Why Stories Matter in Business

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By Heidi Jon Schmidt

Every business leader, no matter how conscious, no matter how successful, keeps a tight focus on growth. More clients, better talent, higher productivity, reduced expenses. Give me those, he or she says, and I will be able to relax and think about telling my organization’s story.

What if telling your story is the route to growth?

We all live by the light of stories. Before the printing press, news traveled only by story—remembered at each step along the way by someone who couldn’t wait to retell it, to generate the laugh or gasp, the moment when two people gazed at each other in recognition—“Ah, I thought so!” or “That’s what I was afraid of.” Or, maybe best: “I wouldn’t have thought of that in a million years.”

What if an aligned story boosted the shared sense of purpose among all your stakeholders and deepened the trust between them, thus growing the company at an amazing rate?

“Underwear that absorbs menstrual blood.” Nice idea. But it’s not until we know the story behind the panties that Miki Agrawal’s product, THINX, sticks in our minds.

On September 11, 2001, Miki overslept and was late to work at her office beside the World Trade Center. Instead of going to work, she watched on the news as the neighborhood burned. That experience helped her walk away from her career in finance, determined to do the things she’d dreamed of instead, including playing professional sports and starting a business. She made it onto a pro soccer team only to tear her ACL in her first game. So she changed course and worked in the film business and then launched her first idea—WILD, a gluten-free farm-to-table pizza concept before creating THINX period panties. As she was building THINX, she experienced a lot of pushback from people in her society who did not want to talk about periods, and this lead to an epic wrangle with the New York subway system over using the word “period” in a subway campaign, exposing something infected in our national attitude toward women.

Agrawal is a role model for reasons more complex than any marketing campaign can make clear.

We connect to Agrawal not just because she has great ideas, nor because she stood up to the system and won, but because her trials remind us of our own. We’ve been tempted to throw it all aside, to take the risks necessary to follow our own sense of calling. We’ve taken a gamble and lost it all, brushed ourselves off and started again. Each of us, in some quiet way, has bucked the system and worked to be seen instead of objectified. Our own disappointments and our own potential rivet Agrawal’s tale into our own mythology, giving the THINX corporation a human appeal.

That’s why people curl up with stories and a big part of why, in a world full of panties, people buy THINX. A business story connects at the gut level, the heart level, even the soul level. And it doesn’t connect only to buyers, but to potential investors and employees. It shows the business less as a machine for profit and loss and more as a community of human beings working together toward a purpose. Those who find it compelling are compelled toward you. Those who don’t relate fall away. The time and effort saved there, in finding the right audience and repelling the wrong one, can be immense.

When your stories plant an authentic flag in the ground of your purpose, more of your tribe is drawn toward you and fewer of those meant to work elsewhere waste your time, clutter your system, and expend your valuable resources.

Bethany Andell, president of Savage Brands, emerged from a Gestalt workshop with her leadership team, many of whom she’d been working with closely for two decades, and said, “I feel as if I just met these people!” Through the workshop, they listened to each other’s stories differently, better understood where they each aligned with the company’s purpose, and discovered new ways to be with one another amidst the work.

For instance, Bethany, whose need to be liked was standing in her way at times, had been moved to share a college story of being left behind in her sorority house while everyone else went off with their dates. She had a specific story around loneliness that was driving how she behaved within the business. Not only did sharing this story help her colleagues understand her, but it helped her reckon with specters from her past that were still driving her decisions long after their expiration date. By sharing that story and feeling heard by her team, she became less bound by old behaviors, and that offered her new choices. She became a more effective leader of a team that felt a deep connection to their shared purpose and a stronger motivation to bring that purpose to life.

Stories nourish this kind of trust between stakeholders. When they are true, when the reader or listener catches that essence of real life, those stories are addictive and fascinating. They nourish the kind of growth that can’t be predicted.

Want to raise the stakes for your stakeholders? Making room for the stories within your business lessens the likelihood of avoiding the tough conversations that hold us accountable to change. Stories inspire a more energetic leadership, a more passionate following, a sense of direction amidst a community, and a conviction that binds it all together.

Share your stories in whatever ways you are compelled. Share them from the stage, in a book or a blog, through a documentary, in your PR and marketing campaigns. Share them in your internal culture work. Create an ecosystem of authentic storytelling around your business, and you’ll find that telling your stories will change you for the better. Sharing your stories paves the way to your tribe, to a whole new definition of you, to reflection, and to a whole new level of success. Jump into your story.

Conscious Capitalism Press was developed to support leaders in the Conscious Capitalism community in sharing their wisdom with other Conscious Capitalists and the world. If you’re moved to tell your story through a book, we hope you’ll consider applying to CC Press.

As president of Savage, Bethany Andell is responsible for keeping the company focused on its core purpose, promoting the firm’s culture, developing the team, and building and maintaining relationships with clients. Bethany works to forge powerful connections—connecting people to people and connecting companies with the fresh ideas that make their brands powerful and purposeful. Find out more about Bethany and Savage brands here.

Miki Agrawal is a social entrepreneur known for disrupting taboo categories. Her current focus is TUSHY, a designer take on bidet attachments and toilet products that upgrades the American bathroom experience. Miki is also the cofounder and chief inventor of THINX, the period-proof underwear; Icon, the pee-proof underwear; WILD, gluten-free farm-to-table pizza restaurants. And she is author of the best-selling book Do Cool Shit.