How To Better Honor Past Histories

We’ve all heard the advice; when you’re an exec or senior leader newly arriving at an organization, you’d best take the time to learn the “lay of the land,” getting to know the organizational culture well before you start making changes. Take the temperature before you get the cold shoulder, or find you’ve gone from the frying pan into the fire.

Sounds like good, logical, savvy advice, right?

Yet far too often I continue to hear from mid-level managers about the struggle they go through when new bosses start to let their impatience show, and get “unreasonably” assertive about their new initiatives.

“Why are we moving so fast!” the managers moan, “We need more time!”

“Good grief, it’s been over six months!” the bosses say, “How much more time do you need?”

It’s not the amount of time folks, it’s what’s done, or not done in that time. The sooner you get the right things done, the less transitional time you need.

The new boss might be a wonderful guy (or gal!) with a pretty exciting vision, one that everyone in the company wants just as much as he does. However managers currently in the trenches have to trust that good-guy new boss can pull it off with them and not in spite of them. They usually won’t award that trust to an initiative for the future until their new leader has demonstrated that he can also help them fix some of their old problems first.

The mistaken expectation that I see many new execs or senior managers hold, is that past history with existing problems and challenges is old news that deserves little more than archiving for memory’s sake. To say, “Okay, I’m aware of it, now let’s just forget about it and move on” is totally unrealistic.

I advise two things

  • Solve an old problem or opportunity before you tackle a brand new one. In other words, log an early win on a battle your staff is currently waging. Be the hero they haven’t had yet and you’ll win their trust earlier, trust you’ll need for your next battle. Be their champion before you even think about being a change agent.
  • Second, honor their past histories by collecting their stories and culling them for the values they’ll clue you into— the real values held; not the ones in the gold frame on the CEO’s wall. Learn to identify the difference between stories and myths.

Collect stories. Dispel myths.

Every company has a storied past. Are you aware what yours is?

More importantly, do you know why your stories are so important?

When old timers tell the newbies stories about “the good old days,” or “how it used to be here,” or “the first time we ever did this” what are they so fondly recollecting? Why in the world do they keep talking about past events, often making the retelling far more wonderful sounding than you remember actually living the experience of them?

Is there any value in this memorable nostalgia?

When stories are told in the spirit of retelling your company history, your storytellers are often capturing the memorable parts; what they remember is largely what they want to keep alive because it felt very good to them at one time. Stories of what had been give us a look back at those things we once believed in, and want to keep believing in. They reveal the values which had bound us together and still do, and why in the aftermath of the story’s events we kept pushing upward and onward. They often chronicle successes and achievements, and tell of what people feel was a victory, because by nature we want our stories to be good ones; no one likes to recount their failures. However whether victory, mistake, or outright failure, our stories undoubtedly recount lessons-learned too important to be forgotten. We feel we can keep learning from them, and we tell the story to re-teach the lesson.

Myths however, are a different matter.

I’ve learned to be more wary of myths, finding that for some reason, those who tell myths instead of stories need to fabricate a past that didn’t really happen. They want to feel better about explaining the present, and why things are as they are. What that tells me, is that our values aren’t aligned, and I’d best discover why that is.

Myths may sound plausible, but they are far more fiction than fact, and they are often riddled with half-truths and concocted history. They can be intriguing, they can be wistful and fanciful, but because they never really happened they don’t deliver those lessons actually learned, just the what ifs that might have been. The more credibility the teller strives to give them, the more dangerous myths become, for stated plainly, myths are lies.

With stories you have a solid foundation of the values which served you well; they become predictable values you trust to keep a company centered. Myths don’t deliver this foundation. Instead, they create a slippery iciness on which you frequently lose your footing. Because a myth isn’t completely true, you can’t be certain; you can’t be sure-footed and confident.

People who tell stories are proud to own them; they claim them as part of their own history. Those who tell myths are building a case for some reason; and great managers will work to dispel those myths so they can get to the root causes of why the myth exists. What they are looking for, is why the teller feels the myth must be told.

People only lie when they feel the truth isn’t good enough for them. However the great managers among us always prefer the ugliest truth over the prettiest lie, for that way they always know exactly what they’re dealing with. They honor the truth above all else, for in doing so they honor their own integrity.

Collect stories to celebrate the values you believe in, and use those stories to help people identify with those values and claim them with you. Dispel the myths and banish any confusion so that the truth of who you really are is honored.

~ Originally published in 2007 for Managing with Aloha and ~
~ Also published on Say “Alaka‘i” today
How To Better Honor Past Histories

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  1. says

    Good post! Thank you. Stories have always been important in my family and community. I remember as a kid just listening to story after story from elders in my family and church. Stories are how we live our lives. They’re how things are learned and retained. Do check out my blog on the pieces written on “storytelling.” You might find them interesting. By the way, I found your blog through William’s. I’ll return.

  2. says

    Aloha Judith, thank you for visiting. I did visit your blog briefly after reading your comments for William, however I will return soon to look for your story-telling posts – I appreciate your invitation. We do learn an incredible amount from the stories our elders share with us; they can be extraordinary in helping us connect to those values that seem to be part of our being from our very earliest memory.