Story. A corporate buzzword. Yet it takes courage to tell one, and even more to listen to the stories of the people you manage and lead.
Here Stuart Delves writes of a company that opened its arms to the stories of its people, and in doing so unlocked not only greater understanding but revealed a surprising harmony between their stories and that of the company’s own roots.
My legs were wobbling. I couldn’t control them. I was literally shaking in my boots. They were made of white rubber. Quick-to-hose factory boots. I’d stood in front of many audiences before and nothing like this had happened. But now, in said white boots and a white coat and wearing a green hairnet, I was standing in front of fifty or sixty stone-faced arms-crossed workers telling them that I was the factory’s ‘storyteller in residence’.
All of a sudden the word story sounded like a medieval maiden’s stitch work not the big corporate buzzword it’s become.
Story-gatherer, I qualified. Those gathered in front of me were a mix of tough-as-rivets Scots from ex-mining and dockers communities and migrant workers from Poland, Spain, Romania and Nigeria who knew a different kind of hardship. I wished I could swallow or at least distort the plum in my voice. Give me some guttural brogue. I could almost hear the hiss of ‘prat’ or worse – much worse. All of a sudden the word story sounded like a medieval maiden’s stitch work not the big corporate buzzword it’s become. No bones about it, I was frightened. But I ploughed on. What else can one do?
With a quavering sequitur I told the unmoved similarly garbed throng that I’d like each of them, when they came to see me either individually or in small groups, to bring two objects. One object should say something about their relationship with the firm and the other should say something about themselves outside of work.
The firm in question was Macsween of Edinburgh, a third generation family firm that had started out as general butchers before specialising in the making of haggis and black pudding and opening a haggis factory at Loanhead on the outskirts of Edinburgh. My client was Jo Macsween, joint managing director of the firm. She wanted to do something special to celebrate their 60th anniversary. She wanted to tell her family’s story but she also wanted in some way to include the stories of the sixty or so people who made up the company.
I’m happy to say that after the boots it was all ascent. For me at least: I’d girded up my loins, now it was everyone else’s turn. The two objects worked a treat. With the objects came stories – not of unicorns and secret trysts – but of struggles with cancer and hard drugs, deportation and the spectre of poverty. The objects and the non-judgemental ear of an outsider with a pad and pencil enabled people to really open up as to how they felt about their lives and their relationship with Macsween.
One burly man from Leith brought a protein shaker; he was a body builder and his time in the gym he told me, as if confessing to a priest, was a channel for all the anger he felt about his childhood and his broken marriage.
A young lad from the Borders brought a Bible and a criminal record. He’d hit rock bottom, a drug habit leading to a life of breaking and entry and petty theft. He’d been saved by Jesus but, more touchingly I felt, the significance of the criminal record was Macsween’s acceptance of him, warts and all.
Then there was an architect from Warsaw. Unable to get work there, now he was boiling offal in a kitchen that his Spanish co-workers said was hotter than the Canaries. For him there was just one object – his wedding ring. Everything he did he did for his wife and children. He held it aloft and the strength of that band of gold was never a more fitting symbol of unalloyed commitment.
A woman from Romania with scant English brought a wooden ladle. It was a memento of home, reminding her of family suppers sharing Toscana de vita or thick beef and potato stew. There was no slight intended to her current situation and, in fact, the common European heritage of transhumance, resulting regionally in hurka, kaszanka, morcilla or black pudding, where trickles of blood from the herded cattle mixed with oats or other meal sustained the drovers whilst preserving their valuable stock, proved an underlying bond amongst the international workforce.
These, and sixty other stories, were all from the heart. And that, with its concomitant vulnerability, takes courage.
These, and sixty other stories, were all from the heart. And that, with its concomitant vulnerability, takes courage. One manager said that I should work for the CID as I’d got more out of him than he’d planned to give. I’m not sure I actually did very much except listen.
For Jo this raw material was worth more than an official audit in taking the company’s pulse. There were, of course, things that she expected, moans and gripes and a guy called Brian’s pithy summary of ‘the money’s *****’. But there was stuff in there that I initially withheld as I believed it was below the belt. But Jo asked me to share it with her. I thought that was brave. This company was more than a business to her, it was her father’s legacy and she was fiercely devoted to his memory. Slurs hurt.
She was brave too when she read the script of the two-hander performance piece that I had suggested as the way to tell the confluence of stories. It pulled no punches. “I can sanitise it,” I said. “You’re the client.” She didn’t. John Nichol, a fine actor, and I performed it at the Miners’ Club in Loanhead at the end of January, the haggis-making maelstrom – without gloves. I was good cop and he was bad cop. And to raucous, incredulous, applause he said it: “the money’s *****!” It was some night.
The greatest moment of connection for me, between the stories of the workers and the story of the owners, was when I told how the Macsweens themselves, four generations back were – when they had to leave the Island of Skye as they could no longer make a living and walked all the way to Edinburgh speaking a different language – essentially migrants, down on their uppers. In fact, Skye to Edinburgh then was a much more arduous trek than a flight from Bucharest today.
The morale amongst the factory workers shot through the roof, not just for that evening but for months afterwards.
Was it all worth it, the baring of souls? I’d say. I had macho guys coming up to me afterwards, holding out their hands and saying ‘put it there pal’. The morale amongst the factory workers shot through the roof, not just for that evening but for months afterwards. When Jo met Brian in the corridor several weeks after the performance she asked him how he’d found the evening. He’d loved it. More than that, he wanted to let her know that, ‘that line, you know, the line about the money, that was mine!’ “I know, Brian,” said Jo, “My door is always open.”
Stuart Delves is a Director and Programme Facilitator at Invisible Grail.
Stuart writes for businesses and institutions across multiple platforms, and has worked with a number of universities on developing greater impact in academic writing.
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