Enjoy this article by Mike Michalowicz, author of “The Pumpkin Plan” and “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur” from the Wall Street Journal/Running a Business.
I have an altar to Bruce Springsteen in my house. On it sits my prized possession: a guitar pick Bruce tossed out into the audience at one of his concerts.
If you come to my house, I will tell you a long, drawn-out, mostly truthful story about where I got it, why it’s important, and the many hardships I endured to acquire it. To me, and to those who live through my story, Bruce’s pick is priceless. Sure, at face value it’s a piece of plastic worth mere pennies, inspiring a shrug and a tepid “cool,” in response. But after you find out it’s Bruce Springsteen’s guitar pick, and after you hear my epic tale of how it came into my life, the value of the pick goes up considerably. Now it’s worthy of oohs and ahhs and the inevitable, “Oh my gawd, may I touch it?”
Just as no one cares about my little piece of Bruce more than I do, no one cares about your company more than you do. Your business is your baby, and you’d do anything for it. Your employees, on the other hand? Not so much. Even your best, most loyal employees aren’t going to care about it as much as you do. That is, until you cultivate the entrepreneur within.
To get your employees to be even half as invested in your company as you are, you need to foster their sense of ownership. To do that, you need your own epic tale.
There are two components of a great “company” story. First, you need the history. What inspired you to start your business? What was your grand vision? Where and when did you first open up shop? How did you earn your first dollar?
Next, you need hardship, the tales of woe and wonder that you’re either extremely proud of or totally embarrassed to tell. Everyone loves a good underdog story, or a good nick-of-time story, or a good wing-and-a-prayer story, so dig one of those up.
Finally, make your story inclusive of your employees. Use the great “we,” instead of “I,” and make sure to close the story in the present day so that your employees know that they are part of a legacy – your legacy.
Take the legend about FedEx founder Fred Smith’s gamble with the last $5,000 in its checking account. In the book “Changing How The World Does Business,” Roger Frock, one of the founding executives of the company, told the story of how, in the make-or-break start-up days of the company, Mr. Smith took the $5,000 in the company’s checking account to Vegas and bet it all.
At the time, the company needed $24,000 for the jet fuel payment, Mr. Frock said. Mr. Smith won $27,000 in Vegas, according to Mr. Frock. He described that as a stroke of luck that kept FedEx in business for another week.
Parul Bajaj, a spokeswoman for FedEx, says the story about Mr. Smith isn’t true. (“We appreciate that some of our team members may have heard this corporate legend and felt inspired by it, but it’s not accurate,” she adds. )
Even so, this legend can influence a new FedEx hire who thought he was just getting a decent job with great benefits. He’ll feel like he’s part of something amazing and powerful and interesting. He’ll be proud of the Fred Smith’s scrappy, risk-taking nature, so proud that he’s going to tell that story to his friends and family, so proud that he finds a solution when there’s a problem, goes the extra mile whenever he has the opportunity, and always gives his best. He owes it to Fred, you see. Besides, FedEx is his company now, too.
One of the best examples of how powerful this kind of storytelling can be is the National Anthem. It’s not just a song. It’s a powerful story put to melody. We usually only sing the first part, but the “Star-Spangled Banner” actually has four verses that tell the story of the War of 1812. And let me tell you, there’s plenty of drama and hardship in that tale!
But what really inspires patriotism in even the most jaded American is the inclusiveness. Even if you’re just mouthing the words, thinking about the ballgame that’s about to start, you’re going to get choked up at the end because it’s about you.
“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?” That’s us. That’s you – you are a free and brave American. That story is your legacy. It’s the perfect story.
Other companies focus on telling employees that they’re the best, the dominant player in their industry, but that approach just causes employees to separate emotionally from the company. It’s you vs. them, and in that scenario, they feel irrelevant.
If you want your employees to stop working just for a paycheck and start taking pride in your company, give them a great story and include them in it. It might not be as amazing as my sitting-in-the-back-row, roadie-gave-us-front-row-seats, Bruce-flipped-pick-into-audience, I-knocked-down-a-pregnant-woman-and-accidently-elbowed-a-three-year-old-in-the-face-to-reach-it story about the great guitar pick miracle, but it’ll do.
Rosanne D’Ausilio, PhD
Customer Service Expert