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Understanding what work means to your people is the real key to greater productivity and higher
Understanding the personal meaning you find in your own work will make you
a more effective leader.
The collected stories of how people find meaning in their work is the source of
powerful corporate strategy and key initiatives.
I attended a conference in the miserable depths of 2009. Former Congressman David Stockman, who led the Of-
fice of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, was part of a panel discussion. The business
leaders in the audience were frenetic about the economic downturn. What’s coming next? What do I tell my
“What’s needed right now for businesses to stay healthy and survive the downturn?” I asked.
Stockman smiled. “Two things. Meaning and culture.”
We talk ourselves into recessions and we talk ourselves out of them, he said. When we’ve had enough pain, we’ll
begin to talk ourselves out of it. Stockman related that the most important things that keep businesses together
are meaning and culture, but no economist is going to run data on that because it’s the “soft stuff”.
But what is the “soft stuff”?
Everyone who works for you has a unique reason for spending most of their waking hours in the service of your
business. It goes far beyond the paycheck and the benefits. It is connected to something deeply personal. It’s true
for every employee from the custodial staff to the management team. And it is true of you, too.
Do you know what is meaningful to your people at work? Why is what you do meaningful to you?
We must answer these questions, person by person, in our businesses if we are to understand why and how peo-
ple are working with and for us - or, as important, why they are not. The culture and ethos of your business will be
The TAI Group
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uncovered by mining the personal stories and the collective narrative of your people for the shared values, princi-
ples and aesthetics at work that lie beneath the surface.
The soft stuff is really the hard stuff. It is what keeps people engaged, active and creative. It is what gives life to
your mission, your purpose and your planning. It is what brings and keeps teams together and it is the source of
problem solving and innovation. How do we apply ourselves to “the hard stuff” of culture and meaning in a way
that actually makes us better at being better?
For example, many companies start with a “vision statement” - a proclamation of mission and values. Here are a
- “Our vision is to be the world’s most dynamic science company, creating sustainable solutions essential to a
better, safer and healthier life for people everywhere.”
- “Our vision is to make the world a better place by healing one person at a time.”
- “It is our vision and goal … to grow and adapt our ever changing community and to provide the highest level of
service and protection to our citizens. With these goals in mind, they will be achieved and surpassed as long as
our employees are provided with the knowledge, tools and opportunities to meet and exceed all present and fu-
ture needs of our community within the scope of our service.”
In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown writes: “I recently spent some time with
the CEO of a company in Silicon Valley valued at $40 billion. “He shared with me the values statement of his organ-
ization, which he had just crafted, and which he planned to announce to the whole company. But when he read it,
I cringed: ‘We value passion, innovation, execution and leadership.’” He goes on, “One of several problems with
the list is, Who doesn’t value these things? Another problem is that this tells employees nothing about what the
company values most. It says nothing about what choices employees should be making when these values are at
Like McKeown, I get very confused when I read statements like these. Do they declare a mission? A vision? Goals?
Objectives? Strategies? I wonder what lies behind these grand and well-intentioned statements. What motive was
at work to create them? Do they reflect the voices of employees? Do they reflect cultural reality?
I define vision as personal meaning. Rather than something aspirational and future oriented, it is the world ac-
cording to you, right here and right now. Each of us is born with a unique way of seeing the world. This personal
view is as distinctive as our DNA. Personal meaning whispers to us in our intuitions and our new ideas. It is the
most valuable asset we bring to our relationships and our work. It is the source of all our action, motivation, goals,
missions and values. It seeks to express and fulfill itself in every aspect of our lives and our careers. Sometimes,
we sense its absence underneath our restlessness and dissatisfaction.
Often, this meaning is buried in the noise and busyness of everyday life but, even when we’re unaware of its pres-
ence and vitality, it is never lost. It calls us to listen and follow its guidance. It mandates action. It seeks fulfill-
ment. It will motivate us, individualize our paths, and validate our choices. When we are in sync with it, we experi-
ence a sense of rightness, clarity and gratitude.
In my experience, companies thrive when they have a clear, shared and lived vision - the way they see their world
and work in the here and now. Employees are loyal and engaged. The culture is rooted in shared values and prin-
ciples - personal responsibility and accountability are shared throughout the workforce. Goals, directions and
strategies are understood and embraced - purposeful action follows.
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Rediscovering Meaning at Work
Making meaning at work is the key to overcoming some of the biggest organizational performance challenges
businesses face. Underneath all of the confusion and chaos, there are commonalities around why people are there
and what they want to create.
