David M. Armstrong: Why I Tell Stories
I tell stories because doing so makes me a more effective leader and helps me accomplish my most important task—preserving the Armstrong culture. Through stories I have created an environment in which people are more receptive to change and new ideas. Stories of the culture in action help people recognize and understand what their role at Armstrong can and should be.
Stories extend the gift of friendship. Telling them is enjoyable and a treat for people who are waiting to hear what I have to say. They want to know how it all ends. They pay attention. And if you don’t have attention, you won’t be successful with one of a leader’s most challenging jobs—communication. As leaders, we must communicate. And that’s hard to do if nobody’s listening.
My self-imposed need to tell stories helps me to pay attention, too. I stay alert to where a story may be told or found. And storytelling helps me establish an agenda when I am talking with people. I used to stop by an office and say, “What’s the stupidest policy at Armstrong?” Or I’d ask something like, “Are you having fun?” or “What can we do faster?” Then I’d wait for the answer and move on, thinking I had communicated.
Today, the Armstrong corporate culture rests on storytelling. As a result, I am naturally led to go further. Since I’m constantly looking for fresh stories or scouting new places to tell old ones, I now find myself digging beneath the surface.
I tell stories because it’s a great way to make—or underscore—a point. People turn off a lecture but turn on to stories. Storytelling means continuous reinforcement of the principles and attitudes I want employees to model. Besides, telling stories is one of the easiest and most acceptable ways of injecting passion into business.
People love to hear and read about people—especially themselves. Each time I mention an Armstrong employee in a story, that person receives a framed copy of the original story with a personal note from me. You’d be amazed at the number of people who have “their story” hanging in their office or by their machine. I’ve even found a few in their homes and once I spotted a framed story above the fireplace mantle. House decorations . . . proof that storytelling is great recognition.
The most seasoned leader will enjoy a good story. So will the greenhorn! I have seen no evidence of a 40-year veteran or a two-year rookie being disenchanted with a story. Both would be wise to tell stories.
The stories a company tells show what it believes in, and the morals of these stories instruct people on how they should behave. Good stories are your company’s best goodwill ambassadors.
Every day we deal with change. It is nice to know there is something that never changes: A story. Sure, the content may evolve, but the story itself and how it is told remains basically the same as it was in the time of Aristotle 2,000 years ago.
At Armstrong, stories tell people how we do things. They tell people what may get them promoted—and what will certainly get them fired.
Stories provide guidelines, but getting the job done is up to the people themselves. Once they learn and internalize what we believe as a company, they largely manage themselves.
When we are interviewing people and hear the inevitable question about what our company is like, we hand them a storybook. Reactions to stories also help us evaluate how well a candidate may fit at Armstrong. We often give a story or two without morals to candidates we’re thinking of hiring and ask them to give us the morals. Their answers go a long way toward determining whether we hire them.
Potential customers want to know what kind of firm they are going to be doing business with if they buy Armstrong International products. Stories tell them.
Stories are the lifeblood of Armstrong. And telling them is how we keep it coursing through the corporate body. Storytelling is inseparable from how we manage people (or encourage them to manage themselves). It plays a part in how we create new products and produce current ones. How we conduct business with partners, suppliers and customers. And it certainly looms prominently in our vision for the future of our business—and for the planet we all share. But if none of these things were true, I would still be preaching stories and storytelling. Why?
You don’t need an MBA, a college degree or even a high school diploma to tell stories—or to understand them. You’ve been telling and listening to stories since childhood. Telling stories is just as appropriate for doctors, lawyers and physicists as it is for plumbers, carpenters and drill press operators.
Unlike the latest management fads, storytelling is ageless. Stories stand the test of time. Don’t believe me? Remember those stories Jesus told 2,000 years ago?
So you’re 93 and in your twilight years. So what? I’ll bet you love to hear a good story. Or better yet—tell one. Be honest. You know you do. But you could also be 60 and at the end of your career, 45 in those peak years or 22 and just getting started on your first job. I have never found a person—no matter what age—who didn’t like a story.
I have visited many countries and have always found stories to be cherished and part of the culture at home. That’s right. People around the world tell their children bedtime stories just like we do. On my first trip to China the president of Kangsen Armstrong met me at the airport with books in hand. “Look, Mr. Armstrong, we have stories in China, too. I wanted you to have these books full of Chinese stories so you would better understand Chinese culture.” I took a quick glance and recognized a story. “Wait a minute. This is an American story isn’t it?”
People like stories. They listen to and connect with them. Which would you rather hear? “Now I’d like to review the highlights of our new XYZ procedures.” or “Let me tell you a story . . . .”