Once upon a time, in the late-1970s, there was a young prince named Andy Grove. Andy was the CEO of Intel Inc. Andy's company had a very focused product line - computer memory chips. Intel was the best and biggest producer of computer memory chips in the world.
However, far, far away in the land of Japan, manufacturers were creating their own memory chips. They were faster and less expensive than Intel's chips. Intel tried to hang on to market share by seeking out niche markets for their chips, and by improving the quality of their products. All to no avail, for their share of the market, and their profits, continued to dwindle. Shareholders were not happy.
During this crisis, Grove walked into Gordon Moore's office and asked him a compelling question.
"If we get kicked out, and the board brings on a new CEO, what do you think he'd do?"
Moore, also a co-founder of Intel, replied, "He'd probably get us out of memory chips."
Grove said, "Why shouldn't you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?"
They decided to abandon Intel's biggest business - memory - and move into uncharted waters - microprocessors. It was a gutsy move that ultimately saved the company.
And they all lived happily ever after.
I don't know about happily ever after, but I do know that currently Intel has more than 80 percent market share in the microprocessor industry. If you have Intel stock, you may live well, ever after.
Andy Grove uses this story to communicate how Intel has responded and changed to the market. (He probably skips the "prince" part.) He uses it to create a change-tolerant culture at his company. Andy could just announce to his employees that they need to adapt easily to change, and the company must take great risks to survive and thrive. He could simply tell his employees he is a great leader. But, it works better to tell the story.
Author Noel M. Tichy tells this story about Andy Grove, and describes how winning companies create leaders at every level, in his terrific book The Leadership Engine. In the book, Tichy examines leaders like Grove, Dick Notebart of Ameritech and Jack Welch of General Electric looking for clues as to what makes a great leader. Leaders, he found, develop more leaders. In this way, they create a company that can continue to win. Tichy says, "Six characteristics define winning leaders: teaching, learning, ideas, values, energy and edge. The ultimate hallmark of world-class, champion leaders is the ability to weave all the other elements together into vibrant stories that lead their organizations into the future."
Leadership is all about change. It's about getting people to follow you into the unknown, to get people to see the future. Start accomplishing this in your business by taking them there in their imaginations. Tell them a story.
Great leaders tell great stories. Tichy describes three kinds of stories that make up a great leader's story line. You can learn the elements of these stories to help you develop your own story line - and your leadership skills.
- 'Who I Am' Stories. These stories explain who you are, and how you came to be that way. Often, these are stories from your childhood. Did you have to walk six miles to school each day? Did you drop out of school to run the family business when your dad got sick? Did you marry your high school sweetheart 47 years ago, and do you still hold hands at the movies? These stories illustrate your strengths and values and let folks know what makes you tick. Are you competitive? That can be a powerful leadership trait. Instead of announcing "I am competitive," tell a story about winning the 3A High School Wrestling Championship.
- 'Who We Are' Stories. Martin Luther King galvanized the Civil Rights movement by declaring, "If I am stopped, this movement will not stop. Kill me, but know that if you do, you have 50,000 more to kill." Through his speeches, his stories, King created a nation of activists. He made people understand their role and responsibilities in his dream. Great leaders understand that significant change takes the energy and talent of other people. Tell stories that illustrate how your listener fits into the picture.
- 'Future' Stories. It's not enough to have a vision. Can you craft a story that describes why you are heading in that direction and what it will take to get there? Steve Case, the undefeatable leader of America Online, has survived dozens of cash crises, an 18-hour site crash, class action lawsuits and name calling ("America On Hold!"). Bill Gates threatened to bury AOL, but has only managed to wrestle a few customers from them. How did Case and seriously under-funded AOL pull off such an unlikely victory?
In Kara Swisher's fascinating book, aol.com, she reveals Case's mantra: AOL would be everywhere. "Someday, somehow, Case dreamed, his service would be in America's dens, living rooms, kitchens, offices and malls. And the elitists who ran most Internet companies - the doubters of this singular vision, the ones who told him he was going down so many times - they had always been wrong and they would be wrong once again." This is what Case communicated to his employees. He painted the picture for them. The employees in turn called Case "The Wall" because of his ability to ignore the criticism and threats of the rest of the world, and stay focused on his vision.
