Origin Stories: How Telling Your Story Humanizes Companies and Builds Culture

Photo used with permission, by hahatango.
Anyone who saw the film Batman Begins grasps the concept of an origin story: it's a story that rehearses a character's rise to fame or notoriety. A well-told origin story provides both a clear direction for the character to travel, and a subtle foreshadowing of the challenges and successes that lie ahead.

Origin stories aren't just for super heroes, and (luckily) they don't have to be born out of tragedy. Companies and executives have origin stories too - and the telling of them, at times, can be a clear indicator of character, mission, and values.

Two examples of this come to mind. First is the story of UglyDoll, a new to the market toy company that makes the "hip but hug-able" plush dolls pictured on the left. A few months ago, I'd never heard of these creatures. Then my five year-old son added an UglyDoll to his Christmas wish-list, and I went to Wikipedia to do my homework. What were these creatures?

Turns out UglyDolls are the inventions of David Horvath and Sun Min Kim. Here’s how Wikipedia tells their story:

Leaders Have Faith: the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and What It Can Teach the Business Community

Photo adapted from Ron Cogswell with permission.
Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.  ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've often thought that the best leaders are both right-brained and left-brained people. They are creative and analytic; feeling and thinking; out-of-the box and pragmatic. What pulls the two extremes together, as MLK stated, is faith. 

Synonyms of faith are confidence, trust, conviction, belief, devotion, loyalty, and assurance.  Sounds like a list of character traits that describe Dr. King. As I paused this week to remember and recognize Martin Luther, I was once again struck by his uncanny ability to articulate a vision—which we can still quote nearly 50 years later—and his faith to take the first step when he wasn’t able to see the whole staircase.

Why is the Value of Employee Engagement Not Easily Understood By Organizations?

Tom Walter is a "serial entrepreneur" who has launched nearly 30 companies. He is the CEO of Tasty Catering, named one of Winning Workplaces best small companies in 2010. This post is republished with permission from Serial Entrepreneur.

During my emerging stage as an entrepreneur, one of my most tedious daily disruptors was “managing” people. This daily grind included defining individual tasks, explaining expectations, observing and correcting staff during the execution of those tasks and a follow-up review at the end of the day. Employees did what they were told, and I had to think about what to tell them. That left little time to think about how to grow the business. As the popular phrase states, “I was working in the business, not on the business.”

Samsung Gives Thumbs Up to Sustainability, Thumbs Down to Planned Obsolescence, with new HDTV "Evolution Kit"

Photo used with permission. Some rights reserved, by JoeDuck
At last week's Consumer Electronics Show, companies made headlines with an electronically folding stroller (every parent's dream), ultrabooks, and gesture-controlled interfaces. But it was Samsung's "Evolution Kit" that might mark the start of something big: the end of planned obsolescence.

Defined by The Economist as "a business strategy in which the obsolescence ... of a product is planned and built into it from its conception," Planned Obsolescence has been standard operating procedure for most manufacturers since they realized there is a profit to be made by a consumer's "need" to replace an existing product. 

"It is a strategy that has worked across many industries for decades, but in a persistently down economy, the prospect of paying to replace a just-past warranty but now dead product is an anathema." says Lance Ulanoff, the Mashable correspondent at CES that first drew attention to Samsung's potentially ground-breaking innovation. 

Realizing that consumers dislike replacing expensive HDTVs every few years in order to keep up with changing technological capacity, Samsung will start including "upgrade slots" in some of their televisions, allowing consumers to upgrade the television's capacity. Here's how Samsung describes it:

Turning the Board Room into the Game Room

Photo used with permission from Marco Arnet
If you have a child over the age of five, you may be asking the same post-holiday question: how much video game time do I allow my child?

And if you're a leader with a staff that's expected to have a solid understanding of critical business concepts, you may be asking the same question: how much video game time do I allow my staff?

As Millennials reach the marketplace, more and more managers are discovering that previous forms of business training fail to ignite the imaginations (and hold the attention of) workers who spent their adolescent years glued to a game controller. More importantly, resourceful leaders have discovered that gaming can actually transform training opportunities, making them more engaging, more memorable, and more effective.

