The Power of Storytelling

Believe it or not, storytelling is a good skill for managers to acquire.

Storytelling can also bridge the great divide between the leadership of a company and its employees. H. James Dallas, CIO of Georgia-Pacific, once told a group of Georgia-Pacific employees the story of when he was much younger and working as a janitor at Pepperidge Farm. He noted, "My job was to clean all of the flour and dough out of the machines so that bugs wouldn't form. The plant manager would take the time to tell us how important our jobs were. He explained that if bugs got in, it would cause quality problems, leading to people not buying our products, resulting in the company losing money and people losing jobs. Twice a year, OSHA would come in and do an inspection. If we got a grade of 95 or higher, he would personally serve us steak dinners. His actions made me think of myself not as a janitor, but as a key part of our company's success."

Storytelling can also act to rally the troops around in a difficult stage of a company's existence. "Any significant initiative requires understanding and inspiration from beginning to end," says Dallas. After the recent spate of corporate scandals, he adds, "people found out that they didn't know their leaders as well as they thought they did. Effective storytelling creates that connection and answers the question of 'Why should I listen to or follow you?' Stories start forming a common bond because everybody has a story, and one story builds on another."

There is an entrepreneurship group here on the Space Coast called Founders Forum. I usually go to the meetings, and we average maybe 50 people each time. They always take a few minutes and have everyone introduce themselves and give an "elevator speech." One woman who usually attends is a professional storyteller, and she talks about stories and business and how she can help a company. Several years ago when I went to my first meeting, I thought she was a bit odd and somewhat out of place, but over the years I have come to realize that her services do have value, and that I had a pretty narrow view of "storytelling." When I think about how stories have been handed down through time, even before the invention of writing, I realize that they are part of our cultures, and that we gravitate towards them. Good managers shouldn't fight the tendency of people to gossip, chat, and tell stories at work, they should harness it to make their employees and their companies better.

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