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Using Stories to Shape Your Culture

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Shape Your Culture with Stories
Crafting culture with compelling stories.

One of the most powerful tools a leader has is stories. Stories are to culture what a lathe is to a woodworker or a DA is for a body guy––they are shapers. They shape culture. The things we tell stories about reveal what is important to us, what we value. If you want more of certain behaviour in your shop, craft and tell a compelling story that reinforces that.

How can we use stories to shape our shop’s culture?

First, for “wins,” use the window not the mirror! Tell stories about your team succeeding. Catch them doing things right in production meetings, in emails that get circulated, at shop meetings—and then talk about it. Collect stories of your staff living your values and tell them over and over. Just about the time you’re sick of a certain story is the time your team might be starting to get it.

And make sure that the hero of the story is them, not you. In every story there is a hero, a villain, and a guide. It’s universal. A mistake that is often made is that the leader makes him or herself the hero. No, you’re the guide that helps the hero overcome any obstacles in his or her way and is there at critical junctures to offer support and wisdom. In essence, make sure you’re Yoda and your team members are Luke.

With new hires, there should be a handful stories that get told over and over. One of them is called your “founding myth.” It’s the story of how your business got started, why it started, what drew the founder into it. Trust me, it may seem boring to you, especially if you’re the founder, but to others, there is drama there. There was risk involved. There was passion involved. There were trials overcome to sustain it. There were celebrations of wins and agonies of defeat along the way. But here again, the focus is not just on the founder, per se. It’s how the shop was launched and why it was launched but the heroes are the customers and workers that got the shop to where it is today. It’s all in the telling.

Every customer has a story they are willing to share, too. With customers, while writing estimates, listen closely and ask some good open-ended questions. The first step is always to listen. They will tell you what they need, what they value most about their vehicle, how this accident impacted their life. Again, they are the hero and you are the guide. When you come back with their estimate, make sure they know you heard them by addressing the very things they mentioned. But also communicate how you and your shop are ready to be a guide to help them get get back on the road. Tell stories of people with similar concerns that were well served by your shop.

The only fitting way to end a column about the power of stories is with a story. I remember at one of our Christmas parties several years ago, one of the managers stood up and told a compelling story about how at the beginning of that year things looked bleak. A consolidator had just entered the market. We had lost a couple very talented team members and we started the year in a bit of a hole. As he told the story, he reminded the team that there were several people who said we wouldn’t make it. We had some vendors that said some unflattering things and predicted how long we would last without this team member or against that big competitor. The word on the street was that the competition was too strong and the losses too big to sustain. Yet, here we were at the end of the year, celebrating a turnaround. And then he thanked each of the team members who got us there. They were the heroes. The managers were the coaches on the sidelines making sure the team had what they needed to succeed on the field. Against great odds, we were able to lift a glass that evening and celebrate together our team’s victory.

His toast had all the elements of a great story. There were villains in the big competitors and vendors who were predicting our demise. Managers were the capable guides and mentors who never stopped believing in the team. And of course there were heroes: the technicians and CSRs and estimators that got us out of the hole and into the winner’s circle. We were ready to take on another year in a challenging landscape but this time we had the power of a well crafted story to carry us forward and remind us that we had done it before and could do it again.

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