William Uranga, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

William Uranga

“Once upon a time there was goldfish who lived in a blender…”

That was the story I told when asked by the kids for a story.  It never ended well.  I won’t be asked to present at TED or your local coffee shop any time soon.  I have a hard time telling stories.

What is your story?  You’re asked some form of this question when you meet people, give a presentation or during an interview.  People have a hard time telling their stories.  Yet, it’s critical to gaining support from others or presenting an offer.  If your narrative is lacking, know that you’re not alone.  Most departments of a company have to work hard at storytelling, for example:

  • Marketing and Sales: Courting decision-makers who might buy the company’s product

  • Product Management: Explaining present and future customer needs so that a solution can be built

  • Engineering: Using the customer’s story as a context when exploring various options in building a product

All of these focus on the narrative of the external customer and the products they will (continue to) buy.  There is, however, storytelling going on internal to the company.  The story of why employees are here under this one organization, in this industry, working together at this moment in time.  Stories are told when a company:

  • Closes a candidate or runs it’s new hire orientation

  • Explains its compensation plan (or “philosophy)

  • Announces promotions or how conducts performance reviews

All are in Human Resources’ wheelhouse.  But, what is the overall story HR is conveying to employees? It’s fragmented, with conflicting messages if there is any positive story being told.

It’s time HR became more focused on their company’s internal narrative.

Most HR professionals are caught up in the talent operations and strategies.  Having an active part in social media is nice.  However, along with the company-values-on-building-badges, community service day/week and beer and pizza Fridays are fun – but they don’t tie into an internal narrative for employees. Like my fish in the blender “short” story, all you have are bits and pieces.

The Importance of Stories

There is a tremendous amount of change going on in the workplace, including: the rate of change in a given industry picking up, sweeping federal regulations changing and product development cycles shrinking.  In addition, top talent is motivated by meaningful work, teaming up with smart colleagues and clear leadership from the top.  New hires believed a story when they accepted your company’s offer.  Yet, Modern Survey shows that only 41% have confidence in their company’s senior management and Glassdoor documented in a 2012 Q4 survey that 18% plan to be looking for a new job in the next 3 months.  Perhaps not all of the naysayers are “A” players companies should obsess about, but clearly they are not buying the corporate narrative.

There is a lot out there about the history and science of storytelling.  Humans are unique social creatures in that we can tell stories.  We all have a myriad of adventures that have been retold with friends or family members or colleagues over the years. Through narratives we bond.  Storytelling addresses our need to belong, have meaning, affect behavior, to amuse and feel alive.  This happens in a corporate environment as well.

Every year, TiVo celebrates Blue Moon.  It’s a company holiday on everyone’s calendar that celebrates the shipment of the first product.  While there, I had the opportunity to document the holiday’s origins and saw it posted on the company blog. Every year at a company meeting near the holiday, the story is retold: the sequence of events, the excitement, the pressure.  Telling stories, gives context to the past (as in this example) or it can paint a picture of a possible future.

Getting Started 

To be clear, stories don’t create a vision or culture but they can either reinforce or undermine it.  So, the first thing is to document the your company’s purpose and vision.  HR can help document or establish a vision, but a company’s narrative must start with and be supported by leadership.

Next, start discussions with executives and founders.  Asking for the history of the organization or events can be great ways to glean storytelling material. Let curiosity lead:

  • How was the first product dreamed up?

  • What was it like shipping the first product?

  • Who was the first customer we landed and how did it happen?

  • Why have we participated/held this every year?

Raw content might also be available in documents, images or videos, filed away in Marketing, PR, or Sales Operations functions.  Don’t go solo in your developing narrative or, as a Fast Company article termed it, practice “inclusive communication”.

After you have collected content, refine the narrative and make sure you have missed key elements.  There are various story types that may help format yours.  For those that prefer a more organized approach, there are various story-building models, Pixar’s “rule book” or this checklist on how to developing a story.  Remember that alignment is critical.  What value or part of the organization’s culture does this story support?  If it doesn’t resonate, it won’t be repeated

Speaking of “repeated”, how will you enable the story to be shared?  Like a great employee referral program, there needs to be appropriate visual reminders or a reference point such as video, intranet or more physical trappings.

At a recent meet with the head of HR for a fast, growing startup, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that his next hire was going to be a communications professional and not another recruiter. Communication, alignment and storytelling is that important.  Here are some other examples of folks who have take storytelling seriously: Zappos, Moslon Coors, EDS, and Wynn.

What are some of your company stories and how are you sharing them?  Let’s hear it.  I always have time for coffee and a good story.

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