Start uncovering meaning by exploring the personal values, principles and aesthetics of each individual. These are
“foundation stones” that guide how we choose to be, in relationships, in service and at work. This same connec-
tion to meaning guides and informs the life of the company. Shared meaning, and the way it informs strategy and
direction, makes the cultural rules clear and allows people to make choices about how they will participate.
Daniel Pink, like Stockman, sees the central role of meaning. In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates
Us he says: “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one
another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” The needs for connection, to
create, to contribute and to learn are the consistent, long lasting motivators in our lives, in and out of work. In
short, Pink says, “Meaning is the new money.”
And we find that meaning by starting with stories.
Starting with Stories
Stories are everywhere, every day. And we are all storytellers. Stories engage our imaginations and transport us
to places we might never physically go. They entertain and delight us. Stories impart lessons, values and morals.
They help us think differently, solve problems. They show us what is possible. They connect us and inspire us.
Stories stir our emotions, express our values and stoke our motivations. In his book Story, Robert McKee suggests
three drivers that move people to take action. The first is coercion, useful only when there is an imminent threat
and a potentially catastrophic outcome. Do this or else. The second is raw information. He speculates that this is
the most commonly used driver of action in business. Data are presented on a mountain of PowerPoint slides and
comprehension is assumed. Ultimately, “the data dump”, like coercion, fails.
The third driver, that actually moves people to take action, McKee says, is story. Stories connect information to
the human experience. When we can imagine ourselves in the story, in the action, we act.
In 2012 I started working with a global education publishing company in turmoil. It’s ability to thrive depended on
fundamentally changing the narrative and using it as the foundation for the turnaround. We had to start by listen-
ing to stories and discovering the narrative underlying the freefall. We started very simply. Traveling to seven town
halls around the country, I kept copious notes about what we heard when we asked the same questions to hun-
dreds of people.
Why this company?
Why this industry?
People answered our questions with passion and detail. They told stories about the company culture and what
wasn’t working. There were so many stories. I began putting them all together, looking for the common ground.
While we were hearing the stories of the employees, I was working to uncover the stories of the leadership team.
After a major restructuring, there were six new leaders around his table along with the two who remained. I want-
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ed to know who they were and why they were at the table. We began with the same three questions: Why this
company? Why this industry? Why now?
In three hour interviews with each team member, I did an archaeological dig into meaning. Why are you here? Why
are you in this industry that is in such flux right now? This industry is the wild, wild west. Why did you choose to
come into a business that is in a major turnaround?
When I teased all of the common themes out of the interviews, I brought the entire executive team together and
shared with them the significant alignment among them that had been uncovered. They said," We had no idea. We
hoped. We thought maybe. Now we know."
Another thing they didn't know was that what leadership team held in common was playing out in the information
collected from the town halls. I had all the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle. They fell into three major categories: values,
needs and concerns.
There was a phrase we heard over and over again in most of the locations and on the leadership team. People said,
“We’re asleep. We have the best content in the world but we’re asleep. We’re haven’t recognized our own power,
our own value.”
We’d found our overarching narrative for that first year - The Phoenix is Rising.
Meaning, Culture and Narrative in Action
Every anecdote we tell, every strategy we articulate, every policy we implement is a story in itself. And we hunger
for the leader who first recognizes the collective meaning of our everyday stories and then can then weave them
together, giving voice to the overarching journey we’re taking together.
Every organization has a narrative. Articulate the vast sweep, the journey, of your business and you and your peo-
ple will be moved by it together.
A fundamental job of all leaders is to be the narrator-in-chief, guiding employees by listening to their stories and
blending them into the narrative of where the enterprise is heading. The collective narrative invites dialogue, en-
courages alignment, creates context and illustrates meaning. And, most important, narrative meaning motivates
Our businesses, like our families or our country, are founded on a set of ideals, often unspoken and assumed.
When we don’t remind ourselves of these, we can lose our way. When there is no meaningful narrative, our em-
ployees can lose faith and trust. Leaders must be more than strategists, policy makers and managers. They must
be narrators first and strategists second.
Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And culture is in our collective stories - the narrative. This
underlying “why” inspires sharing between employees and their leaders and that relationship becomes the model
for relationships with clients, shareholders and others. The narrative is the thread that holds us all together and
provides the framework for where we are going.
At the beginning of our second year of work, the company took a very public legal step to restructure a multi-billion
dollar debt. The legal process took an excruciating nine months.
