Prior to his recent career shift as head of communication at Mirror, John Stoll worked as the Wall Street Journal’s business columnist for more than 20 years. His column, “On Business,” ran on Saturdays and explored the biggest issues facing corporations and the people who run them, regulate them, supply them, buy from them or work for them from an empathetic perspective.

Image of John Stoll outside in front of the Detroit Public Library

John Stoll, head of communication at Mirror

The latest installment of the Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series featured Stoll discussing his coverage of major companies and the valuable takeaways he’s gained about business. In the virtual audience was Dean Sanjay Gupta, joined by undergraduate honors students.

The theme of storytelling and unconventional approaches within journalism and business was interwoven throughout the lecture. Stoll mentioned that one of the most important things that happened to him during his journalism career was covering Tesla and meeting Elon Musk.

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal was the first publication in the world that took Tesla seriously; other publications had opposing perspectives. At the time, many disagreed with Stoll’s positive coverage, and this caused controversy among investors and automotive executives. Stoll recognized how extraordinary Tesla was — a company that understood the purpose.

“The thing I see in Tesla that I see in great companies is they threw out every possible way to succeed but one way,” he said. “Everything they did was in service to selling an electric car on the mass market and making it affordable, sellable — not going to the traditional dealer network.”

Stoll shared how vital it is for a business to establish and commit to their “story,” or company mission. Companies such as Apple, Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s were some examples he’s written about that all share this commonality: each successfully committing to their story. On the contrary, Stoll also touched on the dangers companies may face when they don’t carefully establish and guard their story consistently, explaining how some issues stem from founders and leaders.

Stoll has come across many leaders from a variety of industries, where he witnessed several approaches to leadership from major companies such as Microsoft, Tesla, PepsiCo, Ford and General Motors. His stories give him the opportunity to discover how each leader has their own diverse, unique and perhaps unconventional leadership style and recognize that there’s no one set formula for effective leadership. The leader’s belief in, commitment and dedication to the company is most valuable.

“You’re going to attract an ecosystem based off your leadership; you’re not going to attract everybody when you’re Elon Musk. You’re going to build the culture that starts at the top,” Stoll said.

He also mentioned how leadership today has evolved. Empathetic leadership and the ability to identify with an audience is becoming more significant.

“The generation young people are in has a lot of opportunity because companies now are run so differently. There’s a lot more mobility, a lot of a demand for talent, and people want to see something from their leaders that they probably weren’t seeing 20 years ago,” he said. “The theory is that we want leaders who embody a certain value or ethic that we can get along with.”

An important commonality between journalism and business is how valuable effective storytelling can be to the success of a great writer or business leader.

“Every number on a balance sheet has a story, and every dollar you’re allocating to various things have stories behind them. Journalism gets really clunky and boring if you’re not telling a story,” he said. “It takes time to tell stories, it takes creativity, but it takes courage. It’s a golden nugget to be able to tell stories, and it’s not just great writers who can do it. I find a lot of people in business who are really great storytellers.”

Being a talented storyteller enables a leader or writer to articulate a narrative in a way that relates to humanity or any given audience a storyteller has in mind. Ultimately, a clear vision of direction and commitment to a story can differentiate a good company and a stellar company.

More information on upcoming events in the 2020–2021 Pung Speaker Series, as well as information on past events, is available at the Full-Time MBA program page.