The Power of Story in Building an Employment Brand

Some years ago, I was conducting a focus group for a large multinational financial services firm. The group consisted of eight or nine participants, but three individuals really stood out. The first had been an administrative assistant for 18 years, and was competent and outspoken. She complained that her manager took credit for her ideas and excluded her from important meetings where key decisions would be made that could impact how her department ran.

The next participant that made a strong impression on me was a financial analyst who had been with the company for eight years. She, too, had run into some career roadblocks. Her boss would actively block her from presenting new ideas that could have increased market share and that would have raised her profile in the organization with important executives. She just needed access to these people. To counter this, she asked two individuals to serve as her mentors. She made sure these mentors were in the upper chain of command of her boss. With this access, she could slip in the conversation to her manager, “So I was talking about my idea to increase the Chicago market with Beth. You know, your boss’s boss, and she seemed receptive.” This active networking and mentorship resulted in not one, but two promotions for her in three years.

At this point in the focus group, I suggested to the administrative assistant that perhaps she should try to reach out to a mentor to help her move her career along. Her surprising response was, “Oh no! I love my job and would never want to move on. A little recognition every now and then might be nice though.”

The third key player in our story then made his bold statement. A young expat from India, who had to this point been quietly listening, suddenly pounded his fist on the table in anger. “That is not fair!” he exclaimed, “My work speaks for itself. If I do a good job, I should receive the recognition, rewards and promotions that I deserve. I should not have to go around arranging coffee dates just to make friends in order to advance.” This added a terrific spirit to the conversation, but it also underscored the importance of fitting into the company culture.

To form a cultural profile of this company, I could have listed many of the cultural traits revealed through scientific data, including:

  • Managers control career pathing.
  • Networking is crucial.
  • Mentors have a place in advancement.
  • You are in charge of your career.
  • Build a personal brand because your work will not do it for you.
  • If you need recognition, you might look elsewhere.

But instead, it was important to let his story serve as reinforcement to the authentic organizational culture. Often, as practitioners, we may forget just how powerful stories are in building an employment brand. But this was a lesson I would never forget.

In uncovering the true cultural essence of a company, it’s essential to let the stories create, form and shape the culture and expression of the brand. While it may be easier to “just get the data and build the model,” this scalability bandwagon removes the emotional impact needed when building an employment brand and employee value proposition. Why is this true? Because it is stories that hold power in a company—and those stories come from employees who live and experience your cultural brand each day.

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