The public announcement caused a great media stir and the leadership team was concerned about the impact on
the workforce, knowing their response would affect the customer base. The leadership team communicated the
facts to staff in advance of the filing time. They reminded employees of the narrative, The Phoenix is Rising, and
explained that the legal action was simply removing one more layer of ash. When the news hit the press, it was a
non-event in the company.
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People said, “We know what our journey is. We know that this is not going to kill our company. We have a larger
narrative. We know where we're going, and we'll get through this, too.” A shared narrative caused stability, per-
spective and a sense of equilibrium. And much to most everyone’s surprise, business continued to improve.
As we investigated values with employees around the country, people were stunned to discover how aligned they
all were, with colleagues and with the executive team. In the history of this company, this alignment had never
been explored or acknowledged.
We then crafted their feedback into a statement that the CEO called a Credo. It brought all their values together
articulating a statement of principle. It did not contain any goals or objectives. Nor did it speak of a mission. It
was simply a declaration of principle, as in “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” It revealed principle, align-
ment, dedication, collective character and passion.
The executive team “ratified” their Credo and then initiated a year long process of sharing it throughout the organi-
zation internationally. This was done in small groups throughout all locations. Employees were invited to engage
in a dialogue about how they related to the Credo, what it meant to them personally and professionally and how
they could participate in living the values more fully every day. Additionally, they were encouraged to discuss how
the Credo could guide current and future initiatives.
The results on the bottom line were measurable.
Narrative is evolutionary, inclusive and dynamic. Connecting individuals to the business through their own stories
is a powerful tool. When we ask employees how their stories connect to others and to the larger sweep of the
business, we start to see things differently. A shared narrative heals relationships, breaks down silos and feeds
collaboration and innovation.
The Soft Stuff Really Is the Hard Stuff
Journalists have long known that a good narrative enables the reader to say: “That’s me;” “I wish that was me;” or
“I’m glad that’s not me.” Creating narrative and meaning are critical for employee engagement and retention.
In the wake of economic turmoil leaders need new strategies for connecting with and engaging employees in
meaningful and productive ways. A 2012 Global Workforce Study by Towers Watson entitled Engagement at Risk:
Driving Strong Performance in a Volatile Global Economy said: “Businesses appear to be at a critical tipping point in
their ability to maintain engagement over time.”
Among the recommendations made for creating sustainable engagement, the authors suggested that: “…the driv-
ers of sustainable engagement focus almost entirely on the culture and relational aspects of the work experience.”
Leaders must focus on demonstrating their own skills and abilities to manage the business while paying close at-
tention to the well-being of employees. The study specifically cited the need for employees to understand busi-
ness goals, the steps needed to reach them and how their job contributes to achieving targets.
Some years ago, I consulted to the new finance division of a large newly-merged hospital in New York. The merger
created operational and personal tensions described by some as “civil war.” Hostilities raged as a sense of loss and
fear spread through the combined organization. Staffs from both of the former hospitals were housed together on
a vast floor of cubicles. Rumors, resentments and conspiracy theories abounded. While one of the original de-
partments boasted an extraordinary record of customer services and balanced accounts receivable, the other
brought a dismal record and a growing pile of law suits. Circumstances deteriorated to the point that the still-
separate units were physically separated by a wide corridor dividing the floor, jokingly referred to as “no man’s
land.” Symbolism descended into farce as even everyday communications were sent by Federal Express.
Leaders responded first by walking around the cubicles, making small talk, patting people on the back and sharing
laughs. When that didn’t help, a public relations firm was hired to “define the values” of the new entity, complete
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with t-shirts, coffee mugs and screen savers. But the underlying narrative told of a botched takeover and a Dar-
winian struggle for ascendancy. Resentments deepened as 30 percent of the staff left in the first six months.
We started the turnaround with a series of small group discussions with the CFO and the management team. They
listened to each others’ stories of what had gone wrong before and after the merger, harrowing tales of wretched
performance, toxic relationships and cultural dysfunction. They feared that the reputation of the new hospital had
been irreparably damaged and that the new business would fail.
These stories were hard for the CFO to hear. But rather than retreat, he invited his team to be the founding mem-
bers of a “new business”. He knew he had to champion the new business and the efforts to engage all staff in
building the values, principles and ethics of this new entity.
