How do you build a Story Driven Company?

A few weeks back we looked at how to have a brand that stands out, one that has no competition because it’s just different than the rest. While there was lots of good in Badass Your Brand, it felt like it was lacking to me in some of the “how” metrics. How do you communicate your badassness to your market?

You can listen to this review on Should I Read It. Make sure you subscribe to Should I Read It so you don’t miss a book that matters.

This is where Story Driven, by Bernadette Jiwa is supposed to help us. Jiwa wants to help us tell our unique story to our clients and to our organizations in a way that helps us live it out and stay true to who we really are.

Whether you’re an individual or you’re representing an organisation or a movement, a city or a country, Story Driven gives you a framework to help you consistently articulate, live and lead with your story. This book is about how to stop competing and start succeeding by being who you are, so you can do work you’re proud of and create the future you want to see.

By telling our story, and living it, we stand out instead of becoming reactive to what everyone else says is important to us and our market. This book is the antidote to competing on the metrics of others.

We have become reactive to the competitive landscape, rather than responsive to the needs of our communities—those people we hope to serve. We are so focused on the competition, or even the threat of it, that we’ve forgotten to double down on what makes us and our work unique and valuable.

Story Driven is broken up in to three parts. The first part is designed to help you find your story. Part two is supposed to help you build a story driven company, and ends with a number of examples of the stories inside companies and how they are lived out within the framework of Jiwa. The third part is Jiwa walking you through questions that are supposed to draw your story out of you.

Before we dive in to the full content of the book let’s look at the two types of companies that Jiwa says there are.

Whether it’s articulated or not, every business is driven by one of two philosophies. A company is either competition-driven or story-driven.

To Jiwa a competition driven company is all about beating your competitors. It’s about profit and being bigger than others. The goal is to be the biggest and “win” which could be putting everyone else out of business.

While a story driven company doesn’t abandon any thought of money, they don’t focus on it. Instead they obsess about what is best for customers and they focus on how all parts of their work relate back to their sense of purpose.

In contrast, the story-driven company is responsive to customers and prioritises having a clear sense of purpose and identity. It makes little reference to the competition and is intent on creating an impact.

I wonder about this hard distinction though. I could sit around and tell you all about my purpose, but if it doesn’t pay the bills does my purpose matter? Without some tie back to a financial reward for me (or your company) then I won’t be telling you about my purpose for long because I’ll be lifting heavy stuff on some job site or writing code for some company.

So many self-help and business books seem to have these high minded ideals that you focus on purpose, but when the rubber meets the road for readers I wonder how they accomplish it? It’s easy to say just follow the story that is you and then…money. But when you’re staring at yet another bill for new figure skates, it’s hard to live that ideal in the reality you have.

I do love the sentiment though. Especially this one:

Great companies have something in common: they don’t try to matter by winning. They win by mattering.

Do you matter? Do you provide value for your customers? If not, you’re not going to win.

The Reason a Story Matters

First off, we just enjoy stories. I have a few friends that tell amazing stories. As they start you’re already expecting a laugh. You know you’re going to be amazed that something could happen to someone in real life.

More than just laughter though, a story define who you are. It makes you real to those around you. It helps explain why you care about what you care about. As Jiwa says, it helps you resonate with your customers.

The first step to resonating with customers is to stop pretending and have a clear sense of our own identity. Instead of just using storytelling as a marketing tactic, we need to do what our ancestors did for millennia—allow our stories to guide our actions, deepen our understanding and create meaning and belonging.

So, let me tell you a bit of my story. My dad worked in tech. He had a 2 hour commute on bad days as he tried to make is way in to Toronto to IBM. In my younger days he flew all over the world for IBM consulting on things.

He helped build the first automated telephone system at IBM. Years later as I sold canoes my client noticed my last name and made an off-hand comment about working with a McHale at IBM. Upon digging, it was my dad who “was a pain when he got on an idea, but was often right.”

I remember my dad leaving early and coming home part way through dinner or later. I also remember him taking a week off in the summer to build us a fort. We had a 6X6X6 (foot) sandbox.

He did as good a job as a dad could, but he was gone lots. I knew in my late teens that when it was time for me to be a father that I would prioritize being with my kids regularly over money because I wanted to be an involved dad.

This story is why I say that if you have money but broken relationships, you still failed. This is why I want to help you be as intentional with your work as you are with your family. It’s why I want to focus on men and work and family. We’re doing an okay job1 at making work equal for women, but a dismal job at making it okay for men to stay home with kids or take any traditional “female” role.

My story is why I want to help you build the job/business you want so you can be the father you want.

Far from just being a way to differentiate us, our stories can help us to decide, plan, lead, sell, inspire, influence, persuade, rally, create value, build trust, foster connection and succeed by building better, more purposeful organisations and lives. Our stories can shape who we are.

According to Jiwa, we have three main parts to our stories. We have our purpose and vision, which is where we’re going and why. The strategy, which is about how we’re going to get there. Finally we have the tactics, which are the day to day things that we do along the way to achieving our purpose.

She also has 5 parts in her story driven framework.

  1. BACKSTORY: Your journey to now.
  2. VALUES: Your guiding beliefs.
  3. PURPOSE: Your reason to exist.
  4. VISION: Your aspiration for the future.
  5. STRATEGY: The alignment of opportunities, plans and behaviour: how you will deliver on your purpose and work towards your aspiration, while staying true to your values.

In the book she walks us through the framework according to Alibaba, but let me try at apply it to my business since I’ve shared my story.

