July 11, 2019 • History Factory
In this month’s excerpt from CEO Bruce Weindruch’s book, Start with the Future and Work Back, we’re taking a look at the impact that the use of heritage can have on attracting and retaining talent, as well as connecting and engaging employees with company culture.
“There is nothing that will get a group of employees more engaged or emotionally connected to an organization more than listening to a past leader who has taken the time to leave a record of his or her insights and motivations. . . .
But everyone likes a good unsung hero, as well. The guy in the next cubicle who went above and beyond his pay grade. The middle manager who cared. The scientist, banker or salesman who symbolized the very soul of the organization. We’re all looking for someone to relate to—people who become symbols of what an entire organization is and stands for.
Because everyday employees have great value, I often encourage clients to conduct oral histories throughout the ranks of their organization. Collecting stories from the rank-and-file can make everyone in your organization feel connected to their company in deep and meaningful ways. . . .
Our work with Discover in 2010 provides a perfect example of that principle in action.
The truth of the matter is that we’d worked with a number of clients who had played a role in the Discover story, including Sears, which launched Discover in 1985. Thanks to our extensive work with the banking industry, we had a thorough understanding of the history of the credit card industry. Plus, I had conducted an oral history with Ed Telling, the Sears CEO who gave birth to the idea of Discover in the 1980s.
So when we showed up to our meeting, I was peeling off Discover stories like I had worked there for 25 years. It would be like me showing up at someone’s house and saying, “You know, your grandfather used to ride the L train and eat lunch every day at The Corner Grill.”
During the meeting, the Discover people kept turning to me and asking, “Wait. How did you know that?” And we quickly won the privilege of working on Discover’s 25th anniversary celebration.
At the time, the financial services industry was being demonized as one of the chief instigators of the 2008 mortgage crisis. The pitchforks were out. It didn’t matter what you did: If you worked in the financial services industry, you were the enemy.
Discover’s company officials confessed that they had an additional problem. The Discover card was being portrayed as the cheap, goofy stepchild of the credit card industry, and they wanted to put an end to that misrepresentation. It was beginning to affect morale, in part because so many new Discover employees simply didn’t understand the history of their own company.
We knew we could change that. And we did. One of the advantages of working with a 25-year-old company is that you still have the ability to conduct oral histories with its founders. In the case of Discover, these early employees were referred to as “the Dawners,” named after the “Dawn of Discover” television ads that launched the card during Super Bowl XX.
When the card launched in early 1986, there was a serious anti-Sears bias afoot. Merchants, especially independent sellers of washing machines and appliances, wouldn’t accept the Discover card because they feared that it would help Sears, their deep-pocketed corporate rival. So it was a huge uphill battle, with opposition coming not only from merchants but also from an entrenched banking industry.
And yet, as the Dawners reminded us, the Discover card was unlike any other card on the market: a credit card that provided people with cash back on all their purchases. Today, you can find cash-back cards anywhere, but in the mid-1980s it was a rarity. Ultimately, it was Discover’s appeal to consumers that propelled its growth.
And then came years of antitrust litigation, spurred by MasterCard and Visa. Year after year, Discover charged headfirst into some extraordinary battles and won virtually every one of them. It was a great story that Discover’s new employees simply didn’t know.
How did we get those stories? By conducting a massive number of individual and group oral histories with people up and down the chain of command. We talked to Discover employees from coast to coast: people in sales, at call centers, and in development.
Meanwhile, the company conducted a series of employee surveys that gauged baseline attitudes and engagement, hoping to see if our work had an impact on morale. It certainly did. Over the course of the company’s 25th anniversary year, we rolled out a series of short digital stories and documentary videos based on our archival research and all of the oral histories we conducted. Biweekly multiple-choice history quizzes and quarterly anniversary sections followed, as well as an e-publication highlighting the culture of Discover that was based on employee responses to questions.
When the anniversary year ended, Discover monitored its employee engagement and concluded that the program was an unmitigated success. Some 9,000 of the company’s 11,000 employees participated in its anniversary events. Surveys also revealed that 80 percent of respondents felt increased enthusiasm about working for Discover, while 88 percent felt that the anniversary recaptured the spark and spirit that was felt at Discover’s inception.
All of this newfound confidence—this good will and excitement over the future—was simply a product of taking the time to listen to and communicate the experiences and feelings of the entire organization.
It all comes back to the democratization of content. Employees used to go looking for direction exclusively from those at the top. Now you see more and more organizations looking for its employees to inspire each other.”
To learn more, read Bruce’s book, Start with the Future and Work Back.