Golden threads: How stories link founders and professionals

fm-blog-golden-thread-3-27-14I love seeing how management teams choose to describe their company’s history on their corporate websites. Almost all companies have an “About Us” tab that includes a “History” subtab. These typically include a time line that starts on the “founding day” and marches through the decades, providing facts, important photos and a good, fun chronology of product introductions, office openings and so on. (See, for example, the History pages of Disney, LEGO and Mattel).

A subset of companies provides not only the time line, but also stories that go beyond just the facts, revealing themes that the leadership has chosen to highlight. HP’s website tells the story of the original HP garage, which it describes as the “birthplace of Silicon Valley.” Take a deep dive into the videos and stories, and you start to see what really matters to HP: curiosity, perseverance, collaboration, excellence.

What you can also see is these stories are a gift that keeps giving. The current leaders can draw upon the past to highlight themes that are critical to today’s customers and employees. For example, by going back to the original garage, HP highlights not only Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard’s partnership, but also the role Lucile Packard, Dave’s wife, played in developing the company’s management philosophy (the “HP Way”) and the company’s ongoing focus on the broader community.

IBM also offers a time line and then takes it further with the company’s history told through two lenses: stories of innovation and technological progress and stories of dedication to its customers. As you click through these stories of client dedication, you see related quotes from IBM’s legendary leader, Thomas J. Watson Sr., within two sentences of the current chairman’s.

And you don’t have to be a 100-year-old company to tell your story with a time line and key themes. Google sets out very clearly not only its time line, but also the “Ten things we know to be true,” which allows it to link its historical actions to its current perspectives on the right way to do business. My own firm, Bain & Company, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, has maintained for five years now an internal site that captures our foundational stories and values for future generations through time lines, videos and stories.

As we explore the ways companies can scale while maintaining the benefits of the Founder’s MentalitySM, the importance of foundational stories continues to be a central theme. In our DM100 meeting this week in Shanghai, the group discussed how telling stories in chapters can be a key way to link company founders to incoming professionals and find a balance between what we call the time of heroes and the time of systems:

  1.       The early chapters must be “founder stories” that tell of the firm’s early values and define its early heroes. As one non-founding leader of a Chinese retailer noted, “I want our founders to talk about their early experiences working in the store, their core values, their perseverance and their dedication to the customers. These stories help me show that, even today, more than a dozen years after our founding, the heroes of our business are still those who run the store.”
  1.       Subsequent chapters, however, must indicate the company is more than its founders―great new employees who fill key gaps and enhance the culture have been added. One founder of a Chinese personal care manufacturer pointed out, “We are far more powerful today than when I founded the company. I want our team to know that each new recruit adds to our culture and our capabilities. So a lot of my founder stories are about our problems and gaps, and many of my recent stories tell how new heroes have filled those gaps and made us far better.”
  1.       Chapters should be true reflections of the good, the bad and the ugly. The DM100 attendees talked about the importance of presenting reality in these stories―stories of mistakes, outright failures and poor decisions, which can help today’s leaders deal with their current challenges. One founder of a Chinese apparel company revealed, “Most of my stories are stories of failure. I would much rather my current leadership team benefits from all my mistakes than assume I was perfect. My goal is to encourage risk taking, fast adaptation from initial failure and learning. I need to be a role model by being honest about how hard it was.” (This type of role modeling is described in Ben Horowitz’s excellent new book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things.
  1.       The current and next generation of leaders must feel empowered to write the next chapters. The DM100 group agreed the company’s story must be seen as only the beginning, with more exciting chapters to come. This puts the new recruits, including a lot of the newly hired professionals at the center of the company’s future, rather than casting them as a team that threatens the company’s past. One founding chairman said to me outside the meeting, “I don’t want anyone to declare victory. I worry that we overly romanticize our past at the expense of our future. The best chapters are ahead of us, and I would hate to think that new employees will be like me. I want them to be far better than me, because they have more capabilities and are supported by a far better team.”
  1.       “Golden threads” must weave the chapters together. “The skill in telling our story is to link everything together,” said the Chinese retailer mentioned earlier. “We set out to revolutionize Chinese retail, and that goal must continue, even if we are 30 times bigger than we were a decade ago.” That is both the opportunity and the challenge of such story telling: Keep the excitement and insurgency alive as you grow. The danger is always that the company declares victory, hinting somehow that it has reached its destination and the company’s energy should be spent preserving the status quo instead.

Story telling can be a vital tool to link the company’s early days as a start-up insurgent to its present day existence as a bigger and much improved insurgent. It is one of the tools to balance the founders’ values with the next generation’s added capabilities. Stories told well give everyone a vital role in the future revolution.

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