The other day with a group of students, we launched into a discussion of the role storytelling in an organizational setting. One of my core beliefs is that it is story that defines the culture of any community. In fact, one might define a community as a collection of individuals who share the same stories and draw meaning from those stories. Preserving any culture—corporate or otherwise—is about preserving its stories. In a similar vein, changing any group’s culture must be about changing its stories.
For any organizational change or turnaround to be successful, leaders must teach their groups to write a new story.
Leaders should strive to stimulate stories in the minds of their listeners, so that the followers craft their own personal versions and become active storytellers. In other words, the leader’s stories of the future engage a group of listeners, who begin to tell similar stories, each from their personal vantage point. New stories, consistent with the overall organizational themes, are created as individuals participate in a process of co-creation and offer their personalized versions of the corporate stories of identity. In a sense, the storytelling process becomes individualized and viral.
One of my favorite tales of corporate storytelling is that of Anne Mulcahy, the former CEO of Xerox. When Mulcahy was named president of the corporation in May 2000, and CEO one year later, the business was in serious trouble, with more than $18 billion in debt. All possible credit lines had been exhausted, and the stock price was in a free fall. On top of all that, the US Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the corporation’s accounting practices. Morale throughout the organization was alarmingly low.
Mulcahy’s appointment had come as a surprise to nearly everyone, including Mulcahy herself. A long-time company veteran, she had worked in field sales and on the corporate staff for 25 years, but never in finance, R&D, or manufacturing. Everyone, from employees to customers and stock analysts, wondered how someone with no tangible financial experience could possibly cope with a crisis of this magnitude.
What Mulcahy did have was a thorough understanding of the organization, and an impeccable reputation as a hard worker and a person of character. Also, it was clear that she truly cared for the organization and its people. Because of all that, employees were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, and even to go the extra mile for her.
In her early days of uncertainly, the new CEO sought counsel from numerous sources about how to work through the crisis and move the organization into a new era. In the end, the turnaround she was able to effect at the giant company had its foundation in a remarkable example of story co-creation.
Interviewed in Fast Company in 2005, she described how she navigated through this difficult time by encouraging Xerox people to write a new corporate story with her: “I got great advice: Write a story. We wrote a Wall Street Journal article, because they had been particularly nasty about us, dated five years out. It was about where we could be if we really stood up to the plate. And people loved it. No matter where I go, people pull that article out. They personalized it… Storytelling is hugely important. At our town meetings, the most frequently asked question wasn’t whether we’d survive, but what we would look like when we did.”
In essence, Mulcahy tapped into the power of the storytelling and story-sharing phenomenon. A new corporate identity emerged at Xerox because she got the employees to co-create the future story, to buy in to it, and to take ownership of it.
Ann Mulcahy’s experience at Xerox demonstrates one of the great powers of storytelling—the ability to redefine a group. As the members of the group co-create the story and come to believe in it, their shared story takes them to a new place in their imaginations. Believing in the possibilities that the new story portrays puts the group on the road to making the story a self-fulfilling one.