I’ve already shared my backstory with you so let’s jump in to the rest of the framework.

2. VALUES: Your guiding beliefs.

My guiding beliefs are that it’s time to be intentional about how you interact with your family just like you would with your work. If you’re not spending as much time learning to be a better husband/father as you are learning about running a good business, you’re out of balance.

3. PURPOSE: Your reason to exist.

I exist to help men bring intention to their family and their work so that they can build the business they need so they can spend time with their family.

4. VISION: Your aspiration for the future.

To help families connect together and get on the same page about work and life. To help build strong marriages and help build a generation of men that are involved with their kids.

5. STRATEGY: How am I Doing It?

I admit I’ve been timid on parts of this until recently. In fact this is the most direct I’ve been about what I want. Maybe the first time I’ve told my story.

I’m going to accomplish this by showing myself when I’ve screwed up and how I’m working to be as focused on my family life as I am on my work life. I can do that by involving my wife in the podcast and by writing more about what it means to be an involved father.

Now, let’s dive in to what Jiwa says we need to do to build a story driven company.

Building a Story Driven Company

Being story-driven is less about following brand guidelines and more about choosing to act in ways that are consistent with core values. We’ve all witnessed how a company’s purpose and values manifest in the actions of its employees—for good or ill. You have likely experienced an unhelpful doctor’s receptionist or a disengaged sales assistant whose behaviour tells you more about the business than their managers realise.

One of the recurring themes in this second section of the book was that our frontline employees speak volumes about what we think of our customers. If your receptionist is a pain, you’re showing your customers that they’re problems to be managed, not valued individuals.

Is that really what you want to tell your customers? Is that how you think of them?

It’s so easy to see what behaviours are successful for others and then try and mimic them. Heck in Switch we were advised to clone the success we see around us. But is that true to who you are?

Consistently being true to yourself and true to your word is one of the secrets to living a good life. It’s also the secret to crafting, telling and living an authentic story that resonates.

Are we simply looking around us and trying to keep up? Are we succumbing to any benefit thinking in that we’re seeing someone els is getting benefit from a behaviour so we assume that more of that behaviour in us will yield results?

In a digital and globalised world, we have more opportunities and choices than ever before. Sometimes in our attempt to fit in or keep up, we look for the shortcut to success or pursue goals that are more important to others than to ourselves.

I fell in to this thinking as I posted daily emails. I talked to a bunch of friends that said they saw an increase in sales with daily emails. That they had more interactions with their list. It was all upside with daily emails.

But I never read daily emails. I pretty much only read long form content that shows me how I can do something better. It was way to much work to do daily emails and as I advise people to only focus on what matters, I kept looking at my daily emails and thinking they didn’t matter.

Ryan Holiday tells you about the trap I was in well in Perennial Seller:

People claim to want to do something that matters, yet they measure themselves against things that don’t, and track their progress not in years but in microseconds. – Perennial Seller

I was tracking my success against metrics I didn’t care about. Worse yet, it cost me more money to do it as I changed email providers and I saw no increase in sales nor was I able to produce the long content I wanted to produce. The content that helped me and I could share with others.

I felt this discontent fairly soon, but stuck with it as I continued to hear about all the sales others made. I wasn’t being consistent with my actions as it related back to my story. I hope I’m doing that now.

Let’s finish our look at the second section of the book with this quote as it pertains to how you present your offerings.

Even if on paper you are the most qualified, even if you can demonstrate that your product is superior, even if you have a watertight rationale to demonstrate that you are the best choice by a mile, people will be reluctant to support you unless they believe you. And they won’t believe you unless they can see you. People need to understand what you stand for, just as much as they need to know how your policies, products and services can help them. You need to give them a reason to be loyal to your brand, rather than a hundred reasons why you’re better than the competition.

This brings the question to mind, have you been giving your customers a reason to be loyal?

Now Jiwa does actually go on for quite a few more pages in the book, but it’s all showing us companies and how they follow her framework. Not that they all know it. Some have worked with her and do follow it, but others are popular companies that she’s done a bunch of research on and then shows you how their story fits with the framework.

The stories were decent, but nothing to write home about. They really didn’t help me understand the point of the book or dive deeper in to the framework.

Developing Your Story Driven Strategy

Part three is where the book finally went totally off the rails for me. We have a bunch of standard questions for a book of this type. There is little new and then as far as I could tell Jiwa didn’t really walk us through a solid process to build our story.

I was expecting that she’d ask us some questions, have us fill in some answers and then tell us how to take those answers and build the story of our company in a way that we could walk out with a new understanding of how we should be operating.

That is not what happened. She just asked us standard questions and then…the end.

Should I Read Story Driven by Bernadette Jiwa?

On one hand, I loved this book. It got me to think harder about my story. It got me to tell it in detail for the first time. Hopefully I’ll be bolder about telling my story so that you can see it and in theory I’ll give people more reason to engage with me.

On the other hand, I was totally ready to be walked through a process to build my story and I feel like it was totally missed. The final questions are almost throw away things to appease someone wanting to build a story but there wasn’t much to really go on. I love the idea of the book but Jiwa just didn’t bring it home for me.

So I’m going to say no don’t read the book, but I don’t have a better recommendation for you yet. I guess then “yes” read the book, but expect to get inspired and then be left hanging a bit.

I have a few other books on my list that I hope approach the same concept better. If you have suggestions let me know

Purchase Story Driven on Amazon

Photo by: bobsfever


  1. But oh yes we have so much further to go with making it okay for women to work and levelling out salaries and all that jazz. 

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