I once drove a forklift truck in an industrial flour mill. Besides showing off our driving skills to startled millers, the main excitement for me and my fellow micro-truckers was to “accidentally” pierce the bottom bags on the pallet. This was wonderfully messy and also created work for an army of day labourers who swept the flour back into the system.
We, the Lewis Hamiltons of the factory floor, saw our infantile misdeeds as contributing to a form of circular economy: creating jobs to recycle the flour. In the absence of anything better from the company, that was our Purpose.
Because the mill had no mission other than to keep our wages low and make money for others, our corporate story was built around our derring-do use of our little trucks to cause mayhem. We pursued our Purpose with great passion, as any purposeful employee should.
Some decades later (and fully reformed) I was struck by the contrasting story told by a forklift driver at Interface, the carpet tile maker celebrated for its purpose, called Mission Zero: to eliminate any negative effects of the company by 2020.
James Wiesner, the Interface driver, was once hailed by a factory visitor. When she asked him what he did at Interface, James replied: “I come to work every day to save the Earth,” adding “I don’t want to be rude, but if I don’t get this roll of carpet to that machine in the next minute, our emissions are going to go out of control. I’ve got to go.”
The difference between James’s and my trucker stories highlights the value of a well-understood and authentic corporate purpose. But it also demonstrates how a negative story (piercing those bags) can be far more powerful than the goody-goody version, and far more damaging.
At Context, our mission as corporate sustainability story tellers is to ensure that our clients tell good stories, not goody-goody versions. Some commentators think this is still not good enough and view corporate storytelling as a load of hoo-ha. The brilliant FT columnist, Lucy Kellaway, says this:
“I remember ridiculing an earnest American who had written a book, Around the Corporate Campfire, in which she urged people to ‘develop red-hot, value-based stories that spread like wildfire and propel them toward their vision’. She was right about the wildfire. Indeed, the corporate campfire has spread so dangerously, it is time to call the fire brigade.”
Lucy has a point if the stories are inauthentic, pretentious PR tosh. But she is wrong to reject corporate storytelling as intrinsically silly. Especially when it comes to bringing corporate purpose to life.
Like Interface, most companies do very boring, repetitive things. They make carpet tiles, fill drinks bottles, audit accounts, kill rodents, sell groceries and clean offices. Most of the tasks carried out by humble employees are mind-numbing. How else can you hope to instil a sense of purpose in their dull working lives unless you wield the emotional tool of a good story? Emotion always beats the rational. And one of the best ways to bring emotion into communications is through stories about people.
Think of Bible parables such as the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son. Communicating values such as care for our fellows or forgiveness can’t be done in PowerPoint. There has to be an emotional element and that is best achieved through stories about feelings that the listener understands. Analyse the best Ted Talks and you will find a story, not a set of bullet points.
You can create a corporate purpose quite easily. But it will remain a load of gush unless it is communicated through an authentic story. And reinforced with sequels that keep the purpose fresh and real.
Most companies claiming to have a clear corporate purpose may have the best intentions but are plagued by little Lewis Hamiltons wreaking havoc on the shop floor. Perhaps if my lowly job as a forklift driver was narratively linked to my part in bringing daily bread to my fellow citizens, I would have felt a greater sense of purpose. A good story of the miller’s mission would have helped me understand my role and helped me be a better, more productive employee.
And then this story would have been different.
Peter T. Knight is Chairman at The Context Group.