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Why knowing and telling your organisation's story is essential to success

Stuart Rothgiesser

Many years ago when he was still starting out, Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart) was at one of his stores when he overheard a customer complaining to a cashier about a fishing rod he’s recently bought: “I was really excited to take my boy fishing for the first time but then the rod broke! Our whole trip was ruined!” Without a word, Sam walked over to the sporting goods section, picked out the same rod and presented it to the customer, offering his deepest apologies.

This story spread as the company grew into the multi-national retailer and, with it, spread values of integrity, humbleness and accountability. In fact, one can say that the story helped to shape the narrative of the organisation and, in turn, its ethics, behaviours and practices.

An organisation that does not know its stories cannot know itself. Employees, management, service providers and clients need to have a clear understanding of:

  • What the organisation stands for,
  • Where it is going, and
  • What it hopes to achieve.

These points are best understood through the stories that exist (known and unknown) as told about the organisation.

What does a clear narrative about the organisation allow for?

A clear narrative allows for streamlined and focused resources and, ultimately, attaining objectives in the most efficient manner possible.

Stories also offer practical implications for organisations.

In a globally competitive marketplace where price and availability become less of the issue, the narrative intelligence of an organisation, its clients and its products becomes its most important intellectual property, defining the organisation internally and externally.

Organisations need to make them themselves vulnerable to reach out to clients, while client stories are necessary to know what products they need. Product stories – as done so well by Woolworths in its food stores – build brand loyalty.

An organisation’s story can be a powerful tool for building a brand’s identity

In this way, the best minds are attracted, and values and ethics are shared internally. Think of some of the powerful stories of South African companies:

  • Anglo American’s billboards describing employee stories that bring to mind values of nation-building, prosperity and mutual growth, and
  • Pick ‘n Pay’s clever use of founder Raymond Ackerman’s start-up stories that speak to self-reliance, toughness and being for the underdog – values that appeal to the South African consumer.

An incorrect or poorly shared organisational narrative can have a negative impact

John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Leading Change, cautions that: “Those in leadership positions who fail to grasp or use the power of stories, risk failure for their companies and for themselves.”  

He gives the example of Delta Airlines in the mid-2000s needing to impose wage cuts:

  • While telling employees this was an unavoidable step to save the company, executives were given raises.
  • Management lost legitimacy because the facts did not meet with the narrative and negotiations stalled.

Contrast that with the story of Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca taking a US$1 salary to save the car company.

A tired or outdated story will be a liability

British Petroleum developed an excellent narrative in its “Beyond Petroleum” story of searching for alternative fuels and caring for the environment, but got hammered during its Deepwater Horizon spill for not “walking the talk”. Allowing the competition to tell your story is another common mistake.

All organisations have stories. Used correctly these can be powerful resources and assets. Underused or ignored, these become liabilities. As such, organisations need to discover what their stories are, who is telling these, and how best to share these.

Stuart is the founder and managing director of Roth Communications. A born writer (his first story was published in Grade One) he is an experienced facilitator, researcher and communications consultant. After graduating with a BA (honours) in Chinese Language and Literature (McGill, 1993), Stuart lived and travelled in China before becoming an English and History teacher. In 2003, he began a second career in communications specialising in copywriting, journalism and strategy consulting.