Oral histories—extended interviews that capture the “you are there” feel of an executive’s career —enrich an organization’s bank of heritage assets to be leveraged in support of corporate transformation, change management, and a host of other goals. Capturing foundational stories that exemplify corporate values and “hero” stories, including lessons learned from setbacks, before they are lost to time, retirements, and changing circumstances, is an upfront investment that will pay off for decades to come.
Not always an easy sell during hard times, to be sure. But I have been pleasantly surprised, and grateful, that an increasing number of clients “get it” about oral histories as they look ahead to their next budget cycle. Here’s to a chatty 2011, and more clients leveraging their swelling banks of heritage assets.
Oral histories can also help bring to light important trends in a company’s history that might have been obscured over the years as messaging focuses, as it always seems to do, on immediate issues. This point was driven home for me recently as I was driving home from conducting a two-hour oral history with a retired executive who had been with a client for more than thirty years.
The company’s—and its industry’s—default point of view on regulation is that it has hobbled growth and innovation. No surprise there. But as we discussed the issue in depth and in the context of corporate growth and innovation over decades, a more complex picture developed. The industry probably would not have survived, let alone prospered, without protective regulations during its formative decades. And the technological breakthroughs that are driving top-line growth today for the client and the industry were essentially perfected, after a few setbacks, in the 1990s, a period of relatively tight regulation.
“I think you could say that we have benefited as much from regulation as we have been hurt by it,” the retiree reflected. Then he added with a smile, “But I am not saying that is a consensus view,” at the company.
I was thinking about that conversation while listening to NPR’s All Things Considered on the car radio. The Washington Post’s business columnist Steven Pearlstein was being interviewed about the implications of the fact that U.S. business is sitting on a record $1.8 trillion in cash, while much of the public is desperate for credit and jobs.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce cites pro-regulation Washington as a major reason business is hesitant to spend. Pearlstein had a different take. Complaining about regulation is a rationalization, he argued. Companies focused so intently on cutting over the past 18 months that too often they didn’t emphasize innovation. So with not enough in the new product pipeline, they are blaming Washington for their slow-growth woes.
Thirty years from now, will your executives’ corporate oral histories focus on that boffo job they did fighting regulation in Washington? Possibly. But for the dynamic corporate leaders, it is more likely that their corporate hero stories and the values that are reinforced over time are likely to focus on innovation and risk taking, not regulatory rear-guard actions.