What we think expands. Life unfolds according to the stories we tell ourselves. So one way of building a resilient and engaged enterprise is by creating a powerful, shared narrative of purpose and place.
A narrative is an evocative tool that unites employees and leaders. It creates shared experiences, a sense of fellowship and common purpose, it establishes agreed values and expectations and it helps make sense of the context and assumptions behind current actions. Company and community narratives also create shared history and the perception of continued progress and commitment to a desired future.
The key part of the narrative is that people want to share it. What’s more, by keeping it in circulation, it builds over time through repeated iterations. It begins to tie events together, bringing to light the underlying patterns that build meaning, connection and commitment. While we can’t arbitrarily create a narrative and expect the community to accept it, we can create a shared process that allows for it to evolve through various repetitions drawing upon a sense of history and shared purpose that already exists.
Most importantly, a corporate narrative should be ‘larger than life’, enlivening the imagination while being inspiring to hear and to tell. When we think of our business in its mythic context, mapping its many features with language that is beautiful and evocative rather than utilitarian, we take up the call to be anthropologists uncovering untold stories, forgotten artifacts, mysterious images and hidden meanings. We polish and burnish them so they may shine again and serve as the foundation of something we may become immersed in and from which everyone - clients, employees and stakeholders - can learn.
This narrative creates a sense of shared mission and how it distinguishes or differentiates the uniqueness of the enterprise from the mainstream. It gives employees, affiliates and stakeholders a story to both believe in and belong to - something that provides meaning in their own lives. And by seeing the narrative as a way to belong to a larger community, it helps people justify why they spend so much time at work. There are several key components to an effective corporate narrative.
1) The origin or founding story: In a founding story you need to celebrate the originator, highlighting the new possibility the founder strived to create. This is often a mythic or epic story which follows the path of the hero’s journey. It includes the call to adventure in realizing its founding vision and addresses how the founder overcame obstacles. Often, it also offers a vision of service and contribution to community and the common good that the founder felt called to fulfill.
Most importantly, it highlights the founder’s unique qualities that led them to try to create something new that did not exist before. Every company that is founded by a clear visionary (or group of visionaries) stands the test of time. As such it is generally stronger and more sustainable than an organization that has no clear founder or founding story.
2) Stories of place and place-making: Every founding vision comes from somewhere, so a part of the founding myth is connected to a sense of place. And this place in turn shapes the leader through instilling a sense of home, of rootedness and belonging to something larger than oneself.
Being at home with oneself and one’s sense of place also provides the soil for the seeds of the founding vision to take root and grow. The founding vision serves both as a quest story that inspires the pioneering spirit of risk and adventure but also the complementary instinct for homesteading, security and safety, for care of self and others and creating a home for the heart.
Building wisdom together in community prepares the soil to meet the challenges and risks ahead. This aspect of the narrative also highlights how the founder’s unique experiences, character and assets were useful in serving the good and well-being of the community early on.
3) Early victories and shared fellowship: To build upon the founding vision we need to listen for stories that anchor the vision with early achievements. This is common in any quest journey - the founder or hero needs to commit to leaving the familiar world in order to enter unfamiliar and unknown territory. During this process, the leader may expect tests and challenges that they need to overcome early on. This sets a solid foundation for the founding myth to be firmly anchored in order to support future growth and achievements later on.
Every community or organization needs early challenges and early victories - early legends that create a sense of a shared and proud history as well as a path to future success.
4) The momentum story: The momentum story highlights what the group is working towards achieving now in the day-to-day. This is often articulated in the form of a defining image or a few words that serve as a powerful metaphor for seeing how human energy can be generative connecting daily efforts with the core purpose to the enterprise. Whatever this is, it needs to be authentic rather than generic. That is, it is so obviously connected to the uniqueness of our company or community that this image could belong to no one else but us.
We are naturally wired to be aspirational. The momentum story connects us with this aspiration, bringing together the pioneering spirit of entrepreneurship while at the same nurturing a culture of social innovation that equips leaders to lead with integrity and continue building the momentum for growth and service into the future
5) The destiny or purpose-driven story: The destiny story speaks to the higher purpose of the enterprise and also connects the destiny of the enterprise with its founding story and current achievements. To build a ‘human’ enterprise - or to serve the enterprise of humanity - is an example of a destiny story. This suggests that the company stands for achieving economic success while also committing to a higher purpose. Like an acorn growing into an oak tree, the destiny story connects the history of the enterprise with its desired future.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to consider the vital role that arts - and particularly music - plays in telling our story. We are more practiced at re-engineering our enterprises according to lines on the chart than we are at re-imagining them. Music both connects us together and it also clarifies and awakens the mind.
As a pianist and composer, I often set the musical score and let it serve as the canvas upon which the story can unfold. It is not uncommon that groups of leaders who were at a loss regarding how to start a story conversation, with the support of music, were overflowing with ideas by the end.
By mapping their own corporate or community story, leaders can become authors of their own future and a generative force for realizing their destiny, connecting it with their history and, in so doing, bring their desired future into being.