The week of March 16, 2020 was as dramatic as any in our nearly 20-year history. It was akin to a fire drill where we may as well have shouted “Get out of the building, grab what you can, call us when you are home and safe.”
The weeks that followed discouraged me. I actively wondered if all was lost. The beautiful company, space and culture we so lovingly crafted were instantly and unceremoniously dismantled and spread across our local county, every human apart from the other, connected only by thin electronic tethers. Our beloved High-speed Voice Technology no longer workable. The human energy fostered in the physical space depleted. The in-person camaraderie a fading memory.
Our only hope, it seemed, was a quick return.
The Chief Optimist Contemplates a Title Change
Beyond CEO and Co-founder, the team bestowed an additional title on me years ago: Chief Storyteller. They likely would have added another if there was room on my business card: Chief Optimist.
Those early pandemic months did not have me feeling optimistic and stories were unfolding that I didn’t want to tell. Lost and delayed contracts, financial losses, diminishing cash reserves, furloughs, layoffs. 2019 was our best year ever … 2020 was supposed be too.
Not. Even. Close.
Revenues dropped by 60%. I scared my co-founder on one particularly tough day by uttering the word “retirement” twice. We were back to startup mode, to being early-stage entrepreneurs. Radical reinvention, new experiments, new practices, new approaches, new clients, were the call of the day. I blinked. I thought … “I’m not ready to start over again” … “I’m not sure I can conjure the energy.” All of this darkness was doubled for me, because my own work life had changed dramatically: no more flights, no more keynotes, no coffee shop meetings with new and old friends, no tours to lead, no classes to teach. My calendar, which had been impossibly full just a few weeks before was now an open vista. Where would new clients emerge if our tried-and-true paths to increased connections was also shut off?
And our most unique offering of all … High-Tech Anthropology®, was built on the very idea of in-person visits, observations and interviews. This is how almost all new projects at Menlo begin.
The Saving Grace of an Intentionally Joyful Culture
The save began with a simple sentence from Mollie, one of our senior High-Tech Anthropologists®, as we contemplated how we would serve our newest client, a Texas manufacturer who needed our help with an already twice-failed ERP implementation:
“This will be so exciting to figure out how to do this remotely!” she said with enthusiasm.
In that moment my eyes opened wide … I looked around (as best I could from my remote home-based outpost) and I saw the same kind of excitement, enthusiasm and energy from all of the Menlonians. The developers were easily remote-pairing every day over Zoom and Google Meet, the High-Tech Anthropologists® were making remote observations work, the project managers immediately switched to electronic versions of our paper-based planning systems, the abundance of teammates we had that weren’t doing billing work focused their attention on rebuilding workshops into online offerings and crafting a far more disciplined CRM (customer-relationship-management) system that was much better than what we had ever had. Our back office team did as much as they could to trim thousands of dollars of expenses per month to conserve cash. We established a weekly financial review with the whole team, paying attention to cash, receivables and sales pipeline. We applied for and received a PPP loan with the help of the wonderful team at Bank of Ann Arbor. James and I were guiding, coaching and encouraging the team. New, strong leaders emerged. They were bringing optimism with them. I tried not to let too much of my inner dark business thoughts & worries invade the conversations. All of the challenges were an existential threat for sure, but we were still alive. Our cash reserves from our best year ever helped cushion the blow.
It was during these times when it became crystal clear that when the storm of the century hits, a strong foundation of an intentionally joyful culture provides everything you need to withstand the forces at work against you. We needed the joy of Menlo now more than ever.
Telling New Stories in New Ways
In early June, we ran our first ever “Virtual Tour of the Virtual Menlo” for our good friends from Baptist Memorial Health in Tennessee. I think both sides of the tour were surprised at how well it went. The word-of-mouth from one nice social media exchange afterward got our tours off and running again. Since early June we have virtually hosted over 160 tours, 22 workshops, for almost 1,200 visitors from six continents, 49 countries and 31 states.
Every visitor wants to hear our stories of radical and fast re-invention. Many visitors know us pretty well (at least they know the in-person Menlo) from the books, talks and in-person tours. They want to hear what new stories have emerged, how did we do it, what’s hard, what isn’t, what’s working, what problems we still haven’t solved, what does Menlo’s future look like post-pandemic.
We share stories of pain, struggle, conquest, perseverance, success and hope. The stories are often personal, as a different pair of Menlonians join each tour for a virtual visit with our guests. They share their personal journey from work-in-person to work-from-home.
Storytelling is back at Menlo and, just like before, it is not all from the Chief Storyteller.
Many of the stories are the personal ones we tell each other … Sarah tells us about her three cats, we celebrated Dan’s purchase of his first house, George and 22-month-old Elsie (Menlo baby #24) who comes to “work” with him and we get to see how much she’s grown since she came into the office every day in 2019. Nick’s life since moving to Moscow. The travails of having young school age children during a pandemic from Emily, Lisa and Andrew. We are getting to know each other so much better now. We can use these stories to develop a deeper understanding of each other. It’s one of the ways we combat the isolation and loneliness of the pandemic.
The stories we tell during the tours include the troubles, our response in the form of experiments, which ones worked, which ones didn’t and how we adjusted, and perhaps, most importantly, the stories of why this still feels like Menlo, even when we are not all together.
The power of stories during this time is not to be underestimated. While our visitors are on the listening end of the storytelling, our team is right there too. The stories we tell are also being listened to in the hearts of every Menlonian. We need these stories to remind us of the mountain we are climbing. It is our chance to stop, turn around for a moment, look back down, and see just how far we’ve come.
And the day we had been waiting for since the pandemic began: Our first Extreme Interview (our unique audition-style approach to a group interview) since the hard times hit. First interview of the pandemic, and the very first virtual interview of potential new team members. The day of this event was almost prophetic: February 11, 2021 … the 174th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s birth and exactly six years shy of our then-2027 vision story.
We are once again busy and needing to add people. And the Extreme Interview is our signature dish for both selecting new team members and once again telling the stories of our history, our culture, and our purpose. You see, your intentional culture should be present in every story you tell and in every process you use.
Our culture and our storytelling were the critical lifeline of this difficult time. They didn’t just save us from financial failure but also from emotional failure. The storytelling culture of Menlo is intentional, ever present and instilled in each of us. As I wrote in Chief Joy Officer, storytelling “connects us from heart to mind, from spirit to body, from concept to reality.” If, as Peter Drucker so famously stated, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” it is storytelling that sets the table for that meal.
In a future post I will describe concrete steps you can take to establish a storytelling culture within your own team. We are in the early stages of designing a storytelling workshop to get you started.
As an easy first step, try this: ask a person you’ve known professionally for a while and ask them to tell you their life story. Ask them “Tell me where you were born or grew up, and everything that’s happened since then that has shaped you as a person.” And then listen. Really listen. Just as leaders also need to know how to follow, storytellers need to know how to listen. I can guarantee your life will be enriched.