The CFO hosted a town hall meeting for all 275 employees, and started with two simple messages - I’ve heard your
complaints and I’m determined to right the ship. For the first time in his career he was candid, using personal sto-
ries to illustrate and clarify his points. His larger purpose was to reveal the meaning that people found in the work
that they did, knowing that meaning would lead the way to growing a new organization. Through acknowledging
his own failures, he gave others permission to acknowledge their own doubts, fears and shortcomings.
The meeting was followed by a series of small group sessions to explore the tough question: Why are we here?
Much to the participants’ surprise, commonalities emerged. New dialogues and collaboration followed. One chas-
tened accountant said to another who worked on the other side of “no man’s land” that he had no idea that they
shared a similar underlying purpose to their work because they had never spoken before. Reports of a significant
shift in attitudes were plentiful. New alliances were formed and new ways of working were discovered.
Finally, a full day retreat for more than 100 employees representing all sectors of the division took place. Themes
which emerged from the small groups were shared, discussed and distilled into a collective statement ratified by
all. It read: “We Are a Healing Community.”
While on the surface it might sound like just another nifty inspirational slogan, this statement truly emerged from
the hearts and experiences of every member of the division. It was their stake in the ground about the values and
principles - not products or performance targets - that held essential meaning for every employee. It became their
new narrative and from it a new strategy for action emerged. People were liberated into their work. Sick days and
“personal” days, once widely abused, fell to negligible levels. The response time for customer complaints and con-
cerns went from more than 90 days to less than 30 days and, in time, less than 14 days. An employee survey six
months after the project started returned the highest participation rate ever and showed marked improvement in
satisfaction and engagement categories. In the year that followed, only one staff member left the group.
Examples like this underline a fast-growing awareness of the importance of meaning in our economy. The greatest
meaning of all comes from relationships: the relationships we have with our own work, with our co-workers and
leaders, and with our customers and clients.
The leadership team turned its attention to customer meaning. If information is really story in a different form, isn’t
looking at sales data reading a story?
This proposition went from concept to application as they road tested the practice of storytelling with clients. One
group of sales people said: “For the first time, we approached a particular client and we didn’t try to give him a
product solution. Instead, we told him about the journey that our company is on. We asked him about the journey
his company is on and we found that we had a lot in common. It opened up a whole new kind of conversation
about what we were about, where we were going and how we could help each other. The result is the biggest sale
we’ve ever in made that school district. And, maybe more important, a real partnership.”
Where is the company now it has a clear, shared narrative? Here are a few markers:
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new leadership team
a clear narrative
an organizational credo that is shared, understood and embraced financial stability
higher retention of employees
a culture that values the contributions of individuals
a learning focused organization that values personal growth and development
staff recruitment programs rooted in values and compatibility with the company narrative
a focus on creating relationships with clients
clear and institutionalized forums for ongoing communication and understanding the evolving narrative
collaboration across departments and divisions
“Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work is one of the most potent--and underutilized--ways to increase
productivity, engagement, and performance,” says Jessica Amortegui in her FastCompany article Why Finding
Meaning at Work is More Important than Feeling Happy.
And Clotaire Rapaille, author of The Culture Code, has defined a key aspect of corporate culture. His acronym "He-
ro In" stands for the phrase “high emotional return on investment.” He says people are loyal to a company be-
cause they get a high emotional return on their investment. They have an experience of the values and meaning in
their work. It connects to their emotion, their lived experience. They understand their company’s narrative.
Over and over, my work with companies and their leaders demonstrates that businesses change when they make
meaning central to the enterprise. Meaning revitalizes people. People understand what the business is about in a
new and compelling way. Collaboration, accountability and creativity become the norm. Strategy flows. Results
Story yields Narrative
Narrative yields Meaning
Meaning yields Alignment
Alignment yields Performance
Cultivate and give voice to meaning. It is the root, the cause, and the call to action for all that you do.
Allen Schoer, Founder and Chairman of The TAI Group, is a leading thinker and practitioner on the
topics of leadership, organizational and cultural alignment, and business performance. His con-
sulting is rooted in the investigation of creativity, vision, meaning and character. His perspectives
are based upon his work in the theatre as actor, director and producer, along with his experiences
in other disciplines. Allen has built a business and a practice that has successfully transformed
both leaders and teams in multinational corporations.
…………………………………………… THE TAI GROUP ……………………………………………......
150 WEST 30TH STREET – 14TH FLOOR NEW YORK, NY 10001 • (T) 1.212.924.8888 • (E)INFO@THETAIGROUP.COM
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