Acts of leadership humanity: putting staff first

Posted by Mark Schenk - October 31, 2014
Filed in Leadership

This post is part of our series on Leadership Humanity.

In 2010 I was working with a law firm in Sydney to help launch their new values. One of the values is Respect. At the launch event we collected stories about Respect: some bad, many good. One of the senior partners related an experience from early in his career at the firm:

Respect leadership humanity


[Ian] was a senior associate working in the insolvency practice. Companies that could not pay their debts would end up being placed in receivership. It was Friday and they had received notice from one of the banks regarding a small company that had defaulted on a loan. Ian wanted all the paperwork completed by midday as there was a big company social event that afternoon. They got the paperwork done and faxed it off to the regulator, ASIC. They then left for lunch. The party was well underway by the time they arrived. As Ian entered the room, one of the senior Partners there said “I think you need to head back to the office”. It turns out that in their haste they completed the form incorrectly, entering the Bank as the defaulting company. The regulator had called the bank chairman who was in a Board meeting in Auckland to advise that the bank had been placed into receivership. Not surprisingly, the Bank had immediately swung into action.Ian arrived back at his office thinking his career was over but determined to set things right. As the lift opened on the 26th floor, he looked down the corridor to the Managing Partner’s office. The Managing Partner saw him, stood up and walked briskly toward him. He stopped a foot or so from Ian’s face. He said “We are going to get through this. I want to be sure you are OK.” They then set about rectifying the error.

Ian cites this as one of the key reasons he is such an advocate for the firm and its culture. Instead of worrying about the problem. the Managing Partner’s first concern was the welfare of his staff.


Why good storytellers are great story-listeners

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 29, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

Philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi, said that “we can know more than we can tell.” When you start to look around for examples of this ineffable or tacit knowledge it’s everywhere: our uncanny ability to recognise faces, how we ride a bike, how an expert judges whether an ancient statue is fake or real. We learn so much without being taught. But how does that happen?

Steven Pinker has just written a style guide for 21st century writers and he says that good writers are good readers. They simply absorb the patterns of good writing through the experience of reading. The same is true of oral storytelling. Good storytellers have heard many oral stories told. They are good story-listeners. And business storytellers need to hear business stories.

So where do you get to hear these stories?

Noticing stories in the workplace

The first step is know how to spot stories. We have covered that a few times on this blog, so here’s how to do that.

Once you can spot stories you’ll start to see them in your workplace. Every now and then you’ll see a story in a presentation or at a meeting. Pay particular attention to these stories in more formal settings because often these are the stories that have impact. When you hear a story try and notice how people respond. If it has a big impact, positive or negative, ask yourself why? What was it about that story that sent the shiver up your spine or straightened the hairs on your forearm?

Hearing what makes a good story

Let’s take a look at an oral story and see what we can notice.

Sir Ken Robinson is known as a crusader for a revolution in education where we work hard to help kids find and nurture their natural talent. This story of the choreographer, Gillian Lynne, is a terrific example of the simple and conversational style which is nicely suited for business storytelling.

The story starts at 15.08 minutes.

Sir Ken starts with having lunch with Gillian Lynne, the subject of the story, and he tells the story from Gillian’s perspective. This gives it terrific authenticity. It’s like we’re hearing it first hand.

The story is about a child. We’re hardwired to care about kids. And because we’ve all gone to school, and been a child, we can relate to the story. The ability to relate draws you in.

Sir Ken uses a few simple words to paint pictures in the story. ‘Oak panel room,’ ‘sat on her hands for 20 minutes,’ ‘turned on the radio sitting on his desk.’ This is all the listener needs to imagine the rest of the scene based on their own experiences. The audience is doing work and as such owns the story.
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Disgust and why we need to test business stories

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 21, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

It’s hard to imagine a more embarrassing situation for a teenager. And that teenager was me. Cast your mind back to the 1970s: flared jeans, platform shoes, silk shirts, and skin-tight pants. It was the weekend and my Mum took my dear friend, Mark, and I to the War Memorial in Canberra. I’ve never seen myself as a fashionista but on that day I wore tight, white jeans and platform shoes.


Part way though the exhibition of war planes I got a sudden pain in the gut and it was coming on strong. I knew I had to get to a toilet fast but I didn’t know which way to run. Without warning explosive diarrhoea hit and the tight white jeans were no match. Taking fast dolly steps I finally found the toilet and as I was in one cubicle stripping down, Mark was in the other asking if he could do anything. At the same time my mother is calling from the toilet door, “Is everything OK Shawn.” I left my jeans and undies behind and made a quick exit to the car park with Mark’s sloppy joe around my waist.

As you can imagine this memory is fresh in my mind despite happening 35 years ago. Last week Mark was visiting Melbourne and we caught up a couple of times and as we were driving out to dinner one night I said, “God, remember that time at the War Memorial when I shat my daks?” There was a pause and Mark said, “Nope. I have no recollection of it.” What? I couldn’t believe it.

