Management by ‘Storying Around’

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“Management by ‘Storying Around’”

David Armstrong takes a novel approach to communication.

In the late ’80s, David Armstrong, COO of Armstrong International, began to worry if bigger was necessarily better.Armstrong International, Three Rivers, Mich., produces traps, pressure valves, condensate pumps, humidifiers and transfer coils, with annual sales exceeding $100 million. Armstrong’s concern about the double-edge sword of growth began a decade ago when a large group of employees retired — workers who had been with the firm for 40 years. As new employees replaced the veterans, Armstrong saw the company culture changing: Co-workers didn’t know each other’s name anymore; family picnics weren’t being attended. "As you get bigger, communications can break down. I didn’t want to lose the family flavor," says Armstrong, who is fourth generation at the company. Forget About Memos Deciding that storytelling would be his new mode of management, Armstrong began to write "success stories" about his company and employees. Topics ranged from how to find new sources of profit to customer service issues. Starting out with a three-ring binder, Armstrong today has some 400 tales under his belt, with three books in print and a fourth in the pipeline. How you write and use the stories is important, stresses Armstrong, who likes his anecdotes short and sweet with a moral tacked on to the end. "If you don’t give a moral, your people may interpret the story incorrectly," says Armstrong. Listening Harder Storytelling subconsciously alters your leadership style. "People pay more attention to you, and you pay more attention to them," says Armstrong. To get something to write about, a leader has to get out of his office and mingle. And when employees know they’re being heard, they listen harder. Armstrong uses his stories to motivate, reward, train and even hire. Turnover at Armstrong International is in the low single digits, which is "off the charts" compared to other companies. Armstrong attributes much of the high retention to improved communication and morale that results from storytelling. Reducing Rules Another payoff: Stories eliminate, or at least reduce, the need for lots of rules and regulations. Armstrong’s books now supplement the company’s policy manual. Intriguing anecdotes are far more likely to be read — and remembered — than a dry company manual, maintains Armstrong. Storytelling is a great management technique for any company, regardless of size, stresses Armstrong. "They are simple, timeless and demographic proof," he adds. "Everybody, regardless of age, race or sex, likes to listen to stories." Writer: TJ Becker
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