Thomas Watson: The Magic of Story-Telling
Thomas Watson is regarded as one of the greatest business leaders of the 20th century. He turned a small company producing weighing machines, International Business Machines, into the giant of the computer industry, IBM. Watson achieved this extraordinary success by an evangelical belief in what the company stood for and how everyone in it should behave. In short, he created a culture and became its role model. Like himself, all IBM managers were required to wear suits; they could not even remove them in the hottest of weather. Sales reps stayed at the best hotels, because "people have to believe they're dealing with the very best"; a corporate hymn was written and everyone was implored to "think, think, think". Watson also believed in creating a mythology about the organisation through story-telling.
The Cost of Education
Watson placed great store by learning. However, he didn't spread the word through issuing a decree or policy, or spending lots of money on consultants to tell him how to create a learning culture. He did it by personal example and story-telling. Here is one such story that has become a legend in IBM.
One day, Tom Watson called a senior executive who had just made a big mistake to his office. The cost of the mistake could be reckoned at $10,000.
Watson and the executive discussed the case for some time until Watson finally got up to leave.
Looking apprehensive, the executive asked:
"So does that mean I'm fired, sir?"
"Fired?" said Watson with a genuine look of disbelief on his face. "Heck, no! How can I fire you when I've just spent $10,000 educating you?"
Why You Should Tell Your Own Corporate Stories
The reason why stories work in large organisations like IBM is because they transmit important values of the culture and appeal to us both logically and emotionally. Here are other things they do:
• they help get us closer to distant figures: we begin to think we know them
• they explain the unexplainable
• they are universal in their appeal; everyone can understand a story
• they catch our imagination and sense of the dramatic
• they link us to the past culture
• they block off further search for meaning
• they bind us together in ways that are special and unique to us.
Other Resources on Story-Telling
Here is a pdf from the MIT Sloan Management Review on "How Storytelling Builds Next-Generation Leaders".
Here 's Steve Denning's "The Leader's Guide to Storytelling" book which he subtitles "Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative".
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