AMY LYMAN: How a Simple Action Can Become a Story

Special 12th Anniversary Guest Column

AMY LYMAN: How a Simple Action Can Become a Story

In the thirty years that I have been studying organizations and leaders, I’ve come to greatly appreciate the value of storytelling as a way of sharing values and lessons learned. During my time working with the 100 Best Companies, I’ve come across some fantastic examples of how even simple actions can turn into powerful lessons when stories about them are shared.

Stories place us in someone else’s shoes, help us to see the world through their eyes, and give us a chance to think about something differently. Leaders have lots of opportunities to tell stories as part of the guidance they share with colleagues and staff members, and their stories carry particular weight. Leaders are also the subject of stories told by others, with their every action being a topic for discussion.

I talked with Sally Jewel, the CEO of REI about one such story that involved three different parties – a father and son as customers, a sales team and Sally herself. It all started with the father and son who entered an REI store to do some shopping. The sales team they encountered provided caring and thoughtful service to the father and son who, it turns out, is autistic. That didn’t change the level of service they were shown, and that affected the father greatly, who wrote about his experience at REI on his blog, citing the quality of service he and his son received at the store.

Many people read the blog post.  Sally was one of them and she quickly sent an email to the team leader thanking him for his caring service and sent a personal note to the team members thanking them for their service as well.

This simple story went viral with a clear and powerful message. Excellent service will be provided to all, and customers are attracted to REI because of this. REI team members know that leaders pay attention to and acknowledge excellent service so in addition to the intrinsic reward of their human kindness on the floor, their caring service is also positively seen in the corporation. This makes it easier for REI to recruit new employees who want to work in a caring retail environment.

Sally Jewel feels great about the fact that team members care so much about what they do. She gets to lead a great group of people doing good work. Jewell’s quick action was an act of leadership that she engages in frequently. As I spoke with her in preparation for my book, I asked why she takes time from her busy schedule to do things like this. She told me it is absolutely critical to her success as a leader to connect with people throughout the organization and let them know that she appreciates their actions that reflect so well on the company’s culture and values. Others learn from her actions and the positive benefits are magnified, as now many people  latch on to a positive story that they keep on telling.

What’s your story? Remember to share it, and always continue to lead with your best self.

Amy Lyman is co-founder of Great Place to Work Institute and author of The Trustworthy Leader.

Looking for more about The Trustworthy Leader? Check out Dan’s interview with Amy Lyman. 

  • I am the adoptive parent of an intellectually challenged man, Kolan. I am constantly reminded of the greatness of the individuals in the many businesses and organizations that he uses everyday. The patient teller at his credit union that took the time to talk with him about the money counting machine that caught his attention and honored his request for new (not wrinkled) $20’s. The waitress at Mark’s Coney Island that waited patiently and willing repeated the ingredients of the various hamburgers on the menu. The Ann Arbor Select Ride drivers that make sure he gets to his various destinations safely and who have many times gone above and beyond to make sure he is okay. The entire staff at the Colonial Lanes Bowling Center that consider him part of their family, recognize his extraordinary skills as a bowler (8-300 games and 5-800 series) and include him in staff functions. Busch’s grocery store that has employed him for nearly 20 years. They provide him the support he needs to be a successful and valued employee. Without these and hundreds of other examples of people that value others, not just as part of their work ethic, but as great human beings, Kolan would not be nearly as successful as he has become.

  • The significance of Sally’s action and her perspective on the relationship with the sales team is an ideal example of effective and accomplished leadership. In my opinion, one of the keys to being a successful leader is to quickly recognize the contributions of personnel who perform their duties in a manner that has a positive impact on the organization. This acknowledgement to the team that highlights the value of their sevice is a leadership quality that strengthens the role of the leader but it also bolsters and enhances the organization. It sends a message that while someone is designated as a “Leader” the success of an organization and the pursuit of its objectives are dependent on more than on person.

  • I know just what Sally is saying, as I try to do as she does. In these days of electronic conversation I find a note sent by USPS mail is very welcome to the person I addressed. I, too, very much appreciate notes “in the mail”. The amazing thing is we do not know the level of appreciation even if the recipient lets us know, for this goodness can carry beyond the moment to affecting a life for a very long time. Thanks.

  • It is so important to notice and acknowledge the “good” in those we lead. A very wise educator once posed this question to a group of teachers in training: What’s the quickest, most certain way to turn a class of cooperative, well-behaved students into an unruly group of misbehaving students? The answer: Do nothing!!! Ignore the good behaviors, don’t comment, don’t compliment, don’t thank or praise students for their good choices. Don’t let them know they are doing what you want them to do… Yet, catching kids (or anyone) being/doing good is easy to do. And, it sets a up a chain reaction of positive reactions and results for all who are involved. Fortunately, I learned this lesson early in my teaching career and it has served me – and my students – well.

  • What an amazing & inspiring story! A couple of weekends ago I was in Minneapolis and was in awe of how my 3 year old son talked to the homeless folks the same way he spoke to the buisness men, Ah to be so young and pure that your mind is not yet filled with pre-judgement about people based on their apperance! It definately made me slow down and be able to appreciate people for who they are and not judge them for what they look like! What a blessing indeed!

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