Arthur W. Page Society

Reminisce About the Future – It’s all in the Organizational Narrative

When Bill Taylor in a Harvard Business Review blog highlights the entrepreneurial power of imagining and living a differentiating future, he strikes chords that every CCO and creative PR agency leader should be able to harmonize to.

One of the strongest contributions a CCO can – indeed must – deliver is a mobilizing organizational narrative.

Done right, such a narrative will connect strategy and culture with the leadership’s ambition. It will appeal to the aspirations of the people in the company – and connect with its customers and stakeholders.

It is true, as Bill Margaritis pointed out in his excellent IPR lecture, that – in the words of Peter Drucker – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

So the narrative needs first to be true to the culture and the lived purpose of an organization.

But that is just the start.

A compelling corporate narrative shows the way forward – pointing out past failings, present challenges and the threats and opportunities waiting further ahead, sizing up the obstacles that the company will face. Its core must be a vivid picture of the desired future state.

The narrative needs heroes, memorable moments, crescendos and dull stretches, clashes of titans and a celebration of the daily humdrum efforts that connect strategy with reality.

When I started at Shell in 2005, the organization was drifting along, slowly emerging from a deep, draining crisis which erupted a year earlier after Shell had been forced to restate its estimated reserves of oil and gas – the key financial number besides production and profits.

In the turmoil that ensued, the CEO, the CFO and a division head lost their jobs and Shell temporarily lost its plot – not only in the narrative sense.

My argument, in a early board meeting to discuss our proposed new PR plan built around a new corporate narrative of four themes, was simple:

“The story of Shell as one of the world’s biggest corporations is being told – but not by us. The critical stakeholder story was grabbed by the NGOs in the late 90s and now the financial analysts have snatched the performance story.”

The board agreed with my focus on re-defining, as I called it, Shell’s “hill”. BP in those days held the green hill, and ExxonMobil the performance hill. What was our hill, how high was it, what was the view from there?

So we did what the Harvard story says, we reminisced about the future and imagined our way out of the doldrums – by organizing the narrative in a way that both squared with purpose, strategy and culture and teased out the differentiating aspects of Shell.

The four themes are still there – the energy challenge, technology and innovation, respect for people and the environment and becoming a preferred partner. About a year later, we added a dimension and talked about how the world needs more energy and less CO2.

This narrative became the beacon for all communications, internally and externally – from executive speeches over the corporate campaign and NGO-related communications to retail sales and PR.

An organizational narrative – reminiscing about the future – helped Shell find its hill.

Bjorn Edlund
Retd EVP Communications, Royal Dutch Shell plc
Principal, Edlund Consulting Ltd.

Exit mobile version