A leader’s role to trigger stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - March 18, 2009
Filed in Business storytelling, Changing behaviour, Leadership, Strategic clarity

Yesterday I popped out for a meeting at the National Australia Bank. They have a new CEO, Cameron Clyne, and last week he announced a restructure that has substantially flattened the organisation. While the restructure has been the topic of lots of conversations and stories inside and outside the bank, Cameron has done two other things that has got employees talking.

Meeting rooms are always at a premium in large organisations and NAB, at their beautifully designed Docklands headquarters, is no exception. Until Cameron’s intervention there were meeting rooms set aside only to be booked by general managers. That’s no longer the case. Anyone from the rookie analyst to the CEO has the same rights in booking and using any meeting room in the building.

The second change involves the CEO’s lodgings. The previous head honcho and his staffers resided in an office referred to as the bubble. There were two levels of security to gain access to this space and the CEO would catch the elevator from the car park to bubble without having to venture through the rest of the building. Cameron is dismantling the bubble and is relocating his office next to the internal cafe, without any special refurbishment to his new space. You can’t miss the dismantling as it affects half the foyer. A pretty clear symbol of change.

Now these stories might not be 100% factual. But as story guru Robert McKee points out, “What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.” These are the stories some staff are telling about the new CEO and they view his actions as exciting and energising. In their mind a wonderful change is going on.

Then something interesting happened in the meeting. The person I was talking to said it was incredibly difficult to gain direct access to the CEO. That he had a coterie of minders that he brought from New Zealand with him that intercept any approach. And that this is how it should be because he is an incredibly busy man with tremendous responsibilities.

It’s interesting that the positive stories created by the meeting room and bubble change seemed to create a positive aura over other activities involving the CEO.

A lesson for leaders is that in addition to be able to find and tell your own stories, it’s also important to do things that create positive stories in the organisation. Be remarkable so people remark on your behaviour. But also listen to what stories you create and what people infer from them.

3 Responses to “A leader’s role to trigger stories”

  1. tony joyce Says:

    Shawn,
    It will be interesting to watch and see what happens. So far, the CEO seems to be off on the right foot, taking bold and positive actions to reduce the physical distance between the top and bottom of the organization. But as he has started this positive story, he has also reset some expectations for people who work there.
    A single story will last only so long, and will quickly grow stale and turn sour unless more stories continue to demonstrate the new behaviour. The CEO needs to move expectations from vaguely positive to genuinely authentic. He may be able to do this directly by telling his own stories.
    Perhaps that will work; some people an innate ability to tell good stories. But can he, should he, rely on his own skills?
    The answer is of course not. However, as a busy leader, he will suffer from the influence of his handlers. Your bubble analogy is a good one, for the question that needs some consideration is: How can he listen to the people in the company, to hear what they have inferred, from inside of the bubble that surrounds him? How does he find some truth?

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    I agree Tony. The CEO can’t rely on one story, there must be a continuous stream of anecdote each reinforcing the other.
    It is interesting that Clyne has torn down the physical bubble but still might have a human one around him. So the challenge of listening and hearing the stories in his organisation will be a real one.
    I’m hoping to have a small impact. NAB are launching their internal academy and Anecdote has won a spot on the curriculum to provide storytelling training for leaders. It would have been ideal if we could have also offered our story-listening services as well–I’m still working on that one.

  3. Sue Wittenoom Says:

    Shawn – a third piece of evidence for the new NAB culture – Cameron Clyne’s photo on the front of the Fin Review 13 March the week before your first post. Not the hero CEO shot: jacket off, in the lift lobby with the beverage of choice in two stacked paper cups.