“Story telling is the essential human activity. The harder things get, the more essential it is.”
– Tim O’Brien
I was thinking about this quote after the surprise virtual happy hour on my 40th anniversary with Austin. An amazing number of well-wishers were on the Teams call which demonstrated how much technology has benefited our human interactions over the past few months. Trying to greet the huge number of people lining up on my small computer screen got to be a bit awkward, so I shared a few stories about my 40 years with Austin. The fact that many were still on after more than an hour of reminiscing hinted that telling a few stories might have been a good way to connect with everyone.
The aspect of my history with Austin that I think is of greatest value and interest to most employees is made up of stories. Stories about projects. Stories about people. Stories about mistakes and achievements. Before the internet, before printing presses, before the written word, stories were passed on from one generation to the next because they were important. They had value. Simply, they gave directions and a basis for living better lives from one generation to the next.
In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek likens businesses to the brain. The “why” a company exists correlates with the limbic brain, that part of the brain that controls emotions, feelings, and decision making, but it has no capacity for language, which is why some say, “it felt right” or “my gut instinct”.
The following is an excerpt from the book:
“Put bluntly, the struggle that so many companies have to differentiate or communicate their true value to the outside world is not a business problem, it’s a biology problem. And just like a person struggling to put her emotions into words, we rely on metaphors, imagery and analogies in an attempt to communicate how we feel. Absent the proper language to share our deep emotions, our purpose, cause or belief, we tell stories. We use symbols. We create tangible things for those who believe what we believe to point to and say, “That’s why I’m inspired.”
Austin has more than 140 years of stories. These stories are what make up our corporate values of Team Building, Innovation, Passion, Get it Done, Own It, and Committed to Service, which are all distilled from stories told about great Austinites past and present.
Consider this: we are 142 years old this year and we have a handful of employees who have worked for Austin for more than one-third of the company’s existence. How does that happen? Think of the people they worked with, the projects they were involved in, the achievements and the failures they have witnessed. Think of the stories they can tell. Exactly!
After our virtual happy hour, I spent much of the evening thinking about the people who most influenced Austin’s reputation and culture as I was coming up. Wally Edwards went from Houston to Irvine and built a powerhouse of a business unit. Bob Leishman, Ralph Luke, and Jim Peterson were instrumental in the design and construction of most of Boeing’s facilities in Everett.
Norman Vincent led our UK subsidiary to become a leading pharma/life science design builder in the UK. Art Kage opened the office in Kansas City in 1973- a very creative and innovative leader. I worked with Art for 11 years and learned a lot from him. It wasn’t until he died that I learned he was in the Army in WWII and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Floyd “Brownie” Higgs, a Texas born Native American who was a great architect, musician, and eternal optimist. Brownie took on some of the toughest assignments Austin had, and nailed each one of them. He was also the strongest advocate for The Austin Method and was passionate that the Austin Method and aesthetic design were not just able to co-exist but were interdependent.
Bob Spangler was our laboratory architect. He was one of the most passionate architects I ever worked with. He insisted on “living” with the client’s user groups while he did his planning and design, and sharing ideas and layouts with the users and facilities teams to achieve a design everyone felt was optimal. Bob might be gone for eight to ten weeks for major projects. Needless to say, when Bob was planning the laboratory client satisfaction was never an issue.
Coming up, these men were giants. They, and many others, were impressive in what they had to offer me in terms of business, technique, managing clients and people, and really being genuine. It was a gift to have exposure to them. Exposure to them, in retrospect, gave me exposure to the stories they told about the giants who influenced their careers.
Why does Austin have so many long tenured employees? What occurred to me thinking through these stories and histories was that none of them were about Company presidents. The president’s job was—and continues to be—to give the opportunity to the story makers to create stories, memories, and legends that are true, teach values, and sustain Austin. The opportunity to create stories, to be part of them, gives meaning to your work. It is motivating.
Importantly, we exist to do great projects for great clients. Projects, project teams, and the experience gained by working together is the backdrop for these stories and legacies and is in the character shown by these giants. It is serving clients that brought us together to experience each other, mentor, teach, and model how it should be done.
From Samuel Austin’s humble confidence in starting this company, it was never about him. It was about the customers and finding a better way to serve them. It was about allowing employees to exercise ingenuity and innovation to achieve that goal. It allowed employees to create their personal legacy within the context of the Austin legacy. These legacies are interconnected and interdependent. They are interwoven. They are a fundamental part of our WHY.
In years to come, many of you will be the subject of stories in one way or another. Each story adds its own innate value to the organization. That value builds company value over time, day by day. It is who we are. Personal legacies and Company legacies interwoven into the fabric of a culture.
What will your story be?
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
– Eudora Welty
“If you wish to influence an individual or a group to embrace a particular value in their daily lives, tell them a compelling story.”– Annette Simmons“Most journalism is written in reports or articles, not stories. The goal of reports is to impart information. The goal of stories is to impart experience. Reports use language that points you there. Stories use language that puts you there.”
— Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar, The Poynter Institute
“Stories are the way to capture the hopes, dreams and visions of a culture. They are true as much as data are true.
The truth of the powerful and irresistible story illustrates in a way data can’t begin to capture. It’s the stories that make you understand.”
— Carl Sessions Stepp, professor, Philip Merrill College of Journalism