At first, it felt like a homecoming.
It was 1989. Sony had just purchased Columbia Picture and hired Peter Guber as CEO. Earlier in his career, Peter had served as Motion Picture Chief of Columbia.
The honeymoon was brief, Peter writes, in his excellent book “Tell to Win“ on the power of storytelling. This week we are looking at the raw material we can use to tell stories to move our audience to action. History as well as movies and books are both terrific story content.
Columbia was struggling. Revenues were in free-fall and key executives were leaving.
The company included the film studio, television operations, and the Loews movie theater circuit. There was no unified direction or vision connecting the disparate parts of the company. Executives were spread out across the country. Columbia headquarters was the once great but now dilapidated, old MGM lot. The new Japanese owners were 7,000 miles away.
One afternoon Peter was called away from a meeting to a call with his new Japanese colleagues. This being the pre-mobile phone ere, the nearest phone was in a basement storage room.
While on the call, Peter flipped through some framed movie still photographs. He came across an iconic photo of Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia, one of Columbia’s most treasured movies.
In the scene, T.E. Lawrence, a British military officer was pondering: How do I unite disparate groups of Arab tribes with different values and beliefs to fight the ruling Turks when none believed they could or should work together?
Lawrence hatched a plan to attack Aqaba, the heavily fortified port city at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The city was bordered by the seemingly impassable Nefud desert. Convinced they could never be attacked from the desert side, the Turks had installed huge guns facing the Red Sea.
Lawrence’s plan was to do the impossible: march across the desert to surprise the Turks.
“I’ll do it if you do it,” he challenged the Arab tribal leaders.
Which is exactly what they did.
By attacking Aqaba’s unprotected back, the Arabs crushed the Turks.
Peter wondered: Could this be the story I’ve been looking for to inspire my disparate teams to reclaim Columbia’s storied heritage and profitability?
Peter told the story of Lawrence and Aqaba at the company’s huge Christmas party. He showed Lawrence’s photograph and gave out Lucite-framed copies of the photograph as a reminder of their mission.
“This is who we are,” Peter told them: “We’re a disparate group of businesses but we’re one tribe. We need to believe we can make the impossible possible.”
Peter told and re-told the Lawrence of Arabia story. The message traveled virally across the company: “It helped reverse the mindset, reshape attitudes and frame our collective state of the heart.”
Peter and his team made a series of strategic moves, including renaming the company Sony Pictures Entertainment and proudly displaying the logo as a visible sign of the new owner’s commitment. They bought back their video catalog which had previously been sold and placed the Sony trademark on everything they owned or produced.
They transformed the dilapidated studio lot into a cutting-edge HQ that showcased Sony’s full technological capabilities. And, they renamed their theater circuit Sony Theaters integrating Sony’s cutting-edge SDDS sound and IMAX systems into shimmering new multiplexes across the country.
Success came like a rocket. Over the next four years, Sony films received over one hundred Oscar nominations, the highest for a studio in film history. In 1991, Sony earned the highest box office market share of any studio.
The photo of Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia was proudly displayed in offices across the company illustrating the power of stories to transform unconnected teams into a unified group with a shared sense of identity.
Reflection: Is there a story I could tell that would help bring my team together?
Action: Tell it.