A trip to Lynchburg, Va., last week to conduct focus groups for a client led to a serendipitous revelation about my ancestors. A fact that had lain dormant, there for the taking, led me to a new appreciation for the Hollands who came before me.
It was an overnight trip, so I decided at the last minute to drive 20 minutes down the road to the town of Bedford. My father was born there and it’s the place my family visited to see grandparents when my sisters and I were growing up. Bedford is a beautiful, idyllic town that sits at the feet of the Peaks of Otter, twin mountains in the Blue Ridge range. We could see the Peaks out the kitchen window of my grandparents’ house.
I visited the burial places of my grandparents, an aunt, two great-aunts and my great-grandparents. Though I never met him, I feel a kinship to great-grandfather William Robert because I imagine my uncle Robert took his name from him and that it was passed along to me.
When I came home the next day, I pulled out a family tree one of my great-aunts had created before she died. Lucy spent a lot of time tracing our direct line all the way back to Peter Holland, born around 1686 in England before coming to America sometime around the turn of the 18th century. But her research didn’t tell us where in England Peter lived and why he came here.
My 17-year-old son Max found the answers to those questions with a few mouse clicks. Peter came from Cheshire, England, home to a whole bunch of Hollands, and he came to America in 1699 as an indentured servant. Max also discovered that Peter’s son Charles and his wife died around 1767, leaving nine orphans (including my ancestor Stephen, who was just 7 at the time) in the care of church wardens.
There is much more to the story of how this line of Hollands moved from eastern Virginia westward and eventually to settle in Bedford. My dad has told me more recent family history: how my grandfather Arle ran away from home at age 16 because his father prohibited him from seeing a girl (it would distract him from chores on the farm), how he lied about his age to go to work on the railroad, and how that experience led him to the coal mines of West Virginia, where my dad grew up. I know about my grandfather being permanently disabled in a slate fall in the mines and how he kept working a variety of jobs despite constant pain.
I’ve passed these stories on to my sons. It’s important to know where you come from. It helps you understand who you are.
The same is true in business organizations. Smart companies understand the power of storytelling. They know how stories give us a sense of belonging and an appreciation of the stock (the non-financial kind) from which the company is built. Storytelling in organizations is worth the time. Stories look back on the past in order to build determination and commitment for the future.
I’ve worked for companies that use storytelling well. The rich history of AT&T gave employees a deep sense of pride. Similarly, its spinoff Lucent Technologies told stories of the brilliant minds that occupied Bell Labs, where the transistor was invented. At Capital One, CEO Rich Fairbank loves to tell the story of how he and co-founder Nigel Morris were turned down by every big bank except one, Signet Bank, which decided to take a chance on their innovative ideas for marketing credit cards.
Now, as a consultant, I work with numerous clients that harken back to challenges they have faced down through the years in order to inspire the sheer will and determination to make it through new difficulties.
There’s something invigorating about knowing your past. I think about Peter Holland and the sacrifice he made to get here. I think about his grandson Stephen and how, despite being orphaned, he propagated the family line (he and his wife Judith had 12 children, including my ancestor Charles Thomas Holland, born the year Thomas Jefferson was elected president). I think about my grandfather Arle and how his multiple injuries and disabilities didn’t keep him from lacing up his boots and going to work every day.
What stories are your companies telling and how might they help employees navigate these troubled times?