We were driving home to Denver after a weekend in Vail, Colorado, when my wife turned to me with a pained expression on her face and said, “I’m not completely sure I shut off the oven back at the house.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The snow fell heavily around us, and we were on our way up Vail Mountain. It would be five more miles in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the pretzel-like sections of Interstate 70 before we could turn around at Vail Pass. Then it would take another half an hour to retrace our route back to Vail.
And, oh by the way, the property where he had visited was owned by some close friends of ours, so the road conditions weren’t the only stressful part of the drive; the last thing we wanted was to call with any bad news about their home.
The story of the stove comes up often between me and my wife. Just about every time we take a trip, in fact, we’ll sit in our car in the garage and run through a final checklist of things that needed to be done or packed or otherwise remembered. And, of course, I always finish that discussion with a smile on my face and the same question on my lips: “Did you turn off the oven?”
She laughs (or I wouldn’t keep doing it). No harm came to the home in Vail, so we can joke about the memory. We have lots of those types of callbacks, some mainly involving her, some that mainly involve our children, but most, I suspect, involving some combination of my bad, silly, and embarrassing moments. We also make a point, however, to remember the victories, especially the ones that didn’t come easily.
These Ebenezer Stones lighten our spirits and encourage our hearts, and they are exactly the type of things leaders need to emphasize with their teams.
I’ve seen this done in formal ways, like with stories about the amazing volunteer work done by our employees when I was at Prologis. We devoted time at every town hall meeting for storytelling, and it was one of the highlights of our times together. Or the engineering firm in Seattle that recognizes employees with a monthly “Osprey Award” to honor someone for living out the company’s values. The award got that name because of a project manager who went above and beyond the call of duty to safely relocate an osprey nest that was discovered at one of the company’s worksites.
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The pandemic has given teams across the globe opportunities to rise to all sorts of occasions, and many of them produced trials and triumphs worthy of memorializing in some form or fashion. Some moments weren’t particularly consequential to the business, but they were amusing reminders of how life was enjoyed together. And while some of those memories might merit formal recognition, it’s often the informal that ingrains it in the culture.
Typically, it starts with, Remember that time … Then it calls back something worth resharing. A funny moment on a Zoom call. A heroic effort to win a client. A significant sacrifice so that everyone got paid on payday. Bad news that was delivered in a tense moment but that brought everyone together and made the team stronger. Or a good-natured prank during a team-building event.
Maybe it’s just a simple call-back line that lands an insider joke. Something like Need some creamer for that coffee? or Did you try the windshield wipers? might seem oddly out of context to some, but cause others who are familiar with a story behind them to break out in laughter.
Storytelling brings teams together and sustains cultures for the future. So don’t let those key memories go up in smoke. Turn around in the snow if you have to. Retrace your path up the mountain if you must. And regardless of whether the gas is still on, never forget the journey and how you went through it together.
Thanks Walt, Beautiful story, and I completely agree on the value behind callbacks with colleagues and loved ones. My wife and I have a similar one when I realized, at the airport, that I had I left our passports at home. Also another one, when she can’t find her cell phone, I ask her “have you looked in the shower..?” because that where she misplaced it once back in grad school.
hope to see you soon.
Great examples! It’s having a shared confidence that breeds both familiarity and trust.