012 – Harley Davidson promise

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 26, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

An organisation’s value is nothing more than a slogan unless it impacts employees’ behaviours. In this episode, we visit a Harley Davidson factory and see their company values in action.


As I write this post I’m sitting on the TransAlpine Railway about to head off from Christchurch across the Alps in the south island of New Zealand. I’m on holiday for a couple of weeks, so hopefully I’ll get Anecdotally Speaking out on schedule. If not exactly on time, I will only be off by a day or so.

Hope you enjoy the show and please make a comment below.

Podcast Transcript


This is Anecdotally Speaking, a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.


And I’m Mark Schenk. One of the reasons we have the podcast is to help people find great business stories but, of course, the next step that we talk about is how to use them in business. And I had this interesting conversation this morning that drove home why this is important.

I was on a call with the global head of leadership development from a big company and they’re looking at adopting our programme as their global standard for leadership development.

And she was talking about how they’ve tried a number of storytelling approaches, but she sees leaders getting up and telling stories and she goes, ‘and this guy was telling a story about when he was out on the water, swimming in rapid water, and I’ve no idea why he’s telling us this story, what’s the point? It’s like telling a story is just the end game.’

And I said, ‘well our view is that you don’t have a business story unless it has a business point and you are absolutely clear on what it is.’ So that’s one of the reasons why we do the podcasts in this way; it’s not just having the story but knowing when to use it. It’s your turn for the story this week, Shawn.


Yeah. I just wanted to make a comment about this whole point because the thing that we do, which I think really helps leaders is to preface their story with the point. I think people do this naturally in all sorts of environments but if you can be very specific about it, it just helps the listeners go, ‘oh so that’s why I’m listening’. But it also helps the teller work out what the point is before they even get started. So that connection is so vital.

But today’s story is about the importance of bringing values to life, making sure you really precise about how you speak to people. I heard this from a friend of mine who used to run tours take business people to companies to the U.S and all around the world. And they would go in and observe and learn about the best practices of the company.

And the company this time was Harley Davidson.


Hey, there’s a big Harley Davidson store just around the corner.


Indeed, so we’ve seen those big hogs zip past our office many times. And the thing about this example is that she said she was in a Harley Davidson factory and there all the machines were coming off the line.

But in this case, they were in a big meeting room and all the managers were presenting their targets for the upcoming quarter. And one particular gentleman (let’s call him Jim) is standing at the front of the room and he’s going through his presentation and the senior leader is sitting in the audience.

And Jim says, ‘this particular target we’re going to go for…’ and he gives the number. And the senior leader in the room says, ‘Jim, tell me is that a promise?’ And Jim goes, ‘it’s not really a promise but we’re really going to drive hard to make it happen. We can’t promise but we’re going to do our darned best.’

And the reason he was so cagey about that is that one of their values is that we deliver on our promises. And so, this leader was just making sure that the language used—if you make a promise you got to be darned sure that you’re going to deliver on it. And there was a great conversation around that.

But it was a great illustration of this issue of making sure that the language is used in a way that people really understand what they’re suggesting, what they’re putting out there for the rest of their colleagues to follow.

So, that’s my story. What do you think of my little story?


I like it.


It’s a small one.


The issue of values, it’s one that comes up all the time. Most companies have got values and often there are definitions of their values but they’re kind of a bit wishy-washy. I can’t remember the name of the book, but I love this little quote. ‘The values of many companies are like talismans that you hang on the wall to ward off evil spirits.’

The story we’ve just heard is a great example of a leader proactively bringing that value to life.


Yes. Now, I reckon it would generate a really interesting conversation. We’re not saying don’t promise things. I could see people, the risk averse, saying, ‘O.k. I’m not going to promise anything’. That’s part of it.

It’s about being very clear for when you can promise.  And hopefully you promise and over-deliver.


That’s my preferred strategy.


Yeah, definitely. That’s one of those ones to bring that strategy to life. So, what makes that story work? What are some of the elements that help that story come to life?


I guess the simplicity of it. It’s just a very simple story; the leader just asks a simple question and from that he helps bring the values to life.


So, it’s not hard to remember is it?


Very straightforward. Is that a promise?


