In a recent column in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks artfully paraphrased an idea that we’ve been championing at The History Factory for the past 30 years. “History,” Brooks wrote, “is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by reckoning with the past.”
Distill that sentiment down to its essence, and you come back to one of our enduring maxims: Start with the future and work back. We believe that the transformative moments in a corporation’s past provide the most authentic and clearest path toward future growth and success.
Brooks’ piece was inspired by a recent TED talk by the rocker Sting, who chronicled a life-changing trip back to his hometown in northern England.
Before the trip, Sting had been plagued by writer’s block, unable to pen a new song for years. But when he visited the shipyards where he had played as a child, he started cataloging his many experiences there. He played them over and over in his mind. Soon, lyrics and ideas were pouring out of him, songs that are at the heart of a new musical, The Last Ship, which is due to hit Broadway this fall.
The point of Sting’s story, from our perspective, is that every organization — and every leader within an organization — has its own shipyard, its own repository of memories and life lessons that can be mined for inspiration and direction.
Cadillac tapped into this idea in a recent advertising campaign by pointing out major companies and artists who got their start in an American garage, from Amazon and Walt Disney to Hewlett Packard and The Ramones. By leveraging that shared symbolism of a garage, Cadillac aligned itself with the most forward-thinking and creative companies of the past and present in a straightforward and authentic way.
Authenticity is the key. After hearing Sting’s story, no one would question the veracity of his convictions. Corporations can achieve that same resonance by leveraging their own unique histories to project a strategic corporate persona.
Every day, we help companies find and discover their own shipyards. This content plays a vital role in uniting employees around a company’s vision, attracting and retaining the best talent in the marketplace, or differentiating a product or brand to drive growth. By providing easy access to historical documents, oral histories, anecdotes and interviews via a digital library, clients must preserve their cultural heritage.
But mere preservation is not enough. Sting didn’t merely go home to take a stroll down memory lane. He went home to use those memories — and the emotions they evoked — to create something new, a collection of songs that has propelled his career in an exciting new direction.
In the end, it all comes down to purpose-driven storytelling. Sting’s decision to tell his story at TED — as well as the emotive way he presented his tale — caught Brooks’ attention, which in turn spread Sting’s ideas to every reader of The New York Times.
The moral of Sting’s story, as Brooks wrote, is that success often comes to those who “go forward with a backward glance.”
We, at The History Factory, couldn’t agree more.
Bruce Weindruch. Founder and CEO, The History Factory
Bruce Weindruch Founder and CEO, The History Factory. Bruce has revolutionized corporate America’s use of history. His unique background, blending history and business, has given him the insights to help corporations use historical resources to benefit their bottom line. As The History Factory’s chief strategist and creative force, Bruce applies his extensive experience advising clients on how they can make their heritage work for them. Bruce is a regular contributor to Business History Matters, the official blog of The History Factory, as well as numerous media outlets. Bruce received his B.A. in American civilization from Grinnell College and attended the George Washington University/Smithsonian Affiliation Ph.D. program. Before founding The History Factory in 1979, he was a staff member at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian Associates faculty member and a director of the Museum Education Roundtable.