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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
A common question we are asked is ‘are there any examples of business leaders who are good storytellers’. Shawn wrote a post a while back with a list of nine good examples.
I’d like to add two more to that list. In both circumstances, these leaders made clear and memorable business points by relating relevant personal experiences. More importantly, the use of relevant and engaging examples raised their personal ‘brands’ substantially with their audiences.
Business leaders and storytellers
The first example was in June when I was in Hyderabad running the Storytelling for Leaders™ workshop for the top talent group at Microsoft IT. At the end of the day, the Head of Microsoft IT (MSIT) India, Raj Biyani, joined us to share his thoughts on the subject. He told two stories (one was a personal anecdote and the other a parable) and then invited questions. The first question was ‘when did you first realise how powerful stories are in business?’
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“They won’t care what you know until they know that you care” (a line attributed to many but my favourite is baseball coach Yogi Berra).
This week I received an email from a newly minted executive who was off to New Zealand to take up a new post. Let’s call her Sarah.
Sarah had attended one of our Storytelling for Leaders workshops and was keen to have a few stories to tell when she started her new role. In fact, she asked me what story should she tell.
Firstly, we all need to tell many stories, many small stories. There’s rarely a time when a single story is sufficient. These small stories add up to create a big picture. I wrote in praise of small stories back in March this year and I see their power every day.
But what small stories should you tell?
Stories that show you care
I’d start by sharing stories that illustrate why you care. Why is this new role important to you and why you care about the people you’re working with. And whenever an Australia takes an executive role in New Zealand (Americans in Canada are the same), as in this case with Sarah, why you care about New Zealand.
A simple strategy to show you care about New Zealand is to find and tell New Zealand stories. Listen to the stories from your New Zealand colleagues, especially from the NZ workplace, and tell them. Avoid telling stories from Australia. This simple act shows what’s important to you.
Stories that show what you value
Then I’d start telling stories about what you value as a leader. For example it might be things like having a go, great customer service or speaking up. Share stories that illustrate what these things mean and why they are important to you and the company.
And lastly, to help you connect, share stories of how you are like the people you are working with. That you have similar backgrounds, similar holidays, similar histories in the company. Of course, never, and I mean never, make anything up just because you think it will be received well.
I saw a wonderful example of a new executive share some stories to connect.
A couple of years ago Mark and I were running a workshop for a large insurance company. It was a one day event. Part way through the day we were told that the new CEO would like to talk to our participants who made up the top 100 leaders in the commercial division of the company. They hadn’t met the CEO yet.
The CEO arrived and started his talk with a story about his first job as a young man as a insurance adjuster for a commercial insurer in Yorkshire. It was terrific little tale. He was showing he was a little bit like them and showed why he cared about the insurance business.
Then he shared another story about being on the brink of a cash flow crisis in a previous company and now how he pores over the figures with his CFO. He was making it clear that he was a numbers guy and if you come to him with a proposal you’d better get the numbers right.
He was there for only about 15 minutes but he made a tremendous impact on everyone. Not to mention the excellent example of storytelling he left us to dissect when he left.
In September this year our new partner in Singapore, Anjali Sharma, organised the first Storytelling for Leaders Program in her fine country. She also organised a photographer and videographer and put together this short clip showing you what happened on the day.
People watch the behaviour of leaders intensely, like they are on stage with a spotlight on them. This concentrated attention on leader behaviour can be used to trigger new stories and to communicate meaning. Often simple actions can be much more powerful than the words leaders use, as illustrated on the example below:
At the dinner that evening I asked several people what they remembered about the sustainability statement. The consistent reply was, “I don’t remember what the policy statement said, but I know the CEO is really serious about it. Did you see the way he walked over and hit the screen.”
The downside of this is that when leaders behave poorly or in ways that undermine strategy or values, the stories spread just as effectively.
From many perspectives, the video below is a clear message to an unappreciative boss. “You don’t value me, I have no life balance…you are a bad boss.” But if your objective was to either retain this employee or to avoid others leaving, this information would fall into the category of ‘interesting but useless’.
When people leave organisations, the reasons they give are often much less insightful than in the video. When asked ‘why are you leaving’ people mostly respond with ‘I’m leaving for a higher paying job’ or ‘it’s a better commute’ or ‘I’m changing my career trajectory’ (a personal favourite). In these circumstances, leaders need to ask different questions.
