What Is Your “Meta” Signature Story?
The story about your stories…
I believe that it is helpful to look back at your career and identify your signature stories; “once upon a time…” narratives of experiences or relationships that define you professional, that shed light on your passions, strengths, higher purpose, successes and failures, and career path and its evolution. They will provide you with a prospective on your career, its trajectory that will be more vivid and have more depth than any list. It can lead to possible reaffirmations or changes in priorities and direction. The book Creating Signature Stories elaborates.
I did that for myself and came up with some 60 of them. What was interesting was that they seemed to make more sense and be more useful when they were grouped together into what I called a meta signature story; a story centered around an important career decision or an emerging passion that represented a platform for a new professional direction and resulted in a dramatic refocus of time and resources.
At the core of the meta signature story would be a signature story or set of signature stories that would describe a career changing or defining decision or emerging passion. The meta story would be augmented by precursor stories and eventually with follow-on stories as well.
The set of precursor signature stories would provide the logic or support for that decision or emerging passion. They would go beyond simply stating facts and a rationale by supplying set of stories rich in detail that give confidence in the decision or emerging passion in a way that is memorable and convincing.
A set of follow-on stories will emerge that can elaborate the impact or result of the decision or emerging passion. They can add additional proof points to the career change and the associated commitment.
Out of the 60 signature stories, nine meta-stories emerged. These can be evaluated in terms of how long they impacted my career and to what extent, measured by the percentage of career time, they influenced. Some were either influential for three to five years because that was the life of a book or an area of interest. Others, such as my interest in a higher purpose or in behavior science theory and experimentation, lasted over much of my career but occupied a relatively small percentage of my time and effort.
Two were the most important because they each provided a platform for a major part of my professional life. The first was triggered by my decision to specialize in statistics and operations research as a Ph.D. student at Stanford because it defined what I did and who I was during the first two decades of my professional life. The second was my decision to focus on branding that defined my for the rest of my career.
The Quantitively Researcher/Model Builder
As a Ph.D. student one of three career preparation routes, along with the behavioral and generalist concentration, was to be quantitative model builder with a depth of knowledge in statistics. I doubled down on the quantitative track taking virtually all my course work in statistics and doing an elaborate quantitative thesis.
There were two precursor signature stories. One was around my role models, four leading quantitative researchers of the day and their students, and the fact that only a limited few with heavy quant background could compete with them. The other described my background and aptitude for mathematics, that played our through high school and college, which made this route feasible for me.
Over the next two decades there were at least seven follow-on signature stories the subject of which was a media model that included copy and budget decisions, a “multivariate models in marketing” book, an advertising text with a quantitative slant, a marketing research text, a communication process model, a time series model with Bob Jacobson that showed that market share is not all that it was cracked up to be, and another set of models with Bob Jacobson that linked brand equity to stock return. All involved a rich narrative and interesting co-authors or reviewers.
The Decision to Focus on Branding
The second meta signature story was around my decision to turn to branding as a platform to encourage companies to build brand assets and to focus less on short term financials.
It involved four precursor signature stories with narratives that described my courses and book on business strategy that stimulated my realization that short-term financials should be augmented by asset building, my books and research on advertising, my study of 248 firms that showed the importance of brands, and the emergence of the concept of brand equity.
Eight or more follow-on brand related signatures stories included descriptions of my initial brand extension research with Kevin Keller, my empirical work with Bob Jacobson that modeled the relationship between brand equity and business performance, and my six brand books each of which had their own signature story.
The Ultimate Meta Story
The ultimate meta story is your autobiography. The professional side could be a chapter or more or it could be woven into the whole life. The fact is that the personal and professional side is often linked,
I did such a autobiography, “From Fargo to the World of Brands, Third Edition.” It took 450 pages and it is not for everyone.
The book allowed me to reflect about what was most important to me in experiences and relationships. The signature stories within the larger narrative provided insights into what was important in my professional life, value setting and time and resource allocation going forward.
The process had auxiliary benefits, It gave me a change to revive some moments that were important in some way and/or extremely satisfying and enjoyable. In that context it was an excuse to also go through old photo and recall what they were all about. Further, the result provided a record for future generations that might be curious about who I was.
Every professional should look to his or her past career and its future direction and identify some influential signature stories. These stories need not be about yourself, they can describe role models or even stories taken from a movie or book that profoundly influenced you. The process should help you identify your passion, learn what gives you meaning, satisfaction and happiness. Ultimately, it should help you chart future career directions.
The concept could also be applied to your organization where organizing its signature stories into meta stories may make them more powerful and useful.
Read more of my thinking on signature stories on my blog.