Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Servant Leadership Practice--Chocolate-Covered Cotton Balls

She gave me a shy smile as she reached for one of the candies I had brought to work that day. She had been told by her co-workers that my candy was really good. Her face changed dramatically as she bit into the chocolate. Trying to maintain composure but with worried eyes looking my way, she turned away from me with her hand frozen in place at her mouth. After pulling the chocolate from her lips, she started laughing. She hadn't been sure how she was going to tell me she found a hair in my candy. When she saw it was a whole cotton ball, she knew the joke. It happened to be April Fools' Day and Good Friday. For years after that, anything I brought to work to share was viewed with suspicion. But the incident became legendary.

We surprised everyone--but the planning team--one day at work by asking them to board buses at mid-morning. We took everyone to a nearby state park, fed them lunch but had them participate in a team-building exercise. In randomly formed teams, we had them take discarded materials that we brought, along with anything else they could find in the area, to build boats that could float across the natural, sand-bottom pool. That day-off celebration became so legendary that employees would share it with new-hires within a week of their employment. Only one other time did we surprise them like that with another day-off celebration.

It also became legendary when people had "fun" creating customer successes. One of the stories we passed around: a customer was awed that we could provide six working, custom assemblies when his own operations would be lucky to get one done, with more time than we had. That we could dramatically and significantly decrease the past-due orders in 4 weeks without a lot of effort became legendary--while business was increasing by 20%. If we had planned to do the same thing the previous year, we would have said it was impossible without a major investment. At that time, we did it "by accident" and with a lot of fun because people were enjoying daily contributions to success.

What stories do you tell around work? It's the capture of the heart and the mind that create engagement. Some of the strongest businesses have stories to tell: Fred Smith gambling payroll in his new FedEx business whose business plan was failed by his business profs; 3M's Post-It notes starting as choir music markers and test marketed with company secretaries. We've also learned that telling the story about one person increases charitable giving than talking about how millions might be affected. I'm on the board of company that shares how they fulfill the dreams of their clients. Stories are powerful. You might hear lots of stories about school budgets but if you heard your kids' school teacher share how much he spends to buy his own class materials (because the school can't afford it), you'll view the crisis differently.

Today, tell a story that shows the importance of your organization for your customers and clients. Data is good; data and a story is better.

For C12 and Truth@Work members, we are inspired by lots of stories in scriptures. We parse the meanings of parables, which at different life stages can have different impact on our lives. We don't have to be excellent story-tellers, but we should be prepared to talk about what the legends in your business have meant to you--just like you're prepared to share your spiritual journey.

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