We are "wired" to learn from stories. Think back to your kindergarten days. Remember Story Time? You would gather with your classmates in a semi-circle at her feet, and prop your chin on your hands. You would listen to the words and look at the pictures when she turned the book around for you to see. Wasn't it wonderful?
Recently, I was privileged to hear a first-class leader deliver a speech with lovely elements of all three types of stories. I still have goose bumps.
The setting was the General Managers' Meeting for Roto-Rooter, held in Key Largo, Fla. The managers and corporate execs spent a few days in meetings, with time out for R&R, golf and fishing. Sunday morning, the managers gathered at a breakfast meeting to listen to Edward Hutton, Chairman of the Board of Chemed Corp., the parent company of Roto-Rooter.
The 81-year-old Mr. Hutton (nobody calls him "Ed" or "Edward." It's "Mr. Hutton.") stood before the group and delivered his story. He began with his history as a businessman and investor. He specialized in buying companies, fixing them and then selling them for an impressive profit. He talked about Chemed, the holding company for Roto-Rooter. He told the history of Chemed, how it got its name, and what companies had passed through its hands. Mr. Hutton explained that it has only been in the last few years that he turned his focus to Roto-Rooter, and the changes he had made in senior management as a result. He apologized for tolerating the poor wages that characterize the plumbing industry and vowed to improve technician compensation.
He talked about the business model of conglomerates, how they have served their purpose, but that the model wouldn't hold up in the future. That's why, over the last few years, he sold several companies in Chemed. Now, he explained, he could turn his attention to Roto-Rooter. He didn't claim to be an expert on the plumbing industry, just an expert on business, particularly publicly held businesses. The general managers heard a simple explanation of how the earnings goals for the company for the next five years would impact the stock price, and the direct effect on their retirement fund assets. Then, he joked, "And if none of this comes to pass as I predict, well, I'll probably be dead anyway. Then, you are on your own."
He covered "Who I Am," "Who We Are" and the "Future," and got the audience laughing. It was a terrific story.
Most of the people in the room had never heard Mr. Hutton speak. They were spellbound. In a world that
honors youth and novelty, Mr. Hutton stood as a paragon of sensibility, sound planning and longevity. He
acknowledged his failures, accepted his accomplishments and shone a light on the future. Had Mr. Hutton
asked the assembly of general managers to pick up swords and follow him to the battlefield, I think they
would have grabbed their silverware and started marching.
Storytime In Your ShopAs a small shop operator you may not need to lead 10,000 employees, but wouldn't it be nice to convince your one employee that you have a bright, exciting future in store for him? Maybe your wife is resisting the move to flat rate pricing but you really want to make the change. We are all selling something, and stories can help.
You can learn to be a better storyteller. First, study great storytellers. Flip back a few pages and read Dan Holohan's column. Dan is a first-class teacher because he tells terrific stories. Dan says the key to teaching is to attach something your student doesn't know to something with which he is familiar. Dan explains sophisticated technical stuff in simple terms. Like this: "A circulator pump in a hydronic heating system is like the motor in a Ferris wheel. It doesn't lift, it just turns." Then, Dan will go on to tell a terrific story about a heating system at a carnival and pull the whole thing together.
Second, search your past for material. What were the turning points in your life? Sometimes they are dramatic events: a divorce, bankruptcy or a serious illness. Work the lessons learned into stories. Stories can also grow from everyday experiences - waiting in line for an hour at Walmart only to discover they won't take your check. Or missing your kid's soccer game, again, because you had to work late. Find life events that forged your values and dreams.
Finally, tell the tale. Good opportunities for storytelling are the company picnic, the weekly meeting and the holiday party. Make it a point to tell the company's story to every new hire within the first week of employment. Practice your stories as you ride along with an employee on the way to a job. Craft the story, work it, refine it with each telling.
Learn to share your stories to sell, to teach and to lead. And you can live happily ever after, too.