“Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.” — Daniel Boorstin
In the not-so-distant past, employees could expect to spend decades—even entire careers—at the same company. Doing so would not only build up a sizeable pension, but would also contribute to institutional memory.
But now, with fewer opportunities to climb the ladder vertically, no company-sponsored pensions, and a decided lack of loyalty from corporations, we’re in an age when people job hop and company hop with increasing frequency.
These circumstances have harmed the institutional memory of countless organizations, and leaders must guard against it.
There are three ways leaders can address this fading history amid high employee turnover.
But first, let’s take a look at a rather sleepy yet essential institution.
“We are all part of a larger stream of events. We are all the beneficiaries of those who have gone before us.” — David McCullough, 1998
The National Archives and Record Administration was established by Congress in 1934. Prior to that, each branch and agency of the U.S. government was responsible for maintaining its own documents, which often resulted in the loss and destruction of records.
Considering that the founding fathers were aware of classical history, they were likely aware of the Great Library at Alexandria, which was destroyed by neglect and siege in ancient times. Yet it took 150 years beyond the country’s founding to establish such an institution.
Presidential records were something of an anomaly, though. It wasn’t until the 1978 Presidential Records Act that they were designated by law to belong to the American people. Presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky has an excellent summary:
Form Meets Function
Washington, DC is a city of symbolism, and nowhere is that more apparent than a section of the city called the Federal Triangle, formed by Constitution Ave., Pennsylvania Ave., and E Street.
Seven of the buildings were built in the 1930s by the federal government under what has been called “one of the greatest building projects ever undertaken.”
Fittingly, the Federal Triangle was the subject of a capstone paper I wrote as a classics major in college. As a matter of fact, I still have it:
The National Archives Building houses the records of our national government, and its structure and architecture are befitting of its purpose.
But beyond the purpose, the design and ornamentation of the building holds a number of symbolic meanings that should remind us of why we value preservation of history.
“The ties that bind the lives of our people in one indissoluble union are perpetuated in the archives of our government and to their custody this building is dedicated.” — Herbert Hoover, 1933
The building itself was designed by John Russell Pope, in the style of Roman temples: eighteen Corinthian columns support the north and south façades and their pediments; a series of steps leads up to the entrance; it is located halfway between the Capitol and the Treasury building on the nation's ceremonial route, much as the temples were constructed in the Roman Forum.
But the pediments — the triangular upper part of the front of a classical building —contain details that tell a story about the importance of record keeping.
The south pediment, entitled The Recorder of the Archives, has been called the finest sculptured pediment in Washington.
The central figure is a seated Jupiter-like figure with a book on his lap and keys in his hand; this is the book in which all documents are recorded and the keys to the records. Two males stand on either side of the Recorder, as receivers of the documents, and are in turn flanked by females and depictions of Pegasus, symbolic of inspiration.
Just past these on either side are triads of two men and a woman, collecting records of lesser importance; dogs are in the corners, symbolic of guardianship.
The north pediment is called Destiny, dominated by a central figure representing destiny and flanked by eagles mounted upon the fasces, symbolizing unity.
There are winged genii on either side, which embody “Bearers of the Fire of Patriotism.” On the left, a female is carrying branches of olive and palm trees, representing peace and victory. Then at the right of the central group, “The Arts of War” are shown as warrior mounted upon a steed and a warrior carrying the swords of enemies.
Following this on the right is “The Romance of History,” shown as two philosophers brooding over a crowned skull and a kneeling figure and child with the scroll of History.
Then, on the left, four figures represent “The Song of Achievement,” and griffins on either end are guarding a casket of documents and a sealed book, symbolizing “Guardians of the Secrets of the Archives.”
In sum, the external ornamentation of the National Archives tells a story about the importance of recording and preserving our history, so future generations may learn from our successes — and our mistakes.
Leaders and Continuity
It’s no easy task to lead a company with high turnover. The longer your team is with you, the easier it is for them to accomplish tasks because they’re familiar with the people, processes and tools that make it possible.
Beyond the financial cost of recruiting and training new employees, there is a price paid by morale and the long-term survival of organization.
How can leaders ensure continuity at their organizations amid the reality of employee turnover?
1. Emphasize Storytelling
One of the most powerful tools any leader has in their arsenal is storytelling. Homer’s epic poems were first told orally, and by regularly sharing stories we retain consistency in how we talk about ourselves.
It could be an origin story, a tale about the biggest sale we ever made, or recounting how a customer shared how we impacted their life. With stories come emotions, and those emotions carry how we retain and tell those stories, again and again.
2. Ensure Documentation
The Iliad and the Odyssey began as oral stories, but they were eventually recorded for posterity, so that even if the chain of verbal storytelling was broken, there would be a documented record of them.
Create documentation processes and even place people in charge of the retention of stories and processes. When I worked at Ford, the corporate historian and corporate archivists were essential figures in ensuring that company artifacts and mythos were preserved and discussed.
3. Focus on Culture
Aside from physical artifacts, the longest-lasting element of our institutions is their culture. When we hire the right people, communicate our vision and plans clearly, and emphasize the human element of our businesses, we create cultures that will outlast us.
Rishad Tobaccowala’s latest newsletter captures the essence of why we need to shift our culture from boss to leader:
It’s fitting that we should conclude with one last look at the National Archives.
The statues that flank the porticoes are The Past and The Future on the north, inscribed with “Study the past if you would divine the future,” and “What is past is prologue.”
On the south, we find Guardianship, with Thomas Jefferson’s well-known quote: “Eternal vigilance is the price of history.”
But it is the final statue, Heritage, that reminds us why leaders should pay heed to preserving and protecting our history:
“The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”
When we understand our past, we create an opportunity for consistency and continuity — the basis of trust.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Timeless & Timely is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Brilliant! I learned something new today. Thank you. Also, the Storytelling part resonates with me.
"It could be an origin story, a tale about the biggest sale we ever made, or recounting how a customer shared how we impacted their life. With stories come emotions, and those emotions carry how we retain and tell those stories, again and again." And it's how we learn to relate to each other.
Scott, Institutional Memory is something I have been actively thinking for a long time. This is an excellent piece!