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Leadership Development

The Power of the Past

It’s no secret that I was a history major, which obviously makes me slightly more inclined than the average American to advocate sharing stories of where we’ve come from. But I’m here to tell you that organizations that regularly and actively share stories of their past get better staff buy-in, make better decisions and probably have more fun in the process.

At first blush, someone could call this work “business history,” but that’s not really what I mean. While I’m interested in guilds, artisans, the first cheese factory in America (1851 in Rome, New York) and the early iterations of the Ford production line, I’m not really thinking about the trends and timelines of organizational development. Nor, with all due respect to the Renaissance, Paul Revere’s ride and the Russian Revolution, am I focused on the sort of straight history that they teach us in school. Instead what I’m talking about is how important it is that we, as founders and leaders of our organizations, take time to share our history with the people who work with us.

Becoming a Part of Something Bigger
After 26-plus years co-owning and managing our business, I believe with ever-greater conviction that everyone wants to be a part of something that’s meaningful, significant, lasting and positive. Everyone wants to know that when they sell someone a loaf of bread, a piece of pie or a bottle of olive oil, it’s not just to stick a few dollars in the cash register. Rather, we contribute positively to the quality of life of the customer who is eating the food, to the artisans who make it and to the community we live in. We also make a positive impact on building a special and strong business. This bigger view is a very real part of creating our vision for the future of our company. But an equally important part is what I call the “vision back”—more commonly known as “sharing history.”

Every organization has its own story to tell. But after even just a couple of years in business, it’s easy to take the early struggles for granted. You can get busy and forget to talk about the first successes and the laughter and the tears that together add up to make our organizations what they are today. If we don’t tell these stories, our employees will lose out on the chance to really appreciate what is almost always a really rich, interesting and innovative past.

Sharing First-Hand Knowledge
It’s helpful for anyone in a leadership role to tell the organization’s story, but the effectiveness of the effort is expanded enormously when the telling is done directly by the founder or from someone who’s been through things first-hand and has a passion for what’s been built. There’s no way around it—there’s just way more power when the message is personal and comes from the heart and the head of the person who lived the story.

Although we have more than 500 staff members now, co-owner Paul Saginaw or I still teach our “Welcome to Zingerman’s” class once or twice a month. In the session I review my background, the history of our organization and how we all came to be where we are 26 years later—going from about $350,000 in sales to about $35 million. Inevitably, in the group debrief at the end of the class, many new employees say that the company history is the most interesting thing they learned. (Other favorite topics from the session include the active role we play in the community as well as specifics I’ve shared about what makes our food so special.)

A few months ago, I saw another example of the effectiveness of this history-sharing while sitting in on a session that Seattle chef Tom Douglas put together for the 50 or so mangers of his restaurants, bakery and catering facility. I think that Tom has one of the best restaurant groups around—people care, they’re bought in, they’re exceptionally loyal and the food is really good. They have an impressive longevity in their upper-level leaders and throughout the organization. I say that so you know that most of the people in the room were familiar with how Tom and his wife Jackie got the business started back in 1989. But as part of sharing his vision of the future, Tom started out with a look back. He talked about his success as the chef of one of Seattle’s best restaurants back in the early 1980s. Then he covered what it was like to move on from working for someone else to trying to figure out what he was going to do on his own. He talked the group through the craziness of the early years of opening his own place (the Dahlia Lounge), the challenges of making the money work when there was very little of it, and the ups and downs of the economy over the 20 some years since. Throughout, he shared the sorts of laughs and laments that everyone who’s been through a bootstrap opening can relate to.

I stood in the back of the room listening, completely caught up in the power of what he was saying. It’s a great story. At first I thought that maybe it was just me who was so engrossed. But later I heard people who’ve worked with Tom for years talking about how great it was to hear the story from him first-hand. I guarantee that the ten minutes it took him to tell it made for a meaningful increase in the already high buy-in of the people in the room—the energy was palpable. And I’m sure that in both formal and informal ways, many of the stories Tom told will re-circulate and reverberate through his organization of more than 400 staff members. And I guarantee that the storytelling will help to make for a richer and more vibrant culture in what was, already, a positive and supportive setting.

Explaining the “Why” Behind What Happened 
If I bring up history to people who aren’t particularly enamored of it, their eyes glaze over and their minds start wandering, maybe even running, away from a subject they see as dry, boring and basically irrelevant. Non-history majors tend to take the topic to be little more than lists of names and dates. By contrast for someone like me who loves history, the dates are nice, but it’s the story behind the dates that makes the past come alive.

I don’t just want to tell people when we opened—I tell them what it was like at the time. I share what the town and the country were going through, and how it felt to go through it working seven days a week, opening to closing.

For people just starting work at Zingerman’s today—now that the Deli alone has more than 150 employees doing about $10 million in sales annually—it’s almost impossible to grasp the scale at which we began back in 1982. Telling them that the original building—still the entry point into the Deli—seated only 24 helps put things in a little perspective. So does sharing with them that for the first year or two we were open, there were people living upstairs in an apartment, a space that’s been the Deli’s office for as long as all but a handful of us old-timers can remember.

It is also important to talk about how, when we opened, one of us used to drive an hour each way to Detroit every morning to pick up the bread from the bakery we’d selected. It gives a sense of how determined we were right from the beginning to do what needed to be done to make our food great, even if the work involved was pretty unglamorous. While we might have had big ideas, it was a grassroots reality. What we do today remains, I hope, true to what we were thinking and feeling back in ’82. I then like to segue into our decision to open Zingerman’s Bakehouse in 1992—it gives me the chance to talk about why we did it. While most business people assume that we did it to make more money, the truth is that we were driven to be able to bake, and then sell and serve, more flavorful bread. And it lets me share too that back when we opened it, a lot of customers were not happy with what we were doing—people don’t like change and this move was no exception. It’s hard for new staff to comprehend when they see that the Bakehouse is now hugely successful and our bread and pastry are standards in our area.