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Making strategies stick – how to tackle anti-stories

Posted by Mark Schenk - October 16, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

In 2009, three Queensland government departments were merged into one mega-department. Anecdote was working with the senior leadership team to communicate their new strategy and help make it stick. A key aspect of the new strategy was to integrate the previously separate departments into a single, unified team. When we spoke to staff about integration, many of them referred to ‘the next divorce’. We learned that in the early 1990’s the same three departments had been merged into a single organization. The integration didn’t work, and a few years later the departments were separated again. So, talking about ‘integration’ triggered them to think of the previous ‘divorce’.  It was seriously undermining the new strategy.

Tackling anti-stories

At Anecdote, much of our work is focused on making strategies stick. We do this by converting business strategies into understandable, memorable and influential stories. In every organisation we work with we find entrenched views – pre-existing beliefs and perceptions – that work against the new strategy. The view that there was bound to be another ‘divorce’ described in the previous paragraph is an example. We call these beliefs and perceptions ‘anti-stories’. 

To successfully execute your strategy you need to identify and tackle these anti-stories.

This series of three posts summarises some of our experiences and ideas on doing just that.

Arguments don’t work

The standard approach to changing people’s minds is to find and communicate an appropriate argument to convince them. If that doesn’t work, we look for an even more convincing argument. We have chosen the term anti-story carefully. It reminds us that that when people have a story in their heads, rational arguments generally don’t cut the mustard.

An even less successful strategy is to simply assert something. “The management team are here to support you” might sound good to the speaker…it might even be true. But if there is doubt in people’s minds about this it’s almost certain they will dismiss the assertion as ‘BS’.

You can’t fight a story with a fact, only with a better story. We have a few ideas of alternative strategies to influence people to be open to thinking differently.

The good news is that once you have identified the anti-stories, tackling them can be relatively simple.

This first post deals with some of the general strategies for dealing with anti-stories. The second post will cover some specific ways of tackling them. The third in this series deals with figuring out what the anti-stories are that you will need to deal with.
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Acts of leadership humanity – mistakes are not always failures

Posted by Mark Schenk - October 14, 2014
Filed in Anecdotes, Leadership

Shawn’s post last week got us sharing some of the great examples of small acts of leadership that demonstrate humanity and which make a difference. We will share some of these in the coming weeks. This is an example I heard last week while running a business storytelling session in Queensland.

Back in the 1990s, Peter was a junior Naval officer. Part of his qualification involved navigation skills. He was navigating the ship at night during a high-speed transit of the Great Barrier Reef. This is a very dangerous area where losing your bearings for only a few minutes can put the ship at risk of hitting a reef. Peter did lose his bearings and after trying to re-establish his position briefly he realised he needed to act. He ordered the ship to stop and called the Captain who was asleep in his cabin. The Captain came to the bridge, coached Peter through getting underway again and went back to bed. When Peter’s shift finished a little while later he reflected on what had happened. He knew this failure would set back his career by at least 6-12 months. The next day, the Captain called him to his cabin. To Peter’s amazement, the Captain handed him his qualification. Peter said “But I failed.” The Captain responded saying “You did exactly the right thing. You recognised you’d lost your bearings, stopped the ship and called me. The only reason I sleep at night is knowing my officers make good decisions. I can’t sleep if they think they are perfect and never make a mistake.”


A small act of leadership humanity

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 9, 2014
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

“The biggest improvements come from small things done consistently over time in strategic places.” — David Allen

A company was all travelling together to their yearly retreat in Queensland. The company had grown over the years and was now quite a large number so the management team decided that everyone will travel economy class.

They were all booked on the same flight out of Melbourne and lined up a the airport to get their boarding passes. The CEO was in the same line as everyone else despite being a Platinum flyer–he could have joined the priority queue. When he stepped forward to get his pass the flight attendant saw his flying status and immediately upgraded him to business class. Before she could finish the transaction the CEO turned to the next person in the line and asked whether she had flown business class before. She said “no” so the CEO asked the attendant whether she could have his upgrade. “Of course” she replied.

We should cherish these acts of humanity from our business leaders and tell these stories wherever we can so leaders have models of the small things they can do that make a difference.


Why leaders should use real-life experiences not fables

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 7, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

When we started Anecdote back in 2004 we mainly did culture change projects where we collected stories in an organisation then took people from the company through a facilitated process to help them see the patterns embedded in the anecdotes. Our work was based on the idea that an organisation’s culture is reflected in the stories people tell and if you want to change the culture you must change the stories. We would help the company develop initiatives to help change their stories.

In those early days our clients would approach us for help coaching their leaders how to be better storytellers. They concluded that if we were good at collecting and helping people make sense of stories, we could also help leaders be better storytellers. But when they asked we said no.