In 2012, a valued member of the Anecdote team resigned. It came as a surprise to all of us. I asked the usual questions around ‘why are you leaving’ and received plausible responses. I then asked ‘can you tell me about the moment when you first starting thinking about leaving…what happened?’ It took some time, but eventually they revealed two examples of things I had done that made them feel un-valued. These things were completely unintentional, but they had had a big impact. Once the examples were provided I could do something about them…in this case I could apologise. The apology was accepted and happily the resignation was withdrawn. Before I knew about the examples I had no basis for action. Once I had the examples my possible courses of action were crystal clear.
‘Why’ and ‘how’ questions are frequently claimed to be the most important and powerful questions we should ask. And in many circumstances they are, particularly to stimulate creativity or scientific and artistic enquiry.
But, when you want to find out what’s really going on, leaders need to ask different questions; questions that elicit specific examples (stories, anecdotes, experiences) that provide insight into the situation. In these circumstances, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions are very useful. ‘What happened?’ is an other useful question. The best question of all is ‘can you give me an example?’ In fact, any question that elicits an example is a good question in these circumstances.
A key skill is to recognise that most of the responses people will give will be opinions, generalisations and assertions. You need to know what an example looks like and keep digging till you get one.
Its pretty much agreed that good questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. But when seeking insight and understanding upon which they can base decisions, leaders need to ask different questions.
It’s not easy to be a good boss. In a 30 year career I can count three (thanks Walt, Amy and Steve). Stanford business professor, Bob Sutton, says that acting as a shield for your employees is one of the important tasks of a leader.
And being a good boss means fostering the culture and values of the company by taking a stand and doing something remarkable so people will tell stories about it over and over again reinforcing what’s valued around here. We call this story-triggering.
This story, shared by Sutton, conveys these sentiments nicely.
Lucas’ concerns were not shared by the two heads of the Computer Division, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. The pair had been responsible for some big innovations in computer graphics, particularly in the area of rendering, and they were optimistic that they could turn their animated dreams into a financially rewarding reality. Nonetheless, Lucas decided to appoint a new division president, Doug Norby, to reign the group in, and Norby wasted no time in pressuring Catmull and Smith to lay off employees.
Catmull and Smith couldn’t bring themselves to start sacking their colleagues. Instead, Catmull went to Norby and argued that the division needed to remain intact, that cutting up such a potentially valuable entity didn’t make sense. But the new president was having none of it. Norby insisted that he be given a list of names for dismissal.
The two heads dug in, ignoring Norby’s demand until, one day, they were given an ultimatum. They were to appear in the president’s office the following morning with a list of names, and that was that.
The next day, Catmull and Smith did what Norby had asked them to do. They walked into his office at the appointed time and put a sheet paper on his desk. Two names were written on it: Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith.
Norby backed down, and all of the employees of the Computer Division kept their jobs. So grateful were the staff to Catmull and Smith that they all chipped in to buy the two heads and their wives a well-earned night on the town.
Have you ever had that feeling that your executive team is all saying they understand and support the strategy but you sense that they are not really on the same page?
This is a common occurrence and it becomes starkly apparent when we are helping a company translate their strategy to a story everyone can tell. And if you’re aware that this is likely to happen, the story process can really help your executives, in their gut, understand what the strategy really means.
Here’s what I think is happening. The strategy gets developed as an analytical and rational process (and quite rightly so) and the end result is a document. The document gets passed around the executive team for comments. It’s duly read and commented on and at that point those running the strategy process believe everyone understands and is on board with the strategy.
But something quite interesting happens when they have to tell the story of the strategy. Firstly, by telling the story of the strategy they feel what the strategy sounds like. And you can literally see executives squirm with aspects of the strategy as they say it. University of Michigan Professor, Karl Weick, says that we really don’t know what we know until we hear ourselves say it. He calls this sensemaking. Our executives are making sense of their strategy.
Also by telling the story the ownership of the strategy shifts from the strategy group or the CEO to the executive telling the story. It’s now their story and all of a sudden they want to make sure it aligns to what they truly believe.
Now, as they go through this process a crucial conversation happens, one which we are ready for and help facilitate, where they voice their concerns and more often than not the strategy evolves slightly. The outcome is a strategy everyone believes in, one that’s consistent across the executive team, one they can share in their own words and one they are enthusiastic to tell.