In fact, that line is all you have to have to remember and the rest of the story just emerges around that in terms of how you tell it. So, in my story bank I would just put ‘Harley Davidson—is that a promise?’

I think the other thing too is that it’s a recognizable brand. As soon as you mention Harley Davidson, people understand what that business is about. It’s a global business. It’s renowned if you like for its values, it’s idea of freedom is their promise. It’s an iconic brand.


Another interesting thing is that our stories are about senses, imagery, emotions and sound. You say Harley Davidson and I can kind of hear it, not the least because Harleys go past here all the time. It does work because of that brand.


Actually, I’ve been thinking; there is a distance element to stories. This is a new idea I’ve been thinking about. We are most interested in stories that are close to us in all sorts of different ways.

So, if, for example, an event happens on your block, around the corner, say someone gets injured around there you really want to know about that. If something just happened yesterday you’re more interested than if something happened 10 years ago.

And this one is a distance in terms of relationships; I know Katherine, she was there. So, it’s like 1 degree of separation between me and this event. It would have been even better if it was me in that Harley Davidson meeting. That would make it an even better story.


So, I’m looking forward to a long blog post about separation and distance.


I think so. It’s coming; I feel it. So, what do you reckon in terms of where would you use this story? What would be the times where this would be a useful thing?


A lot of organisations are realising that one of the things they need to do is to have accountability. In fact, accountability might even be one of the values. If you wanted people to be accountable you could say, ‘well here’s what they do in Harley Davidson. And the leader actually asked, ‘is that a promise?’ I want you to think about this, folks.’


It struck me when you said that, this is how people would normally do it, a non-story. They’d say, ‘you know what they do in Harley Davidson? Whenever someone makes a promise or comes close to promising they are challenged to see whether it’s a promise or not.’ That’s what they would say.


That’s like the statement version.


That’s the non-narrative version. They don’t think they need to go into the scenario, the meeting and what Jim said; that’s what brings it to life. That’s what makes it interesting. That’s what makes you feel it.


Alright, backing away, Shawn. It’s so true. It’s about moving from statement to story, from assertion to anecdote. And it’s such a simple transition but we don’t often do it; we just do exactly what you said. But people don’t feel that. They can’t see it.

And the other reason why that story works—it’s so simple it’s easy to picture.


You could probably even do a little more work on it. If I knew what that factory environment actually looked like—my friend’s version would be a far better version than mine because she was there she could paint that picture.

But anything that helps people see it, hear or smell it (any of those senses). Where else would you use it? I guess it’s that illustration of how do you bring those values to life? Whenever someone is thinking about initiatives.

I like to say these stories are like a user manual for life. It gives you exactly what you need to do. So, if you’re talking to a leader and they’re grappling with how do I bring these values to life, well you can tell the Harley Davidson story.

It’s just one little example of how they’ve drawn something from the values into the day to day. And the great thing is sometimes HR and the people who get that job of ‘are you looking after values?’, which is really dumb.

Sometimes they’re separated from the hard numbers of business. This is another nice thing about this story; you’ve got the values attached to the numbers of what’s being turned out at the end of the factory floor. That’s another nice element.

Right, now where do we need to go, Mark?


Scoring is the next step. So what score do you give that?


Because it’s such an easy story I’ve got two things in mind. One, it’s easy to tell but I haven’t really caught myself telling it, so I then question just how versatile the story is. So, I’ll give it a 7 as a result of that.


You’re absolutely right. For me it’s a very practical story but it didn’t have wow. I’m sure that Katherine, who was there, maybe she could add the wow; the look on the manager’s face. So—7.

So that example of bringing values to life using stories has triggered some experiences of your own where you’ve seen values brought to life. If that has happened we’d love you to go to the podcast page on our website,, and for this episode tell us what your example or experience is about having seen values brought to life. And hopefully we’ll all get a bunch more stories to put in our story bank.


Yeah, we’d love to see those. Well guys I think that’s a good time to wrap this episode up. Thanks for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and tune in next week for another episode on how to put stories to work.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

One Response to “012 – Harley Davidson promise”

  1. John Groarke Says:

    Great simple story.

    Do you have a story about an enterprise’s purpose? This one was about mis/alignment with values … so a story about mis/alignment with purpose.

Leave a Reply



Send this to friend