business for municipal police and fire departments. Now Motorola had a new story to tell about itself, one that refocused attention on its origins as a business-to-business company and enabled it to bring an authentic identity to the marketplace.

5. Reinvent a cherished brand

One of our favorite examples of heritage stories comes from a children’s toy maker. In the early 2000s, LEGO realized it could no longer talk about its signature product as a system of miniature plastic bricks in a world of hyper-stimulated children, accustomed to video games and other electronic toys, and their anxious, overachieving parents. Yet rather than abandon the brick or embrace yet more brand extensions, it went back to the company’s founding vision. Ole Kirk Christiansen, the Danish carpenter who established LEGO in 1932, had always thought of the LEGO toys leaving his shop as being “[…] unfinished” because, he said, “each one needs the touch and imagination of a child” in order to come to life. Once unpacked, this founding story led to a powerful insight: what made LEGO enduring was not the plastic bricks themselves but what those bricks did to fire childhood imagination. By making the old new again, LEGO successfully reframed its brand and its mission—to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow—which, in turn, opened up whole new engagement opportunities, such as environmental stewardship and climate change, consistent with this intergenerational commitment.

What’s your story?

These organizations come from different industries and sectors. Some are large and long established; others are relatively new. What they have in common are stories that capture something fundamental about their identity and purpose; stories that are credible and authoritative because they are grounded in fact, not fiction; and stories that speak to hearts as well as minds because they call on a shared history. They did not come by these stories by accident, but rather delved into their past, eager to document it and willing to learn from it.

For other organizations that want to tell a compelling story, this raises a broader question: What is their story? Where did they come from, what did they achieve, what setbacks did they need to overcome along the way, and how did all of this shape the values they hold, the mission they embrace, and the strategy that will take them there? Only by understanding their own story first can their leaders frame a vision for the future and rally the support they need to realize it.

About co-authors: John Seaman, CEO Saybrook Partners, is a historian, author and consultant to organizations, families, and executives around the world. He has worked with clients across a range of sectors, with special expertise in financial and professional services, higher education, and philanthropy. Robert Ferguson, Saybrook Partner, has 20+ years experience in communications, branding, publishing, and media relations. He uses an organization’s unique knowledge to develop an authentic and sustainable brand platform, one that keeps audiences connected and engaged.  This article was first published on their website.

{ 20 comments… add one }

  • Nadine B. Hack August 4, 2016, 1:47 pm

    I love your premise that “the most powerful story of all—one that is compelling, authentic, and true—is rooted in one’s own experience. Smart organizations and their leaders know this. They act deliberately to capture what we call ‘heritage stories’— founding myths, remembered events, survival stories—and use them to help crystallize a sense of purpose, engage people in transformational change, and make them feel a part of something larger than themselves.” Authenticity and purpose are key values for all aspects of work, including the stories we tell about it.

  • Jerry Dunfey August 4, 2016, 3:00 pm

    I appreciate your insights on storytelling as we are revitalizing Global Citizens Circle website, we are engaged in a process of distilling a clear, concise, compelling narrative that captures: over 42 years fostering diversity, inclusion, civil discourse to create constructive change; tens of thousands of inter-generational participants around the world engaging in hundreds of Circles; empowering a global learning community of social action.

    • John Seaman August 9, 2016, 12:16 pm

      Thank you, Jerry. Even under construction, your new website captures a stunning record of dialogue and common cause among change makers at all levels. You must have so many stories of your own to share, and perhaps these will form part of the revamped site. I look forward to reading more.

  • Barbara Kimmel August 4, 2016, 3:00 pm

    Nadine- thank you for sharing this wonderful article. The story cannot be “crafted” by the PR or communications folks followed by a “sign off” from legal. The secret is getting leaders to acknowledge the value of coloring outside the standard operating procedures box.

    • Nadine B. Hack August 4, 2016, 3:08 pm

      I agree, Barbara. That’s why I love John & Rob’s emphasis on finding the authentic, essential purpose of one’s story. We all have one – individuals and enterprises. When we reveal them, we truly have the ability to connect with each other in honesty and trust: values you’ve done so much to advance.

    • John Seaman August 9, 2016, 12:27 pm

      Thank you, Barbara. There is a reason that we have lost trust in our institutions, and it’s not only because so many of those institutions have failed us in performance terms. Rather, as you point out, the stories they tell about themselves, massaged by PR/comms team and vetted by lawyers, often do not align with their actual behavior, which makes them seem inauthentic. An authentic reputation story, rooted in a fact-based narrative, can become self-reinforcing: by driving a mission that employees, clients, and customers can embrace, a strategy that will help them realize it, and behaviors that will help them execute it.

  • Stephanie Moles-Rota August 4, 2016, 4:18 pm

    Thank you for this inspiring piece on Story Telling. Chief Marketing Officers became Chief Story Telling recently, however, the only story that can be told is the truth. When leaders tell the truth with sincerity and authenticity, engagement and change can happen, else it is indeed yet another fancy word for Marketing & PR.