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article highlighted the professional benefits of gaming:
Traci Sitzmann, an assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado's business school, says games can make employees better at their jobs. She spent more than a year examining 65 studies and data from 6,476 trainees in a study due to be published in the journalPersonnel Psychology. Those using video games had a 14 percent higher skill-based knowledge level, an 11 percent higher factual-knowledge level, and a 9 percent higher retention rate than trainees in comparison groups, Sitzmann says.
Developing games that can compete in quality with Electronic Arts and other video game manufacturers takes significant resources. Software maker SAP has developed an iPad app that helps business directors prepare for meetings without reading endless binders of information. Target, the big box department store, scores cashiers on each customer check-out, allowing them to compete against their best scores.

How can you gameify your business training if you don't have the financial resources of SAP and Target? Mashable offered a primer on using game mechanics that can be found here. Start by clarifying your vision, figure out what behaviors will be required, and motivate those behaviors. Create a game you're willing to play, and you'll find your colleagues are too. (For more principles of gaming, see this site.)

Have you found something that works - for your staff or your customers? Share your experiences here.

Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership's corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional. 

To Get to the Finish Line, You Have to Begin with a Starting Point

Alberto Arroyo is an Assessment and Development Consultant at The Vaya Group, a Talent Management consultancy that applies science and precision to the art of talent assessment and development.
Mid-year review. Performance management. Constructive feedback. Annual review. Development plan. You’re still reading? I’m impressed. Whether you are the provider or recipient in these situations, most often, these phrases elicit high blood pressure, anxiety, a sense of annoyance, maybe even fear. Needless to say, most do not look forward to “that” time of the year; and by “that time of year” I mean performance review time. Maybe that’s because more than half of the managers surveyed from a VitalSmarts study in 2009 said they have employees who are stuck at performance levels below their potential. While most employees have unrealistically high opinions of their performance, are surprised by negative feedback, don’t believe they get clear feedback on what they should do, and believe their boss is holding them back. A disastrous combination, wouldn’t you say?
Fixing the Disastrous Combination
In thinking through this dilemma, I started asking myself, “why is there such disparity between manager and employee perception?” I can only assume it’s because they have no starting point, no common ground to lean on and connect to. How I define good performance may actually be quite different than how you view success, right? This really hits home the importance of competency and evidence-based performance management.
Having a structured set of behavioral based competencies to speak to and reference can be incredibly helpful in guiding performance discussions. If clear feedback and positive behavioral change is the goal, then both parties will need to be well-acquainted with what success looks like. And if the VitalSmarts study is accurate in their finding that seventy-five percent of employees who are aware their boss is unhappy with their performance can’t verbalize what they are doing wrong or how they are going to change, then let’s put some clarity around it.
It’s time to define the ambiguity. Identify what it is that leads people to be successful in a given role or situation. This way you and your employee will be able to wrap your heads around what is often left unclear, conceptual and difficult to implement.
The most effective and successful learning organizations have acknowledged the importance and some have even mastered the art of competency, behavior and evidence-based performance management. Lowe’s, McDonald’s, even the IRS have committed to developing training systems and leadership pipeline management based on clear behavioral measures and therefore pointed, actionable performance feedback.
How could conversations with your employee or manager benefit from a behaviorally-based starting point?

Two Stories of How Drivers are the Best Marketers Your Company Has

You may have a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, but it can quickly be undone with one bad interaction from your staff. Most businesses know this, and train their customer service staff accordingly. But have you trained your drivers?

Getting your goods and services to the customer's doorstep can't be neglected. Getting it there on time and cheerfully is even more important. And when it's done right, the result can be new - and renewed - business for your company.

Here are two examples from vastly different businesses:

Delivering Food & Exceptional Service

Tasty Catering, an award-winning small business based in the Chicago suburbs, employs 14 dedicated drivers. Owners Kevin, Larry, and Tom Walter include their drivers in the company's culture-based training and even featured the drivers in a holiday advertising campaign (pictured on the left).

