I read a really intriguing article by Patti Sanchez on the Harvard Business Review website today. It was titled, “Why marketing needs to hire a corporate folklorist.” (The link to the full post is at the bottom of this page.) The gist of the post was that all companies have great stories to tell about themselves but the best people to tell the story are pretty busy doing the things that make the company successful in the first place and they may not be great story tellers. Hence the need for folklorists. I think she made a great point and it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone suggest this idea. That’s a job I would take in a heartbeat.
There’s just one problem with her concept. In my opinion, it would be very hard for a folklorist to peacefully coexist in most corporate marketing departments and here’s why. In my experience running a small graphic arts production company, most of the best stories I could tell, all would have equal parts failure and success. The great stories invariably began with some stupid decision on my part but through perseverance and tenacity we usually made chicken soup out of chicken sh*t. I find it hard to believe that any corporate marketing department in today’s climate of quarterly earnings and political correctness would ever want to share those kinds of stories with the general public, even though every great company has them. Corporate America has become so risk-averse and leaderless that no one would dare risk the all-mighty corporate brand and its carefully cultivated mystique. More’s the pity.
The real problem with this idea and with business in general, these days, is leadership. I grew up with a father who was just about as fearless as a man can be and he was a great, great leader. Now, when I say fearless, I’m not talking about physical strength or overt courage. I’m saying he was not afraid of any problem or task at hand in running our small business. He made sure that I was instilled with this same will to win at a young age and always encouraged me to take calculated risks. He knew this was the essence of leadership and the most important skillset for running any company. In my dad’s mind, failure was not an option, it was a necessity. I was taught to get over it emotionally, get on with it mentally and find a better way. No excuses, just deal with it and move on. And if it was a bad enough mistake, then apologize and ask for forgiveness from whoever may have been hurt, including the employees. His leadership lessons always revolved around humility, integrity and perseverance. I’ve never known another like him in all my life.
I would be willing to bet any amount of money that all of the best known brands in America have those same lessons in their history. They were founded by men just like my dad and they are still successful today because a majority of their key people know the stories and still believe in their significance even if marketing is loathe to ever share a story of abject failure that changed the company’s destiny. We’re all human beings who fail and then try again, until we get it right. That’s the best possible story to tell and the most inspiring to the next generation of leaders. It’s OK to be humbled and have our integrity tested and keep on trying again. That makes us part of the team and even more human.
We can change the world if we just stop being afraid of failure. There are thousands of great stories to tell about America and especially the epic journeys some people have taken to build their businesses. They overcame every failure and kept after their goals relentlessly. The world needs that same sense of commitment and by sharing our experiences we will encourage the next generation to try even harder. Let’s tell the truth about what it really takes to succeed and stop worrying about the brand.
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