    • John Seaman August 4, 2016, 5:46 pm

      Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments. As the saying goes, “You can’t make this stuff up!” Well, fortunately you don’t need to–and, if you care about your reputation, shouldn’t. Everything you need to find an authentic way forward is right there in your own individual and institutional experience–your history. Success, setbacks, and what you’ve learned from both along the way. As the great business historian Alfred Chandler used to ask his Harvard Business School classes: “How can you know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been?”

  • Cortney McDermott August 4, 2016, 5:11 pm

    In Rolf Jensen’s ‘The Dream Society’, he predicts: “The highest-paid person in the first half of [this] century will be the ‘storyteller’ […] valued for his or her ability to produce ‘dreams’ for public consumption.”

    Your story is indeed your most powerful asset.

    Thanks for the reminder, John.

    • John Seaman August 9, 2016, 12:35 pm

      Well put, Courtney. I would add that dreams, whether for public or private consumption, are ultimately a product of our institutional and personal experience. What we aspire to do is very much a function of what we’ve learned (or haven’t) from the past. I think Jensen’s predictions from 15+ years ago have been amply born out by the advent of “Big Data” and the digital revolution: the more emphasis we place on the quantitative, the more important it is to bring qualitative reasoning (and emotion) to bear on how we understand and articulate our futures.

  • Peter Cook August 5, 2016, 7:12 am

    Stories are compelling in a busy world, especially when they are authentic. I think Barbara Kimmel’s work on trust is very relevant here. In our society at present (US and UK especially) we are experiencing a rise in the use of storytelling based on outright lies (I’m thinking Trump and our EU referendum) and these are not stories in the way you are meaning but merely fables and so on. Unfortunately many members of the general public don’t have the time or the ability to cross check them for veracity. Great post.

    • Barbara Kimmel August 5, 2016, 12:09 pm

      Peter- as you know, for the past 10 years or so, many companies have used their CSR platforms to tell their “stories.” I’ll never forget the time I listened to a big Pharma CSR head touting their great philanthropy and vaccine giveaway programs while the company was facing an enormous fine for fraud and bribery. When the stories are authentic and not just talk, well that’s when the game changes.

      • Peter Cook August 9, 2016, 12:41 pm

        Precisely Barbara

      • John Seaman August 9, 2016, 12:44 pm

        Thank you, Peter and Barbara. The gap between narrative and behavior can be fatal for any organization’s reputation. That’s why I think it’s important for an organization to know its history, face up to and learn from it, and apply those lessons in ways that can help shape a more responsible (and often no less profitable) enterprise. As for Trump and Brexit: these are distinct phenomena in some sense, yet both represent the triumph of nostalgia for a long lost world that never was. All the more reason for us to know what actually happened. Thanks again for your comments!

  • David Hain August 5, 2016, 9:19 am

    Thank you John and Robert for an excellent contribution, a compelling argument and some great examples to back up your case. I think it’s a timely reminder that the difference between fads and powerful OD tools can be very nuanced, and largely depends on depth of belief in the real value of the tool. Like most tools, storytelling is capable of being devalued, and your reality check is a timely one. Will share widely.

    Warm wishes


    • John Seaman August 9, 2016, 12:51 pm

      Yes, David: “storytelling” has been devalued for having become a fad, and so many of the stories that companies tell are either superficial, self-serving or false. As I’m sure you know from your own consulting work, one’s success in changing behavior or direction depends on an honest accounting of how one got there in the first place, which for me is the essence of good history/storytelling. Thanks for your comment.

  • David Wilcox August 8, 2016, 5:36 pm

    SO TRUE John Seaman — “This is treating the symptom, not the disease. Even the most artfully crafted story is worthless if is inauthentic, which is to say unrecognizable in the context of the company or person telling it (just ask any of current crop of US presidential candidates who have spent millions on advertising only to see their poll numbers fall through the floor). In our experience, the most powerful story of all—one that is compelling, authentic, and true—is rooted in one’s own experience. Smart organizations and their leaders know this.”

    In your work are there a couple of questions that you ask early to get a sense of the authenticity of the leader and organizations “knowing of this”?

  • Gretchen August 9, 2016, 2:17 am

    Love it! It’s a hard concept for business owners to embrace. It sounds like a “nice idea” they pause and the move on. Thanks for the powerful examples.

    • John Seaman August 9, 2016, 12:52 pm

      Yes, Gretchen: sad, but true! We spend a lot of time educating our clients on why this nice idea is actually such a powerful tool. Thanks for your comments.

  • John Seaman August 9, 2016, 1:06 pm

    Thank you, David. The organizations and leaders with whom we work are somewhat self-selecting: successful and self-confident, yet all the more willing for that reasons to submit themselves to scrutiny in order to learn from or leverage their histories in meaningful ways. Those who are none of these things rarely engage with us in the first place – which I suppose makes our job both easier and more difficult! Thanks again.


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