Emil Zátopek was a giant of long distance running. His record still stands as the only person to win gold in the 5000 metre, the 10000 metre and the marathon at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics. Apparently running the marathon was a last minute decision.
In 1968 Australian runner, Ron Clarke, visited Emil in his home country of Czechoslovakia. Emil respected Ron’s abilities. He had broken many of Emil’s records but had a string of bad luck. In Mexico City Ron suffered from altitude sickness and nearly died on the track. So despite being the world record holder he never won an Olympic gold. The two runners became friends and as Emil said goodbye at the airport, he gave Ron a hug and put a small parcel in his hand and said “this is because you deserve it, not because we are friends. Open it when you get to London.”
Ron immediately started to wonder what was in the parcel. Was it contraband? Was it a message Emil wanted smuggled out to the West. After the plane took off Ron went to the lavatory to open the parcel. When he unwrapped the box, there, with his name and the day’s date inscribed inside, was Emil’s 10000 Olympic gold medal. Ron just sat there and wept.
Shawn’s post last week got us sharing some of the great examples of small acts of leadership that demonstrate humanity and which make a difference. We will share some of these in the coming weeks. This is an example I heard last week while running a business storytelling session in Queensland.
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“The biggest improvements come from small things done consistently over time in strategic places.” — David Allen
A company was all travelling together to their yearly retreat in Queensland. The company had grown over the years and was now quite a large number so the management team decided that everyone will travel economy class.
They were all booked on the same flight out of Melbourne and lined up a the airport to get their boarding passes. The CEO was in the same line as everyone else despite being a Platinum flyer–he could have joined the priority queue. When he stepped forward to get his pass the flight attendant saw his flying status and immediately upgraded him to business class. Before she could finish the transaction the CEO turned to the next person in the line and asked whether she had flown business class before. She said “no” so the CEO asked the attendant whether she could have his upgrade. “Of course” she replied.
We should cherish these acts of humanity from our business leaders and tell these stories wherever we can so leaders have models of the small things they can do that make a difference.
In July my family went to Germany for a holiday – a camping trip to Potsdam, near Berlin. My wife Anouk and I had decided beforehand that we wanted to teach our children, Anemoon (aged 7) and Jasmijn (aged 4), something about how to handle money. So we gave the kids 10 euros each, to be spent at their discretion.
One rainy day during our trip, we visited the Sea Life aquarium in Berlin. It was a beautiful experience – Anouk and I loved it, as did the children. Except that at the end of the visit we inevitably found ourselves in a souvenir shop, full of garbage. I immediately walked to the exit, longing for a cappuccino, but the kids had other ideas. Anemoon found a Nemo toy to cuddle, while Jasmijn wildly waved a pirate flag. This is what they wanted to buy with their vacation money!
Tired and irritable, in need of a cup of coffee, I said to the kids: ‘You can spend your money on better stuff than this trash. It’ll just collect dust when we’re home again’. At that moment Anouk decided it was time to intervene. She said to me: ‘We had an agreement that the kids could decide themselves how to spend the money, and now that they want to buy something, you want to stop it? No way’. I couldn’t argue with that, so although I knew I was right, I had to give in. A moment later, two very happy kids left Sea Life with their new treasures, holding them tight.
Well, for the rest of our holiday, the pirate flag fluttered continuously from the top of our tent. And wherever we went, Nemo accompanied us. The kids had not wasted their money – they’d spent it on things they really wanted. I had to admit that I was wrong.
Autonomy is a motivating force
Perhaps you recognise this type of behaviour in your organisation. Or perhaps, from time to time, in yourself …
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A few months ago, in my car on the way to see a client, I heard an interview on the radio. There was this lady who had been nominated for the title ‘Cleaning Lady of the Year’.
The woman told the journalist about her work in a way that completely surprised me. She was so enthusiastic, so full of passion and energy. This woman loved cleaning.
Her career began when her house was so spic and span that there was simply nothing to do anymore, and her husband begged her to find a job as a cleaning lady. So she took a job at a primary school, cleaning the classrooms.
Stories can change something normal into something special
The arrangement was that the schoolkids would do some tidying before going home and the woman would take care of the rest.