Perhaps most importantly, each driver is asked to contribute to the company's weekly newsletter. Drivers report on their interactions with customers, spot competitors, and offer ideas and encouragement to other staff members, as you can see in these examples:

  • "[Customer's name] did not have the room set up for their breakfast delivery. I moved the chairs around and brought their table into the room."
  • "Lion's Club has their international president in town. We have over 30 orders to deliver. It's nice to know they rely on Tasty for their most important events."
  • "I passed out five business cards this week."
  • "I continue to hear from our customers that they recognize the quality of our food and our delivery team is much better than the rest of the caterers on the street."
Using the corporate newsletter in this way gives a new level of recognition and responsibility to drivers that has a significant impact on the company. "Our delivery team is the face of Tasty Catering," says CEO Tom Walter. "They see our clients daily and due to their exceptional customer service, we are able to deliver our brand promise of quality and service."

A Moving Company's Compassionate Care

National Van Lines is one of the United States' largest woman-owned businesses. CEO Maureen Beal knows her drivers are the front line of her business: the company's financial future is directly dependent on her drivers ability to pack and deliver a home-owners boxes safely.

Even so, it would be easy for a driver to just do his or her job - pack the boxes and get on the road. But Beal has created a corporate culture that equips drivers to make compassionate decisions as well. Beal shares a story of one such decision in this video (the story begins around 2:50 and is one minute long):

How can you use your drivers this year?

Take a look at the existing training you offer your drivers. Are you treating them like machines, or like the intelligent, compassionate customer service force they can be? Incorporate stories of leadership from your drivers into your regular communications - your drivers will rise to the challenge, and your customers will thank you.
Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership's corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional. 

Workplace Resolutions that Increase Productivity and Improve Culture

Used with permission from lululemon athletica
Here's a little exercise to help you ease your way back to work this week: 

Grab a piece of scrap paper and write down every New Year's resolution you've ever made. Circle any you kept for more than a month or two.

Any circled on your list? Almost half of us have made a New Year's resolution this year, and yet only 10 percent will manage to keep it.

Chances are, the resolutions on your list match the most common resolutions:
  • Lose Weight and Get Fit
  • Quit Smoking
  • Learn Something New
  • Eat Healthier and Diet
  • Get Out of Debt and Save Money
  • Spend More Time with Family
  • Travel to New Places
  • Be Less Stressed
  • Volunteer
  • Drink Less
It's interesting, isn't it, that we spend more time at work than just about any where else, and yet virtually none of our most common resolutions have to do with the work place. Up your resolve this year by setting a workplace resolution or two. Here are a few for workplace leaders to consider:

To Increase Productivity
  • Set a "Meeting-free Monday" rule: You can see a dramatic increase in productivity by reserving one day of the week for getting stuff done, rather than meeting about getting stuff done. Ask your staff to do the same. Set a goal of managing two meeting-free Monday's per month, with a reduced schedule on the other Mondays. Block time on your calendar today. 
  • Reduce the email in your life: Here's a three step process to getting rid of the junk in your email inbox:
    1. Take 20 minutes today to unsubscribe from the email newsletters you never read. 
    2. Ask your assistant to send an end-of-day update email with calendar changes and important notifications, rather than sending messages as changes occur. 
    3. Think about what email you really do want, and communicate your wishes to your staff. Here's an example:

      "Dear Management Team - I'm making an effort to reduce the email in my inbox so I can be more responsive to the messages that merit my time and attention. In the future, please try to only send me messages that require a response. If an 'FYI' message is necessary, let me know at the start of the email that a response isn't required. You can further help me out by using specific subject lines ('3rd quarter sales dip expected, but big contract coming early in Q4') rather than generic subject lines ('update on sales expectations'). Thanks for understanding."
To Improve Culture
  • Participate: It's been said that leadership is lonely. Sometimes it is. And sometimes it's only so because we make it that way. Make an effort to participate in the office Fantasy Football league (no gambling, of course). Post a photo of your kids on Christmas morning to the office bulletin board of social media site like Yammer. Eat lunch in the cafeteria. Pick one way to participate each month, and reserve time on your schedule today.
  • Live and breath your values statement: Most companies have a set of five to seven corporate values that are meant to guide decision making and insure transparency and ethical leadership. But the values can't do their job if they never leave the website or over-the-water-cooler placement. If you really want your employees to value innovation, or trustworthiness, you have to model it. Start with storytelling: at staff meetings, by email, and in one-on-one conversations, share stories of decision-making and leadership as shaped by the values you have adopted. Encourage managers and directors to do the same. Set a goal of sharing three stories a week. 
What workplace resolutions do you have this year? Share your ideas in the comments section.

Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership's corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional.