Cloning the C-Suite
I recently witnessed a the retirement of a Fortune 100 Senior Executive. He chose to leave and was quick to describe the wealth of life experiences now before him. Yet it was a sad day for those of us who witnessed his departure. As we watched him through the corporate lobby for the last time, his broad shoulders seemed to slump a bit with every step.
Yes, this senior exec was lauded at a retirement dinner, has a golden parachute and will not want for money or friends. It is not where he is going that we should be considering; where are we going without him?
What he worriedly confided in me is concern that the many efforts he championed were now in jeopardy. Who would pick up the baton, view issues with a broad and experienced vision to provide continuity as the business culture continues on its evolutionary path?
My son's favorite television show has the villain cutting open the heads of those with skills he admires. How can we effectively "pick the brains" of today's business leaders short of medically cloning our senior managers?
How do we tap, retain and deploy the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of those who currently lead our organization?
The DNA of the Human Psyche
The tales of merger, acquisition, conquest or convergence are timeless case studies for those seeking advancement, knowledge, success. Of course, not every senior leader is an orator, writer or scholar. Peter Drucker and Jack Welch, for example, are not 'polished' speakers. Drawing from natural talent or skill developed by necessity and passion, today's leaders must be ready to articulate a personal sense of values and life wisdom in harmony with the latest business, social and cultural trends. They are story tellers.
One of today's leading researchers on story telling, David Thornburg, Ph,D, states:
A key aspect of archetypal learning environments can be found in a tale … One day someone sat at a computer keyboard and entered the following question: "Do you suppose that computers will one day think like humans?" After processing this request for some time, the computer displayed the following response: "That reminds me of a story...," …with the possible exception of certain marine mammals, we may be the only storytelling species in existence. This capacity of humans is so important that Jean Houston referred to myth as the DNA of the human psyche.
The roots of story telling are in our elemental being, providing an essential channel to connect with others. How do we recognize events worthy to be preserved?
Examples of Campfire Tales
Whether the newer members of our company are quoting Machiavelli or the former CFO, what is important is that they have this information in their knowledge base: they are making a connection between now and then, past and present. According to Thornburg:
"The often tangential nature of storytelling, its use of metaphor, its indirect attack on a topic all combine to make storytelling an effective way to address topics that might be too confrontational to address head on. Story crafts its own helix around a topic. As Robert Frost said, "We sit in the circle and suppose, while the truth sits in the center and knows."
Just as we are attracted to the campfire, we intuitively recognize the truth of a tale shared in that golden circle. Stories that resonate with our personal experiences cast new light on previous encounters and as the tale emerges, we empathize with either the speaker or the story characters.
Thornburg describes 'campfire' storytelling as an information-based tale relayed by the expert to the novice.
…the wisdom of elders passed to the next generation. Good stories have always embodied a blend of the cognitive and affective domains - in fact, in story, there is no separation between the two. This quality of nuance and multiple interpretations is common to storytelling. It is one reason that adults and children can enjoy the same story together - each age takes from the story the elements that are appropriate. The power of storytelling is so great that even in more recent times (c. 250 BC,) we find Socrates responding to his students on occasion with the Greek equivalent of "That reminds me of a story."
I spend a considerable time guiding new managers to understand how relationships with those on all levels are crucial. A person in a lower level has power over an upper level manager's promotion or demotion, by manipulating the intricate communication process - the key to all data flow and decision making. Withholding facts, providing incorrect information or misdirecting communication impedes performance, with negative impact on the project's manager.
Stories can bridge gaps and form bonds - even between people who never meet or speak face-to-face - as well as between those of different levels in a corporation.
Larry Prusak of IBM's Institute of Knowledge Management, identified ten categories of stories in organizations and offered the following perspective:
I'd say the most important thing you can do is to deal with the issue of connectivity…. If you can improve sense-making in any organization, by one percent, you've earned your salary for life. Sense-making is really more than information-seeking. It's more than knowledge-seeking. It's helping people make sense of their own organization for action.
Preserving the Legacy
Preserving the stories of our business' founders and leaders is developing a warehouse of knowledge. You will be capturing the wisdom and insight of those whose decisions forged the environment you now occupy: Each story saved is one more connection between past and present, contributing to future decisions by sustaining awareness of the foundation for today's beliefs, motivations and commitments.
As you consider potential contributors to your new stock-pile of corporate stories, keep your goal clearly in mind. Your task is to gather and share existing wisdom: truth and experience serving as a catalyst to future action.
References and Additional Reading
Betof, Edward Betof. T&D Magazine. "Teachable Points of View for Leadership". March 2007 'Becton, Dickinson and Company's Advanced Leadership Development Program acknowledges the role of story telling in leadership training.
Mount, Ian. "America's 25 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs" Inc. Magazine , 2004.
Prusak, Larry. Executive Director, IBM Institute of Knowledge Management. Presentation at the Smithsonian, 2001.
Thornburg, David, Ph,D, "Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphor's for Learning in the 21st Century" in the October 2004 issue of Instruction Technology & Distance Learning.
Lucille Maddalena, Ed.D. is President of Maddalena Transitions Management ,Inc., a management consulting firm she founded in 1975 as Morris Business Group. A pioneer in the field of OD, Dr. Maddalena holds an interdisciplinary doctorate in Human Communications and Labor Education from Rutgers, bridging interpersonal communication and practical business management. Her facilitation and group coaching has supported executive development, the reorganization of divisions of major firms, businesses transitioning from private to public and the global expansion of numerous corporate functions, serving several Fortune 100 firms consistently for over twenty years. Visit www.mtmanagement.net for additional information.
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