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Gift of History: People and Their Stories Matter Within Organizations

02/04/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

Holiday season brings us gifts--some gifts surprise us, some gifts become acquired taste, but all gifts fill us with joy--the joy of sharing with family and friends. In a similar vein, on the career front, what could be a great gift that could propel the talented and passionate? My answer: Gift of history. If you are puzzled, let me explain.

While war veterans have their moments to reflect back and share, what about the rank and file in the business world? What are they proud of? What are their stories within the organization's history? Does anybody new joining their organization take the time to seek these stories? The most successful ones almost always do.

For others, here is an often repeated corporate story. A "catch" hire, with the requisite pedigree which usually includes words like smart and talented, is announced with great expectations. The new hire is on a mission to prove that he/she is a worthy hire. By the time first deliverables happen, the initial honeymoon is over and reality sets in. The discordant note is usually about fit. Exits like Ron Johnson as CEO from JCPenney, Henrique De Castro as COO from Yahoo are some high-profile examples. I am sure there are other examples in your organization that you can relate to.

Context is important, Her/ His story is key.

On the flip side, let us look at the life of Gandhi. He returned to India in 1915, his most prominent movement was the salt march in 1930--when he broke the salt laws of the then-British Raj at Dandi, it resonated with every person in society. It was a movement that he spearheaded after understanding the stories of the common man.

In the book, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?, Lou Gerstner gave us an insider's view on the turnaround of IBM in the 1990s. In his first 100 days--a more compressed timeline reflecting corporate deliverables--he spent time hearing the stories from customers and employees.

Both of them did not have a preset notion of what to do. They earned the respect and buy-in by understanding the stories that mattered. Leadership loyalty is earned and not given. History is a great tool to understand the context before providing insights, solutions and even leadership.

Could History be the New Embrace?

I have had my share of exposure to world history as part of a high school curriculum. Today, I appreciate the importance of a different type of history--stories of people in and around the organization--where they come from, what was the rationale for a prior decision, what were their contributions, what have they seen that works etc.

Talent, like education, is a springboard for a career. Passion, planning and luck add fuel to the fire. The underlying theme beyond that, for career progression, is fit. Malcolm Gladwell messaged it beautifully in his book Outliers, "No one makes it alone." As humans, we evolve at a slower place, while as employees, we need to adapt at a faster pace. Understand before being understood makes the fit easier all around--an open embrace of others' history is key.

I believe, within organizations, people and their stories matter. Mutual respect to each other's history is quintessential for career and leadership success. A gift worth seeking and giving. What are your thoughts and/or experiences?