Danny hated this stuff! Seated 20 rows up, in a large auditorium, his eyes began to glaze over. As a long-tenured software engineer at VeryLarge Industries, he'd heard this song before. For the last eight years, he'd been attending these annual events. Every year, it was the same story. A recap of the past year, some projections for the future year, and a few charts and graphs that invariably seemed to be trending upward. An assertion that it's employees were the very best in the world, a revisiting of the corporate mission, a recognition of individuals who'd made noteworthy accomplishments, and always capped off by a couple cute stories how VeryLarge Industries was saving the world. The CEO was currently in the midst of a long story how the sales team had recently saved an orphaned kitten. Before that, the challenges overcome by the research team as it finally produced a solution to the world hunger problem. He was now predicting that this year they would develop a solution to turn nuclear waste into harmless compost.
Danny wasn't interested static. It seemed like he was constantly bombarded by things that kept him from doing his job. He just wanted to write code. Yet it felt like all he did was attend meetings. Status update meetings, planning meetings, retrospective meetings, training meetings, productivity meetings, and corporate pep talks,. He avoided them when he could, he attended them when couldn't.
Finally, Danny couldn't handle it anymore. He quit his job and started a consulting business. After many years in the industry, he'd acquired some contacts, and he landed a couple gigs pretty quickly. When he got too busy, he hired his first employee, and then a second, and a third. Danny operated his business as efficiently as he knew how. He provided the bare minimum information to his employees. No charts and graphs depicting company performance, very few planning or training meetings, no corporate pep talks, and certainly no cute stories about saving kittens or solving world hunger.
Growth was rapid, and his business boomed the first few years. However, numerous problems emerged, and the company was in a state of crisis! A number of consulting engagements had missed key requirements, resulting in significant rework. Numerous client were unhappy, and many of them had severed their business relationships with Danny's company. Employees were unhappy, and attrition was high. The situation was out of control!
Danny spent most of his days answering questions. Questions from clients were one thing, but it was the questions from his employees that he found most exasperating. Questions about the corporate mission and growth strategy. Questions about goals and objectives. Questions about employee career development and personal growth. Questions about HR policies and procedures. The list was endless.
Realizing that his business had grown beyond his capacity to manage it, Danny hired a CEO. This CEO had taken a number of organizations through the same growth cycle that his company was currently experiencing. The CEO spent the first few weeks getting a feel for the organization. She met with each employee, and asked probing questions. She coordinated surveys and analyzed the results. During this exploration, a common theme was emerging. Employees were feeling under-appreciated, overworked, lacking direction and focus, and generally disengaged. An analysis of each of these issues all pointed back to a single cause. Under the guise of efficiency, the organizational culture had been built on minimal communication. While this worked well when the organization was small (and was actually rather empowering), this communication model had become a debilitating weakness as the organization scaled up. The CEO crafted a plan for changing the culture. Her first task was organizing an all-employee meeting.
Danny loved this stuff. Seated in the first row, in a large auditorium, his eyes twinkled. As the owner of NotSoLarge Industries, he'd heard this song before. For the last eight years, he'd been attending these annual events. Every year, it was the same story. A recap of the past year, some projections for the future year, and a few charts and graphs that invariably seemed to be trending upward. An assertion that it's employees were the very best in the world, a revisiting of the corporate mission, a recognition of individuals who'd made noteworthy accomplishments, and always capped off by a couple cute stories how NotSoLarge Industries was saving the world. For the next few hours, no code would be written. However, this no longer distressed Danny. He now knew that the churn of his code repository wasn't the only way to measure productivity.
While the point of this story is a lesson about communication, it was actually written as a way to demonstrate the power of story as a tool of influence. (See Improve Your Influence, Leadership, and Marketing Skills Through the Use of Story) The lesson you get from this story may be different than the next person who reads it. Your personal context and life experiences heavily shape your impressions of the world and events. I could have listed a number of things leaders should do to properly communicate with their employees instead of writing a story about it. However, it may not have resonated as much. People are wired for story, as explained by Lisa Cron in a really well-written book, Wired for Story : The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. This book goes into great detail about the anatomy of a compelling story, and the psychological reasons why stories are such incredible tools of influence for marketers and leaders. I would recommend reading it if you plan to incorporate storytelling into your arsenal of 'tools of influence'.
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