Storytelling Emerges as Hot Management Tool

Article excerpt

By Claudia HY. Deutsch N.Y. Times News Service Stewart J. Leonard Jr., president of Stew Leonard's, the Norwalk, Conn., food store known for its customer service, loves to tell employees the tuna fish story. It goes something like this:

"I unwrap one of our tuna sandwiches, and this package of mayonnaise rolls out. I figure, the sandwich has enough mayo already. So I call Bill Hollis, my deli manager, and tell him, get rid of the extra mayo, it's expensive.

"So next week, I open a sandwich, the Hellman's pops out again. I call Bill again, and he says, you gotta talk to Mary Ekstrand, she makes the sandwiches. I call Mary, who says, `Sorry, Stew, the customers want the extra mayo, so I'm packing it again.' You know my reaction? Bravo, Mary!"

No one is likely to option that story's movie rights. But it sure serves Leonard's purposes. It shows him as an involved manager who tests products, questions procedures and cares about costs, but cares about satisfying customers and empowering workers even more. And it praises Bill and Mary for recognizing those priorities.

"Making employees giggle with a story is a better way to teach them something than reciting a list of rules," Leonard said.

Storytelling, an art generally associated with parents, standup comics and anthropologists, is emerging as a hot management tool. Numerous business professors and consultants, including fad master Tom Peters, are touting it in classes and workshops.

The Journal of Organizational Change Management devoted its entire summer issue to storytelling as a way of diagnosing an existing culture or promulgating a new one.

"The best way to pass on a company's cultural themes is by telling stories," said David M. Boje, editor of the journal and an associate professor of management at Loyola Marymount University.

Added C. Warren Neel, dean of the University of Tennessee's College of Business: "A good company uses its oral legacy to embellish its history and focus its aspirations."

That certainly describes how David Armstrong, vice president of Armstrong International Inc., uses stories. The industrial equipment manufacturer, based in Stuart, Fla., doesn't even have a policy manual. But it has stories galore _ bound in books, hanging on bulletin boards, framed on office walls.

Each is one page long, each was told by an employee to Armstrong, who wrote them up.

There's the one about the man who had bypass surgery and alerted the company to hospital overcharges. …

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