I was lucky enough grow up with a paternal grandmother, a maternal grandfather and even his mother, my great grandmother (GGM), who were always ready with a story. My GGM’s life story itself is worth a whole separate post – widowed at nineteen, while pregnant with my grandfather, she raised him, through a polio attack (when he was two, that left him crippled in one leg), saw him through college, then when he was widowed with ten kids, she then in her sixties, raised the kids, (and the first grandkids) while managing the household, ten cows and a small farm sized garden.
Some of my favorite memories of my GGM are from dinner time. Six or seven of us kids, cousins and siblings, would be sitting in a semi-circle, on the floor of my grandfather’s dining room. GGM would be seated with her back to the wall, at the center of the half circle, with a large stainless steel bowl of mixed steamed rice and yoghurt. Each night, she’d narrate a story as she fed us dinner. She’d scoop up one handful of the rice and drop a dollop in each of our outstretched hands, going clockwise. And with each handful or mouthful, she’d narrate what happened next, in the tale for the evening. Oh, on so many nights, we’d have to stop eating and console her, as at particularly poignant moments in the tale she’d stumble, stutter then sniffle before a stream of tears would run down her wrinkled face. At other times, she’d have to stop the story to urge us to continue eating or close our mouths as we’d listen to her all agog, our food and outstretched hands totally forgotten.
Those local tales of lions that came as bridegrooms and sparrows that stuffed themselves and the longer tales from the Indian epics have not only stayed with me but taught us the values that my GGM held dear. In a very small way I have tried to share that with my own two children. However, the larger lesson I have learnt is the value of stories and storytelling to imbibe culture in families and companies.
There is a large swath of didactic and somewhat intimidating academic research done in recent times on the role of storytelling in business. Leaving that to the experts, in every company I have worked with, there has been storytelling – of dream deals that were saved or won by heroic individual or team efforts; customers from hell or my own favorite, of a customer who insisted on paying by Sep 30th ahead of our delivery milestone, as his budget would vanish on Oct 1st, but wanting a handwritten personal note from the CEO assuring that we’d still deliver on our commitments; our own story of how we asked engineers and managers to have their pay raises deferred and then to take a pay cut and my wife’s favorite, of how I was a zombie the day we lost that truly big, already-in-the-bag and company-saving quarter million dollar deal and the mourning we went through (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – all in a day.)
Of course storytelling need not be just in front of the fireplace, over dinner or by the water cooler. Books, emails and memos can just as powerfully share stories and values. The best examples I can think of include
- “Memos from the Chairman” by Alan C. Greenberg, former Chairman of investment
banking firm Bear, Stearns & Co. In a series of memos, many at less than 150 words, he has shared his views, thoughts and narrated tales (with a fictional protagonist) in an informal and easy style
- “Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Work” by John Cowan – a collection of fluid essays that narrate tales from John’s personal and work life and lend tremendous insight into our own lives, without hitting us over the head
I’d recommend both these books for a hearty good read, even if storytelling and organizational culture are not your favorite topics!