Monday, April 30, 2001

Daily Grind

Let me tell you a story...

        Jessica Selasky, president of the Maineville-based Confidence Builders, has a go-to line she tells clients to use when speaking to a group and the audience is instead focusing on the window instead of the words.

        The line almost always works and triggers something deep inside most listeners, perhaps taking some back back to their childhood and bedtime:

        “If you say those magical words: Let me tell you a story, everybody stops what they're doing, and they start paying attention,” she said.

        “It always works. People look up and listen. Once you start telling a personal story, people feel like they know you better.”

        The power of stories helped turn around the workplace culture at Armstrong International, a Three Rivers, Mich., company that manufactures pressure valves, pumps and humidifiers and has about $100 million in annual revenues.

        In fact, stories have replaced the dry company manual at the 40-year-old firm and now fill a three-ring binder that is distributed to all the workers.

That family feeling

        David Armstrong, the chief financial officer, a decade ago was worried that his family-owned firm was losing the sense of togetherness that is sometimes critical to committed workplaces.

        His challenge was how to get back the sense of connectedness that was prevalent at the firm before longtime employees, some with four decades of experience, began to retire.

        Newcomers did not attend companywide events like picnics.

        Coworkers' names and the family nature of the place were gone.

        Mr. Armstrong decided he would post success stories on bulletin boards throughout the plant - stories he gathered from employees about the employees themselves, about their work or their families.

        Soon, a book materialized and that, too, was distributed to workers.

        “People still read them,” said Kim Lucas, a human resources assistant at the company.

        “In fact, we've gotten quite a few requests for copies of the book from people outside the company - that's how popular it has become.”

        Jamie Walters, founder and president of Ivy Sea Inc., a business consulting firm based in San Francisco, thinks that blending company manuals with stories was a terrific idea.

        “Most companies have a regulation-heavy, legalistic manual. They are horrible to read,” she said.

        “That's frightening to a lot of people and limits the personal connection.”

Manual skills

        The company, which specializes in interpersonal and organizational communications, urges clients to personalize company manuals with anecdotes, stories and parables.

        “Just about everybody has a memory of an oral history,” she said. “We have a yearning to connect with the personal, a yearning to make a contribution and make a difference.

        “And reading a list of infractions normally contained in an employee handbook does not help us to do that.”

        She said dry regulations cannot be avoided because companies must work in a litigation-heavy culture.

        Often, company founders want to avoid lawsuits, and that's understandable, she said. “But on other hand, you end up with an employee handbook that says nothing about company culture,” she said.

        “Other than you better not do anything wrong.”
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