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Sequencing Stories: Michael Margolis sees storytelling as the DNA source code for culture

Contributor:  Jeff Cattel
Posted:  03/18/2014  12:00:00 AM EDT  | 

Rate this Article: (4.6 Stars | 8 Votes)


Asking Michael Margolis, CEO of Get Storied, "so, what's your story?" is a little like asking a butcher "what's the best cut of a meat?"—at least insofar as it's the kind of question both are asked with a frequency bordering on absurdity. So I was surprised when I did ask Margolis, rather than spout a ready-made answer, he paused to think. He tilted his head down, off screen—we were chatting via Skype—the brown curls atop his head the only part that remained visible. A few downbeats passed, he looked back up at the screen and then entered into a succinct narrative highlighting the most relevant points of his personal history catered to an audience with a firm understanding of learning and development. If there's one thing Margolis understands more than the power of narrative storytelling, it's audience.

Get Storied bills itself as an organization at the intersection of innovation design, storytelling architecture and anthropology. The company is broken into three business segments: corporate advising, corporate training and development, and a forthcoming university platform, Story University. Get Storied has continued to expand in recent years, most notably with the addition of Story University, which is set to launch in May. But the concept of corporate storytelling didn't always seem like a pragmatic or sound business strategy. When Margolis first hung out his shingle as an organizational development consultant a dozen years ago, he made no money in his first six months.

He was ahead of the curve, a stranger in a strange land, he says. The feeling, however, wasn't unfamiliar to Margolis, who was raised in Los Angeles and Switzerland to a scientist father and toy designer mother. Margolis has been comfortable with—or at least aware of—culture shock from an early age.

And this attempt to enter the world of OD wasn't Margolis's first time in the field of learning and development, either. He graduated from Tufts in the late '90s with a degree in anthropology and opted to go what academics would term the "pop anthropology" route instead of the more traditional archaeology or cultural anthropology career paths. "What interested me more was the implications of our existing time and age right now," Margolis says. "Our culture was transforming before our eyes. It was the early days, but you could really smell it." Margolis set out with a focus on how we as workers, leaders, even most broadly as humans create culture.

After college, Margolis entered the world of social entrepreneurship and was a founding member of two startups. One, CitySkills, helped bring inner-city adults into high tech jobs. Margolis was named part of "Training's New Guard" in ASTD magazine for his work with CitySkills.

It was in these early years that Margolis came to the realization that "storytelling is the DNA source code for culture." The revelation remains revolutionary, even today, in a business environment where leaders across industries want to talk about culture—especially creating intentional and innovative culture—yet the term remains something you can't quite touch, something you only know when you see it. "Everybody talks about how culture eats strategy for breakfast, and people recognize the importance of culture," Margolis says, citing one of Peter Drucker's most famous quotes. "But we don't really know how to functionally move in that landscape. Culture, as I define it, quite simply, is just the stories we share in common."

In the last five years, the business world has caught up with Margolis and his focus on storytelling and culture. An essential part of storytelling is understanding “we all see something different, and we go through life trying to get others to see what we're seeing," Margolis says. Collecting disciples to follow your next big idea using the power of narrative has been the focus of many recently popular books: Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, Seth Godin's Unleashing the Ideavirus, and Chip and Dan Heath'sMade to Stick. Margolis attributes the newfound popularity of storytelling and culture in the business world to the rise of social media, which brought about the idea that everyone has a story, and led to what Margolis terms "the humanization of business." "Senior level leaders need to communicate and relate to their people in a whole new way," Margolis says. "They haven't been taught how to manage in that environment, and that's where the power of story from a personal development, as well as from a leadership perspective, is such a linchpin."

Margolis helps senior level leaders craft and communicate their company's story and mission through Get Storied's corporate advising business. Right now, for example, Get Storied is working with the largest faith-based hospital system in the country. The healthcare industry is in a state of upheaval with new regulations, expectations and compensation methods following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. "We're working with the CEO and her executive team on how they tell the bigger story of healthcare reform and the changing needs of patients," Margolis says. "And then we're focusing on what is unique about this hospital—it's innovation laboratory—and how that makes them well-positioned for the transformation in healthcare." The advising takes place through one-on-one coaching with the CEO on how to articulate the hospital system's vision and personal story, and then in larger meetings with the executive team to create alignment along a common story. "With a leadership or executive team, there are sometimes competing story lines," Margolis says. "That creates a derivative effect down the line where middle managers, much less frontline staff, aren't connected to the bigger story."

Get Storied also conducts corporate training series for corporations, such as Bloomberg, SAP and Tata Communications. The training takes place through a series of workshops for building storytelling as an organizational capability and teaching employees how storytelling aligns back to their business drivers.

After working with dozens of corporations, Margolis wanted the principles of storytelling to be available to the masses, so he developed Story University. The university platform, which launches in May, includes four levels of curriculum delivered via a blended learning approach—an online learning platform anchored with live, in-person trainings in the Bay Area and New York. For all the attention that storytelling has received in the last few years, Margolis notes that there are only a few dozen books on the topic out there. Story University aims to fill the gaps. “Our mission is to democratize storytelling,” Margolis says. “Our end goal is a world where every leader, every entrepreneur, every innovator, every changer maker is fluent in the language of narrative.”

This sentiment echoes the kind of grandiose, social good mantras employed by the world’s most innovative corporations. The goal of democratizing storytelling for all might seem lofty, but this wouldn’t be the first time that Margolis was ahead of the curve, a stranger in a strange land.

See Michael Margolis disucss how storyteling humanizes employees' experience in this quick video here.

Jeff Cattel Contributor:   Jeff Cattel

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