Working in Stories Along the Way
Any time you’ve got people together is a good time to build in a bit of history. Big meetings, little meetings, classes of all sorts are set up to help us use this tool. When we teach about finance, we share the history of how ours has developed over the past 26 years. When we work on service stuff, we go over the timing of how our service training has improved over the years.

Aside from personally telling the story, you can also use a number of alternative methods. Cartoons, creative arts, fun films—as long as they’re lively and engaging—connect with people who like to learn that way. You could do it, too, with movies, skits, t-shirts, temporary tattoos or any technique that you think will connect with someone in the organization.

Telling Stories for Times of Struggle 
Some people see history as little more than a static, frozen-forever-in-time photo, but the reality is that the way it’s taught, interpreted and shared varies over time. It only makes sense to tailor which parts of it we tell in order to make the learning as valuable as possible to those who are listening. Different stories hit home for different people in different ways and resonate differently in different settings.

While it would be easy to hear all the kudos our organization has gained and think it was always that way, talking about how getting to success has often meant fighting through waves of nay saying helps get the message across that going for greatness is not always about doing what everyone says you should do. People who want to do great things relate to that, and those are the kinds of people we want to work with.

Marie Mourou, who works at the Deli, clearly connected with our story. When I asked her about the value of learning our organizational history as part of her initial training, her eyes lit up large and she said, “I think it’s great that you started the business when people were telling you that it was nuts to try. Anything that has to do with people being told they can’t do something gets me going,” she said to me with a big smile. It’s obviously gotten her going, too—she has degrees in political science and anthropology from McGill in Montreal and has done some interesting work in restoration of ancient art but works at the Deli because she loves the food and the culture, cares about the past and is committed to helping make our long-term vision a reality.

Pretty much all of us are currently faced with fear-provoking newscasts and doomsayers on the national economic front. Here at least, history helps put it in context. I try to tell people that in 1982, the economy was horrible and interest rates were 18 percent. I share also that the economic situation in Michigan has generally not been good for most of the 26 years we’ve been in business. While that history alone isn’t going to guarantee that we weather any in-the-moment economic storm, it does inform the state of mind of the people in the organization—if we’ve made it through this stuff many times before, then we can feel far calmer and a bit more confident about what’s coming up.

To quote from Charles Joyner, writing in Shared Traditions, these sorts of stories “provide the present generation with a sense of continuity with generations gone before, a precious lifeline to courageous ancestors, a source of strength that still enables us to cope with the hail and upheaval of life.” Knowing that others around you, and those who came before you, beat back the pressures of the time to help get to the success that we have now can be a big boost of energy. “If they did it, we can do it,” and, “If they made it, we don’t want to let them down,” are often common responses.

Creating a Better Shot at Future Success
When we share our vision of where we’re going with the staff, it’s not just about telling them where we’re headed—it’s about getting them to buy into that future and see it as their own as well. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if the people aren’t bought in, our vision isn’t likely to become a reality. Which means that part of our work is to get them excited and to help them see how the seemingly unglamorous little things that we all do every day play a critical part in developing this positive future. Sharing history is one surprisingly effective way to do that—the stories we tell about our past send messages that connect in ways that bring out passions in the people we work with. It makes them more excited about our future, and willing to work harder and more effectively to get there.

A long time ago someone taught me a Zen saying that goes something like “when the student is ready the teacher will appear.” It’s stayed with me, both in terms of my own learning and the learning I’ve been privileged to be a part of around me, because it’s proven true over and over again. I’ve certainly had wise people try to tell me things I wasn’t really ready to hear. No matter how hard or how often the teacher tried to get their message through to me, it didn’t sink in.

In that context, I’ve come to see sharing history as plowing the mental field. When we tell the story of how we’ve gotten to where we are, people are just significantly more receptive to hearing—and then supporting—where we want to go. When people feel like they’re a part of something important, something that’s been grounded and has given positively to many others before them, they’re just a lot more likely to see the positive possibilities of the future and get on board to actively help make them happen.

Tradition is important context. When you go play basketball for the Boston Celtics, or sign on to sing with the Metropolitan Opera, you know you’re building on a huge tradition, you know you’re part of the group that’s responsible for making it all the greater going forward. When I share our history in the Welcome to Zingerman’s class, I talk to new staff about how each of us who’s currently here has a responsibility to learn from, and then to build on, that past. That each of us has an obligation to take things to the next level, respectfully making things ever better in a way that pays homage to those who’ve done so much work to get us to where we are. It all adds up to make it just a bit more likely we’re going to get where we’re going in the way that we want to get there.

The truth of the matter is that there’s really little to lose by sharing vision back and a ton to gain. It takes only a matter of minutes to get it going. And because it roots people in a meaningful past and helps convey the importance of their role in carrying things forward, they feel better, their work is more enjoyable and we as an organization are more likely to get where we’re going. To quote again from folk historian Charles Joyner, “People who know where they come from have a better sense of direction, a better sense of where they are going and how to get there.” It really does work. For example, when I asked Mike Baptista, a manager at Zingerman’s Creamery, about this, his energy picked up immediately. “Knowing our history builds excitement. It makes me feel plugged in. I know what’s led up to me being here and how I fit into it. With everything in my life, I just feel more confident when I know the history.”