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Empowering Employees as Corporate Storytellers

In 2001, Chip Conley was the successful CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, consisting of twenty thriving boutique hotels in San Francisco that he built from a single motel.  At the age of twenty-six, he suddenly found himself at the brink of failure when the dot-com industry collapsed. He watched revenues in the hotel industry hit all-time lows, threatening his empire. Looking for answers, Conley found himself in a local bookstore, where he rediscovered a book about finding meaning in life.

He was compelled to shift his focus from the financial doom to creating opportunities for his employees to find meaning in their jobs — thus empowering employees to succeed.

“Employees are looking for meaning. Customers are looking for a transforming experience. Investors are looking to make a difference with their investments. We often forget, especially in today’s high tech world, that a company is a collection of individuals.”

Chip Conley, Peak

Conley focused on helping employees and customers have “peak” experiences. He gathered employees from all levels of the organization for retreats, and he flew customers in to share their stories about how the hotel staff helped them. Through storytelling, Conley connected hotel cleaners to the critical roles they played in the company’s success and how they touched people’s lives.

Many companies invest in constructing and telling their stories often to communicate their brands to consumers. Consider TOMS shoes, for example. CEO Blake Mycoskie started the company after a trip to Argentina, where he found many children without shoes. The company sends a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair you buy. You can easily find stories and videos about their impact. The company story resonates with people, and it makes the brand unforgettable.

In a recent Forbes magazine article, Rich Karlgaard suggests that climatic, heroes’ journeys are particularly memorable, “The main character, the hero, is called upon to make decisions, take action and, ultimately, discover a new truth.” These stories are not just for consumers though; they provide a unique opportunity for managers to connect employees with the mission by making it come alive with meaning. Chip Conley did this at Joie de Vivre Hospitality, and as a result, they not only survived the economic crisis, the company increased its revenues and reduced employee turnover significantly.

Through your employees, storytelling also becomes a natural form of word of mouth influence. Every employee in every business is a storyteller. What does Alex in Sales tell his wife about the company and its employees when he describes his day? What does Alina in customer service write on her Facebook status after dealing with an irate customer?

You can help shape stories by providing employees with opportunities to do and to experience great things that are aligned with your mission and values. Give them the chance to overcome obstacles and to be the hero. Then, give them the opportunity to tell their stories and recognize them for what they have accomplished.

Through storytelling, employees can celebrate each other’s achievements, connecting with the organization’s mission and their work. As they retell these stories, they help define the culture of the organization.

Harness the power of employee ideas.