To encourage the children in their cleaning, the woman would write a few compliments on the blackboard along with her name, and perhaps a little drawing.
For the kids, it became a sport to clean up their room as much as possible. In the morning, they couldn’t wait to enter the classroom to see what had been written on the blackboard this time.
What struck me the most about the woman’s story was the reaction of the journalist. At the beginning of the interview, he asked her some critical questions, as journalists do.
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Business stories don’t need to be fancy. They should be told just like you would tell it if you were catching up with a colleague informally. I would tell this one when chatting to senior leaders about how they can model the behaviour they want–in fact they must. Or it would be good as an example of bringing a organisational value to life with a story.
If you follow my Soundcloud account you will get to hear these types of business stories a week ahead of it arriving on our blog. Love to hear your feedback. When would you tell this story? What would be your point?
I’ve just spent a week travelling the California coast with my brother, Scott. We visited many restaurants and wineries but the ones that stand out did something remarkable, something out of the ordinary.
The Palace Grill in Santa Barbara is a Cajun restaurant. Lots of people line up to get a table. Lots of buzz. Our visit started off like any other restaurant dinner at a popular spot. Great service (nothing unexpected), great food (of course, what else), my brother brought great wine (another Joel Gott masterpiece).
Then at 8.30pm this noisy eating spot is brought to silence by the maître d’ and the service staff hand out the words of the song What a Wonderful World. Louis Armstrong starts singing and everyone starts, a little hesitantly at first, to sing along. All the waiters are clinking glasses with the patrons wishing them cheers and good health.
Now that was remarkable.
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He was working with a call centre that raised funds for a university. He divided the call centre into three groups. Group 1 were reminded (using two stories) of the benefits of the job; how working there could benefit their own lives. Group 2 were reminded (also with two stories) of the impact their fund-raising was having on benefactors; how their work benefited the lives of others. Group 3 was the control, they received no intervention.
A month after the intervention the study found that people in Groups 1 and 3 showed no change in the number of donations or the amount of donation raised. Group 2, however, more than doubled the average number of donations (9 to 23) and the donation size ($1,288 to $3,130).
It’s easy to get bogged down in the doing and forget our purpose. And as you can see from Grant’s research significant productivity improvements can come just by reminding people why they are doing what they are doing.
It’s worth noting that these benefits come from sharing stories rather than merely passing on a point of view or a set of facts as dot points. The stories help people feel the impact they’re making.
Grant stopped after a month. In organisations we need to continue the process and embed the story sharing into day-to-day activities.
One-off storytelling has impact for sure. But systemic, repeated storytelling changes behaviour and creates deep capabilities.
Grant, A. M. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 108-124.
It’s not easy to be a good boss. In a 30 year career I can count three (thanks Walt, Amy and Steve). Stanford business professor, Bob Sutton, says that acting as a shield for your employees is one of the important tasks of a leader.
And being a good boss means fostering the culture and values of the company by taking a stand and doing something remarkable so people will tell stories about it over and over again reinforcing what’s valued around here. We call this story-triggering.
This story, shared by Sutton, conveys these sentiments nicely.
Lucas’ concerns were not shared by the two heads of the Computer Division, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. The pair had been responsible for some big innovations in computer graphics, particularly in the area of rendering, and they were optimistic that they could turn their animated dreams into a financially rewarding reality. Nonetheless, Lucas decided to appoint a new division president, Doug Norby, to reign the group in, and Norby wasted no time in pressuring Catmull and Smith to lay off employees.
Catmull and Smith couldn’t bring themselves to start sacking their colleagues. Instead, Catmull went to Norby and argued that the division needed to remain intact, that cutting up such a potentially valuable entity didn’t make sense. But the new president was having none of it. Norby insisted that he be given a list of names for dismissal.
The two heads dug in, ignoring Norby’s demand until, one day, they were given an ultimatum. They were to appear in the president’s office the following morning with a list of names, and that was that.
The next day, Catmull and Smith did what Norby had asked them to do. They walked into his office at the appointed time and put a sheet paper on his desk. Two names were written on it: Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith.
Norby backed down, and all of the employees of the Computer Division kept their jobs. So grateful were the staff to Catmull and Smith that they all chipped in to buy the two heads and their wives a well-earned night on the town.
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