When we work with clients to tell their stories, we inevitably get to the issue of this or that, ahem, “setback.” No company or organization lasts for long without experiencing a few of these. An acquisition that didn’t work out, a CEO shown the door, a new product flop, unexpected losses.


The inclination of many C-suite occupants is to avoid the bad news and accentuate the positive. That’s perfectly understandable, and tends to be reflected in most corporate press releases (unless SEC or other disclosure obligations come into play). But telling your organization’s story is different from writing a press release. Very different.


No story, not even a bedtime story, progresses from initial promise, to one success building upon the next, to a happy conclusion. In fact, it is often the setbacks and challenges en route that forge a company’s character. How these obstacles are overcome shapes the next phase in an organization’s growth and development. And how their story is told shapes how your organization is perceived, inside and out.


It is the greatest challenges that propel an organization the farthest ahead in true slingshot fashion. In a recent New York Times interview, Cisco CEO John Chambers recalled that General Electric legend Jack Welch advised him in the late 1990s—when Cisco had one of the highest market capitalizations in the world—that Cisco would not be a truly great company until it confronted a “near-death” experience. The collapse of the dot.com economy shortly thereafter had Cisco flat on its back and shareholders calling for Chambers’s head.


While many rivals failed or were forced into mergers, Chambers and his team persevered and repositioned Cisco as the leader in its field. Welch called back in 2003 and told Chambers, “John, you now have a great company.” Chambers understands that the life-threatening setback, and how the company responded, is a key element of the Cisco story, and one that motivates employees and clients alike.


A West Coast health care consortium contacted The History Factory a few years ago, anxious to have us help tell their story. Though the roots of the organization stretched well back into the 19th century, it was clear to us that the modern, highly regarded system of today actually had its origin in a more recent, and controversial, series of events. The hospital on which the system was based was nearly forced to close as a result of a late-1970s scandal involving an anesthesiologist assaulting female patients on the operating table. Even worse, key doctors had tried to cover up the scandal. The ensuing house-cleaning, much of it aired in the media, was painful for all concerned, but clearly laid the organizational foundation for the healthcare system that would prosper over the following decades.


The client was more than a little surprised when our proposed story outline began with a prologue that jumped right into the story at mid-scandal. Yet they realized 1) that the event had been so widely covered in the media it would have to be in their story somewhere, 2) that the modern organization rose Phoenix-like from the ashes of the scandal, and 3) that by leading with the scandal they were taking control of their own story, putting the event in the context of the institution’s success in responding to the challenge, and then laying the groundwork for the further successes, as well as challenges, that followed.


“Happily ever after” wraps up many a child’s nighttime narrative. But that isn’t the part that most of us remember when it comes to the tales that shaped our capacity to wonder. The same goes for your story. Stakeholders will identify with, and remember, your quest and the challenges you surmounted long after they’ve forgotten whether year-ago quarterly sales were above or below trend.


The past nine months have been a nightmare for most organizations. Now is the time to put this period in the context of your story. No one knows for sure how this will end, but your teams are already telling tales of overcoming challenges and persevering. Tap into that storytelling and use it to your advantage to motivate the rank and file and introduce clients to you, 2.0. Take up the challenge, slay the dragon.
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