The Value of Corporate Myth

As the Ojai Storytelling Festival approaches, here is a borrowed post from Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea. Because of his dyslexia, Paul respects the oral tradition more than many executives, and never missed opportunities to swap stories with his coworkers.

The Value of Corporate Myth

Companies often rely on a handful of stories to define their culture. And those tales often grow like fishing stories. Kinko’s lore about the first shop, which was so small we had to wheel the copier onto the sidewalk to do business, provides a good example. Every time I overheard the story while traveling, the shop got a little smaller, and I expected to hear one day that I opened the first Kinko’s in a refrigerator box and had to produce my own electricity with a hand-cranked generator.

I’ve heard lots of stories about the company that bear little resemblance to the events I recall.  But if true stories evolved into myth over time, they did so to better communicate the culture’s core values. Like any other society, a company retells certain stories to indoctrinate new members in the values of the culture.

Kinko’s had creation myths, like the one mentioned above. We had hero myths, which included the story of store manager Frank Perez taking a very public stand against corporate mandates. We had sacred place myths, wherein executives bragged about their time spent in “the field.” And we had our flood myth, about recreating the business after a copyright lawsuit halted production of our primary product.

The creation myth expressed our belief in entrepreneurialism, the hero myth our support of free speech, the field stories our veneration of the frontline coworker, and the flood myth our adaptability and openness to new ideas.  The stories provided a common language for discussing these issues. Naturally, a company that promotes from within has an easier time holding onto its stories, but also risks becoming insular and arrogant. We need new stories, but it’s a delicate task to weave them into an existing culture.

Mergers and other business takeovers don’t always fail, but often fail to live up to their potential. New leaders have their own stories to share, or, lacking that, generic stories from popular business books. If the conjoined organizations’ stories do not express complementary values, the combined entity produces friction rather than synergy.

It’s one thing to buy a failing business and turn it around; in those cases one hopes to replace an inferior culture with a superior one. But when one buys a successful business, how do we avoid turning it around? Warren Buffett believes in a hands-off approach – he buys successful companies and stays out of their way.

At the very least, I think a successful merger or transfer of power requires a lot more anthropology and a lot less imperialism. We need to hear coworkers’ stories to understand their personal, often un-articulated values, because their values drive the application of their talents. And those individual talents drive the company.

Kinko’s founder and philanthropist Paul Orfalea is the author of Two Billion Dollars In Nickels: Reflections on the Entrepreneurial Life.

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