We were worried that stories would be misused and people might be manipulative. We knew stories were powerful and we didn’t want them being misused.

But our clients persisted and so we took another look at storytelling and said we would only help leaders if the stories were real life experiences: nothing crafted, borrowed or bent beyond recognition.

Noticing stories

This meant that the leaders had to be more mindful of their own experiences so they would notice things worthy of recounting. They needed a simple way to spot stories. And above all they needed patience. We felt it was much like the brown bear wading in the cold stream waiting for the salmon to leap in front of them so they could catch their next meal. You needed patience to catch stories. From that point on the bear and the fish became the logo for our Storytelling for Leaders program.

Our dedication to not making things up sometimes comes as a surprise to our clients and partners. It seems so easy to take a great story and change a few things to make it your own. But it’s a mistake.
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An indicator of group fear in organisations

Over the years I’ve shown a clever little animation in our workshops to illustrate our propensity to tell ourselves stories when things are ambiguous and unclear. It’s how we make sense of the world. But in running this video, perhaps hundreds of times, I think I’ve discovered another interesting use for it. It seems to give an indication of group fear. In other words, I reckon it reveals whether a group is well connected and feeling secure where members can take risks or the other end of the spectrum where there is fear, uncertainly and distrust.

Let me give you a little background on how I use the video and show you how the indicator works.

The video is about 90 seconds long. Just watch it and at the end describe what you saw happening. There are no wrong answers so whatever pops to mind.

So, what do you think the video was showing?

Just take a moment and jot down what you think was happening.

OK, most people ascribe human emotions and actions to the shapes. They say things like, “the big triangle was bullying the little triangle and the circle but the little triangle saved the circle.” Or they will ascribe roles to the shapes saying things like “the father didn’t like the boyfriend but despite being pushed away the boyfriend still went out with the girl and the father was angry.”

We like to tell ourselves a story to explain what’s happening rather than merely say they are geometric shapes moving on a two-dimensional plane. And because we tell ourselves a story we feel emotions as the story unfolds. And depending on our surroundings, we will verbalise these emotions.

So here is what I’ve noticed from showing this video to groups of people in organisations across the globe.
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Why effective leaders are good storytellers

Posted by Shawn Callahan - September 30, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling, Leadership

When I run our storytelling for leaders program I like to point out that effective leaders are good storytellers. I say “good” because a leader merely has to share a story or two to set them apart from the rest because most leaders communicate entirely with opinion and lofty abstractions–yawn. A leaders’ message really sticks when they illustrate their point with a real life experience, i.e. a story.

Leaders and storytelling

A masterclass in leadership storytelling

I saw a beautiful example of how it can be done a couple of years ago when I was helping the leaders of an insurance firm be better storytellers. The company had just appointed a new CEO and he wanted to address the 100 or so people at the workshop I was facilitating.

When the CEO arrived he shook my hand and introduced himself to the audience. Within a couple of minutes he told his first story of how he started his career in commercial insurance in the UK and the terrifying job he had assessing assets atop power station cooling towers. This was his connection story. He was showing how he was a little bit like his audience. He had some understanding of their world.

He followed with an anecdote about a company where he was on the executive team and how they hit a cash crisis and the tough decisions that had to be made. He never wanted to be in that position again. He was making it clear what was important to him, sharing what he valued.

In 15 minutes this CEO shared a few more stories that helped everyone know what type of person he was, what he cared about and what really motivates him to take on this new role.

We had just had a masterclass in leadership storytelling.
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How to spot a story – a simple story framework: Infographic

Posted by Shawn Callahan - September 26, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

With so much talk about business storytelling you’d think business people were telling more stories.

Sadly we see lots of people talking about stories but very few telling them. And quite frankly, you just don’t get the benefits of storytelling unless you are telling a story.

Part of the problem is that business people lack a simple story framework to help them spot stories so they can tell the difference between a story and just a tag line, or an assertion, a viewpoint or just an out of context, unemotional, barely understandable dot point.

So here’s an infographic you can pin to your wall or save to your smart phone that gives you some simple guideposts to help you spot stories.

And once armed with this knowledge you’ll no longer be lulled into accepting any old brand story, product story, strategic story or even a strategic narrative (which of course is a type of story) unless it’s really a story.

Click on the image below to see a larger view:

story framework

Click here to view an enlarged version of this infographic.

Share this Infographic on your site with this embed code

Oral storytelling

We designed this simple story framework with oral storytelling in mind. I guess that’s because most of our work involves helping leaders tell their stories, off the cuff and without Powerpoint.

A big part of being able to tell stories is your ability to find good ones to tell. If you don’t have the ability to spot a story it’s like stamp collecting without knowing what a stamp looks like. When you rock up to the stamp show and display your collection of beer coasters you look a little foolish.