Number 8 in the list of top ten leadership stories is a “How we’re different from our competitors” story. In other words, a marketing story. And I think every leader at a company should be able to tell one story like that. If you work in sales or marketing, you’ll need several. But no matter what function you work in, every leader should be able to explain how their company is different from the competition.
My favorite example comes from Sharad Madison. He’s the CEO of United Building Maintenance, which is a commercial cleaning company. So, they’re the folks who come in and clean your offices at night. And there are a lot of companies that do that. So, when he’s calling on a new prospect, he could give them a list of the reasons he thinks his company is better. But, instead, he tells them a story about what he typically does when he gets a new client.
He says, “For example, when we took over the contract for the Verizon building in New Jersey last year, we had a 30-day transition period, as usual. So, I did what I normally do in those situations. I sneak into the building in the middle of the night to see how they’re cleaning it.” Now, it’s not as nefarious as I just made it sound, because he gets permission to do it. Because it turns out, most of those employees are contract workers, and he’s going to inherit them at the end of the month. So, he wants to know if they’re well trained and equipped to do the job.
So, he’ll explain, “We found a guy on the first floor vacuuming the carpet. And he was using the same kind of residential-quality vacuum cleaner I use at home. Now, those hallways are twelve feet wide and over half a mile long! Can you imagine trying to clean it with the same machine you use at home? It would take a week, and it still wouldn’t be very clean. Plus, that machine is going to break down every couple of weeks. It’s just not made for that kind of use. So, when we took over, we ordered him a triple-wide, industrial-strength cleaner that will do the job in less than half the time and last forever.
Then we went to the next floor and found someone shampooing the carpets. And it was the same kind of story. He was using the same kind of squeeze-bottle, walk-behind shampooer that I use at home. So, when we took over, we got him one of those commercial-grade, riding shampooers! It does the job in a fraction of the time, lasts forever, plus it gets the guy off his feet. That means I have fewer workman’s comp issues, which means my client has fewer workman’s comp issues.
Well, then we got to the offices and started looking at the top of the file cabinets. You could see half-moons swiped out on top. And I know exactly what that means, and you probably do, too. So we went to find the people who dust those cabinets. When we found them, my suspicion was confirmed. Those cabinets were the standard 5.5 feet tall and several of the people cleaning them were shorter than that. So, they weren’t lazy. They just weren’t tall enough to reach all the way to the back. And that’s what leaves the half-moon shape. The truth is, they’d be better off not cleaning it at all since it’s the contrast between the dusty part and the clean part that makes it obvious that it’s dirty. So, when we took over, we just gave them all 18-inch plastic extension wands so they could reach all the way to the back. Problem solved.”
Now, imagine instead of telling that story, Sharad had simply said, “Look, there are three reasons we’re different from our competitors: we use triple-wide, industrial-grade vacuum cleaners, commercial-grade riding shampooers, and 18-inch extension wands for dusting. And that’s why we’re different.” And that would be true, right? Those are his three key differentiating characteristics. But, hopefully, you can see that just listing your features and benefits isn’t nearly as compelling as the story. Because, now that you’ve heard the story, you can see, in your mind’s eye, that guy riding around on the shampooing machine like the Zamboni driver on an ice-skating rink. Right? You can see someone easily reaching the back of the file cabinets with an extension wand. A story will always be more effective than a list.
Okay, in the next lesson, I’ll share an example of a leadership philosophy story, and then we’ll move on to how to choose the right stories to tell.