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Jon Iwata’s Lessons For Leaders on the Power of Storytelling

5 takeaways from IBM’s branding legend



For the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about—and working in—the world of corporate storytelling with my colleagues at Godfrey Dadich Partners. Many folks hear “corporate storytelling” and immediately think: You mean ads, right? PR and marketing? But how companies tell their stories in 2023 has moved far beyond catchy slogans or flashy campaigns. Those tactics don’t land like they used to for a host of reasons. The world is noisy—there’s too much coming at us, all day, all at once. It’s often too easy to forget what we just heard, if we even heard it to begin with. Increasingly, jingles just don’t stick.


What do stick are stories—especially stories told by companies that have something meaningful, and ideally useful, to say. And those stories may not even be about the company itself, but about the values the company admires or aspires to. I can think of few people better suited to speak to this topic than Jon Iwata, who spent decades with IBM, where he was the chief brand officer of a company the size of Iceland. He’s been a pioneer in the field of crafting company narratives, which is one of the reasons I was thrilled to nab him for our latest episode of Rivetedthe podcast that deconstructs that art of great storytelling that I co-host with Amy Wallace (and that is produced by Godfrey Dadich). Iwata spoke with passion and authority about why he believes companies must craft and share their stories, own up to their mistakes, and build trust.


“I don’t know how a business leader can be effective without understanding the power of stories.”—Jon Iwata

Producing compelling storytelling is a rapidly growing business, and there are tons of examples out there of people doing it well (think Patagonia, Nike, and Red Bull, for starters). For leaders who are still questioning why they should take this growing trend seriously and why it’s good for the bottom line and company morale, here are five key lessons I gleaned from Iwata’s interview:


 

Lesson 1: Understand what “story” means. If you want to change your culture, Iwata says stories are powerful tools, and you’re probably sitting on a treasure trove of them. “Maybe in business speak, we don’t say ‘stories,’ ” he says. “But we mean stories. Whenever you point to a role model, whether it’s a person serving customers or in the laboratories or fixing a problem. Whenever you hold up a person inside your company to say, ‘Here’s an example of a breakthrough, of going above and beyond, of taking on a challenge’—whatever it is, that’s a story.”


Lesson 2: If you don’t tell your stories, someone else will. “Stories are told whether they’re mandated by management or not,” says Iwata, referring to the stories your employees tell each other around the water cooler or the lunch table. “And that’s why that gap between what you say and the reality of the place is often communicated through stories.” If you seek out core stories about yourself, your people will come to see themselves as aligned with you, not shut out.


Lesson 3: Don’t polish the rough edges. “It’s important to tell stories of risks and failures,” Iwata says. If the only stories you tell about your company are “all just beautifully perfect stories of no setbacks, no mistakes, no disappointed customers, then what are you really teaching?” This is key to building trust, and something I think the C-suite (and let’s face it, our political leaders) avoid to their detriment. Own those mistakes!


Lesson 4: Give the gift of knowledge. Some companies are stepping up to fill in the gaps left by shrinking media and news outlets. It’s a responsibility no company should take lightly, says Iwata. “I don’t want to run boring ads,” he says, “but we have to expect more of what we put out into the world. I don’t think it’s a false choice between marketing, messaging, stories, ads, what have you, that are engaging and perhaps entertaining and ones that do more work that actually give you a gift of knowledge. Let’s try to do both in 30 seconds.”


Lesson 5: Play the long game. Don’t wait until your company is 100 years old, Iwata recommends, to ask yourself questions like: Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we believe? Because those questions will be at the core of defining how you tell your story. “Even if you’re saying, ‘Well, we have this fantastic product, everyone loves it, that’s why we’re growing and we’re going to go public,’ ” Iwata notes, “that’s not going to last forever….If you want a company that endures, then in the beginning, take the time to contemplate, meditate, and decide those kinds of questions, and it will serve you well because something is going to happen, like in every good story, that will confront you with the need for change and you will regret if you’ve defined yourself by that thing that was your first hit.”




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