That’s My Story

One of my favorite faculty members at Georgetown, an executive coach with a Ph.D. in psychology, was fond of saying, “People can be viewed as a walking bundle of habits and stories.” Since authentic leadership skills are firmly grounded in our humanity, the impact of our personal stories on the performance of the organizations we lead is a very useful exploration. The stories we tell ourselves contain the keys to personal change. The hard part is getting outside our own story enough to hear it.

We all have a story, the one we have told ourselves about who we are in business and in life. And in general, our relationship to our story is, “That’s my story, and I am sticking to it.”

While a new story does not on its own change business operations, it can remove what is often the most pernicious barrier to growth: the belief that it is not possible. Here are a few examples of new stories I have seen in the last few years:

  • A high-tech manufacturer had hit a growth wall. The company was large enough that the VPs were arguing for more sophisticated forms of management and tracking. The COO’s story was that the company was not yet large enough for such measures. After months of stagnant performance, two of the VPs moved forward, breaking the COO’s resistance by introducing new forecasting and product development processes. While he was initially upset, the COO was able to see a new possibility. Today his story is that the company needs to be more sophisticated in its management models across the board.
  • The plant manager for a process manufacturer held tightly to the story that because the larger corporation was short-sighted and overly focused on expense controls, there was nothing he could do. The plant operating environment was described by a new plant manager as “abysmal.” But the new manager’s story was that he was accountable for the environment in the plant and that he would not tolerate the kind of sloppiness, disaffection and poor performance that had been the norm. Twelve months later, the plant had doubled in output, lowered turnover and increased margins by 12 percent. The plant manager is not without controversy in the corporate structure since his story often required him to challenge the parent company’s policies. But there is no arguing with the results.
  • One executive who worked for a family-controlled business was continually frustrated by the short-sightedness of the owner. His story was that he was stuck. After 20 years in the industry, this was his last job and he had “golden handcuffs.” He would just have to endure it for the four years until he could take his payout and retire. Then he adopted a new story, one in which his enthusiasm for his work and respect for the organization he served was more important than his old goal of retirement. It took a matter of weeks to become president of a new, competing organization with big plans for growth.

If the story that I am sticking to is the primary limitation on my performance, then I will likely never test it. A leader who limits his own company because he or she lives in a small story has no concept of what is truly possible. In the extreme, negative stories lead to victimhood. I remember working as a peer counselor to Vietnam vets whose story was that they did not have to function in society because they were screwed up in ‘Nam. As long as they could hide behind that story, nothing more was possible.

I often talk with organizational leaders whose stories are serious limitations to success. Declaring a new story won’t turn a business into a thriving enterprise. But if the leader’s story is the first obstacle that progress encounters, the organization may never know what is possible. So, what’s your story?

Originally published in Arkansas Business, February 12, 2007.