Make Your Employer Branding and Onboarding More Fascinating With a Compelling Origin Story

Jean Hoffman and CatDoes your company have a compelling Origin Story? If you do, are you  using it to its fullest advantage or is it more of a best kept secret?

If so, you’re missing out on a powerful tool you could be using to make your employer branding, hiring, and new hire orientation more fascinating and inspiring.

In a previous ERE article, 5 Kinds of Stories to Tell During Onboarding, I included the Origin Story as one of the key stories to include in your onboarding process. In this article, we will focus on this one genre and why it is such an important part of your talent management arsenal.

First, though, let’s go deeper than the obvious answer to “What is an Origin Story?”

It’s far more than a fact-filled documentary about how and when your organization got started. It’s not the workplace equivalent of the high school history classes you snoozed through because they were filled with dates and events to memorize … but no stories.

Your Origin Story is a drama and a mini-documentary. It tells of the motivation behind the creation of your organization. It speaks of the difference your founders wanted to make in the world, the problem they saw and decided to solve.

When done well, your Origin Story accomplishes three things:

It addresses the human need for meaning, purpose, and the desire to make a difference — psychologists and sociologists have noted for decades that the need for meaning and purpose, and the desire to feel like our lives matter, are fundamental human needs. When people don’t feel like they matter, when they feel rudderless, they suffer from ennui and depression. Conversely, when people feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, they spring out of bed in the morning and face challenges with optimism and determination. At the heart of all successful enterprises is the feeling of “We are part of something great. We make a difference.”

While all people desire meaning and purpose and the desire to feel like they matter, research shows that the millennial generation considers this a make-or-break factor when deciding where to work and whether to stay. This extreme importance is reflected in their job interviews. Recently, a white-haired CEO shook his head and laughed as he shared the following observation with me: “I can’t believe how often this new generation will say things in interviews like ‘So … what good things are you doing in the community.’ I would never have dreamed of asking that during a job interview.”

Because the new generation places such a high priority on being part of an organization that is making a difference, you want to make sure you communicate that. Your Origin Story is one of the ways you do this.

It speaks to the desire people have to be part of something greater than themselves, something of which they can be proud — while everyone wants to be part of an organization they can feel proud of, it’s even more important to A players. They want to be with other A Players doing important things. Your Origin Story, along with your “Here’s why you can be proud to work here” stories, speak to this need.

It helps people bond to you because it humanizes your organization — Your Origin Story, especially when it includes your challenges, takes you out of the realm of corporatespeak sameness and puts a human face on your organization. The business truism “People do business with people they know, like, and trust” holds true for employees — both prospective and current. They are far more likely to want to learn more about you, and come to work for you, if they can connect with you at an emotional level. They are more likely to connect with you at an emotional level if they know who you are and what you’re about, than if communicated in the impersonal, carefully crafted way so often practiced in the business world.

An example of a compelling Origin Story comes from  Jean Hoffman, founder and CEO of Putney, Inc., a Maine-based company that produces  generic medications for cats and dogs.

Putney is not only on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies, it was also identified by Fortune magazine as the 10th best small to mid-sized company to work.

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In an interview with Jean Hoffman, I asked how she uses stories in her role as leader. I asked her if there were any particular archetypal, “go to” stories that she used, whether in communicating with the marketplace or with employees.

In this excerpt, she shares her favorite.

You can listen to her tell her Origin Story (about four minutes) or read it below. I recommend listening for maximum effect.

It is a stellar example of a compelling Origin Story that communicates: “When you become part of this company, you become part of an organization that is doing important things in the world.”

As you listen (or read), notice the rich detail in her story that not only makes it easy to picture the scenarios in your mind, but also makes it more interesting. Notice also the human element and how it makes it easy to bond to Jean as she tells the story.

The most archetypal story here, at least in my mind, is the story of my first inspiration about starting a generic drug company for pets, which involved an old cat of mine who’d been rescued from a shelter.

We had an old cat named Dude. Dude had been adopted from an animal shelter in East New York. My husband at the time and I went to adopt one cat, and we came home with two cats because this cat Dude was just so sorry looking that clearly no one else would adopt him and clearly he would be euthanized. We just felt sorry for him.

When he first came home he was the most terrified cat. He obviously had had something terrible in his life and he was severely underweight. He spent most of his time hiding in the back of a cabinet by the dishwasher where it was warm. He didn’t even come out.

He turned into the most wonderful loyal member of our family. He would go for walks with me when my son was little. He slept with my son. He sat next to him on his dictionary when he was a little guy and a little bit of a sloppy eater, and Dude would reach out with his very dexterous paws and very gently sweep a little piece of scrambled egg over to his side and eat it.

As Dude got old, as is common in many older kitties, he developed hyperthyroidism and he had to have medication, initially once a day and as he got older his condition worsened and he had to have it twice a day. It cost $30 a month for the cat, and the medication had to be split in two which wasn’t easy. I had to get the pill in Dude, which also wasn’t easy.

I did some homework. Being in the generic drug industry I knew how to think about developing drugs. I thought there should be a cat formulation of this that is the right dosing for this little animal that is palatable so he’ll want to take it on his own and not require me to stuff it down his poor little throat, and that is affordable for people who can’t afford $30 a month. Later on it was $60 a month for my cat.

So that was really the genesis of thinking about the opportunity and the crying need for a generic drug company that would develop drugs for pets, and a company that would solve some of the dosing issues in cats which are a very under-served market. Even the Big Pharma animal health companies, they don’t develop many drugs for cats.

Now, put yourself in the role of a job seeker and you have three job offers.

  1. One from a company that is offering you an attractive salary and benefits package, period.
  2. One from a company that offers the above, plus has won a Best Places to Work award.
  3. One from a company that offers the above, plus its mission is about doing something really important in the world and making a difference.

Which would you be most drawn to?

Now … picture yourself as a new employee participating in orientation. Would you find it inspiring to hear the fascinating story of why this organization you joined was birthed? Would it make for a more inspiring first day than attending an orientation program dominated by  administrivia?

Obviously some organizations have more heart-warming missions than others. If you are in a more mundane field, there was still a reason why your company was founded. There was some problem to be solved, some need that wasn’t being met, challenges to be overcome. That being said, one of the coolest Origin Stories I’ve heard comes from a brewery: Steam Whistle out of Toronto. (I’ll be telling that story in a later article.)

To Put This Into Action

  1. If you already use an Origin Story, examine it — Is it more of a fact-filled documentary or does it tell a fascinating story? Does it address core human needs that influence who job seekers are drawn to and whether employees feel inspired?
  2. If you don’t have a clearly articulated Origin Story, find out more about the beginnings of your organization — What prompted its creation? What important problem was it formed to solve or need filled? What makes it special? For the “extended play” version, what challenges did your founders face and overcome? The more you address the human element, the heart and soul of your organization, the more you touch people at visceral, emotional level. And that’s what moves people to become part of your cause and want to give it their all day in and day out.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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