Why Leaders Look to History for Career Development
Winthrop Group takes a moment this summer to reflect on the value of authenticity and offers 5 tips for engaging with history to strengthen your career.

Authenticity matters now more than ever. It is no longer enough to be the loudest or even the smartest in the room to succeed. Today, many of the strongest leaders look for sources of authenticity to guide content and strategy for their organizations. Authenticity creates lasting value that can promote trust among senior constituencies, rank-and-file employees, and external stakeholders alike. And it can be the key to a successful career.

Fortunately for many leaders, organizations are already in possession of an untapped source of authenticity: their own history.

History is a source of competitive advantage

History can clarify an organization’s reason for being and fundamental underlying principles. It can also provide an organization with genuine insights that can serve as the basis for distinctive solutions to real-world issues. History is one of the few areas that is intrinsically authentic, precisely because it actually happened.

More and more, we have found a correlation between leaders and organizations that are historically-minded and those that pursue thoughtful and effective content and communications strategies.

Consider the strategic consultancy, McKinsey & Company. At key moments in its growth from a small partnership into a global network of thousands of consultants, McKinsey deliberately looked inward, to its own history, for guidance. “We believe it is essential for every one of our partners and colleagues to understand our history and how our values were shaped over time,” McKinsey’s global managing director, Dominic Barton, told us.

Recognizing that history could be an authentic source of competitive advantage, the firm made its legacy central to the learning and development of rising consultants. Here, the quality of the content was crucial.

The need for “deep content”

Even the most historically-minded organization is unlikely to derive real value from its history if it relies on generic content. What do we mean by “generic content”?  Think of standard “about us” website content or the “balloons and fireworks” of a corporate anniversary celebration. This type of history often has little impact – and, at its worst, it can even be counterproductive.

When the fireworks end, top leaders look for deep historical content that is authoritative, sometimes provocative, and authentic. In 2011, when the global investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors approached its 30th anniversary, the firm’s leadership team was deeply interested in ensuring that the next generation of leaders recognized the significance of key decisions that had helped to shape distinct guiding principles for the firm. That these principles did not exist from the start was part of the point.

Rather than simply celebrating the firm’s significant success, the firm produced a rigorous history. The narrative detailed early decision making and the characteristics that had made the firm distinct in a crowded marketplace. Packed with the complex contradictions and contingency of the past, this history’s authenticity made it meaningful for stakeholders. It is still used with new hires, rising leaders, and in an array of internal meetings and programs.

History can be a foundation for engagement across platforms

Leaders who appreciate the value of authentic history now have new opportunities to engage stakeholders across a multitude of content platforms. While we continue to believe in the value of print media for some audiences, today, a book is often just the beginning.

At the time of the 2010 acquisition of British confectioner Cadbury by Kraft Foods, many observers feared that the merger would end in chaos. Senior executives at Kraft launched a deep-dive into company archives and found historical content that served as the basis for a robust communications strategy that included press releases, executive speeches, employee training sessions, and a dedicated intranet site, “Coming Together.” In very real ways, history helped the merger proceed more smoothly than any previous acquisition.

For communication leaders, history represents a unique opportunity to generate value from content that is inherently authentic. History is also one of the few areas in which many organizations already possess significant, underutilized assets. This can be a significant advantage: for future career development, the past can make all the difference.

5 Tips for engaging with history to strengthen your career

Leaders interested in leveraging an organization’s history to create authentic value should:

  • Take stock of untapped resources. Before beginning a major project or initiative, make sure that you have not overlooked relevant documents, records, and other materials. Forgotten store rooms and hard drives can be a treasure trove of content that can provide context and direction.
  • Be aware of how the organization is already impacted by its history. Every organization is impacted by its history, whether it is aware of it or not. Understanding how and why an organization is impacted by its history is crucial to the development of a relevant engagement with that history.
  • Ask experienced leaders, employees, and other stakeholders about the backstory. The most effective leaders ask questions about past struggles and outcomes in order to approach a situation armed with a strong sense of institutional memory. Don’t be afraid to dig deep. Asking the right questions can help to clarify how the nuances and contradictions of history can lead to an authentic approach.
  • Document the organization’s real history. To put history to work, it is not enough to rely on generalizations or vague stories of the past; top leaders embrace the messiness of history. They use “deep content” to derive real, strategic value for organizations and individuals.
  • Be prepared to deploy history across multiple content platforms. Stay attuned to opportunities to use traditional and new media to engage with diverse stakeholders. Interest groups and generations digest content differently; ensure that you are delivering history that feels as authentic as it is.