A good boss acts like a shield to corporate BS

Posted by Shawn Callahan - November 4, 2013
Filed in Anecdotes, Leadership

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.

In 1985, Lucasfilm’s cash-hungry Computer Division was under the pump. A then-little-known enterprise called Pixar would soon emerge from the division to become a hugely successful computer animation studio. But in the meantime, company founder George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, had nagging doubts about the profitability of computer-generated movie imagery.

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.

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How to get all your executive team on the same page with your strategy

Posted by Shawn Callahan - July 24, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Leadership, Strategy

iStock_000003273134Small460.jpgHave 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.

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Are your leaders foxes or hedgehogs?

Posted by Mark Schenk - June 17, 2013
Filed in Collaboration, Leadership

The media and business worlds love experts with strong opinions and the ability to explain them confidently and authoritatively. We hear them on TV and read them in newspapers and online every day. Yet a 20-year study shows that these are the very people who are least likely to be accurate in predicting what will happen in the future.

In 1984, Philip Tetlock commenced a study to examine the accuracy of expert predictions. He found these experts fell into two main groups that he called foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Foxes draw on many ideas and sources of information and are quite tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. Hedgehogs tend to interpret the world using their favourite theory or dogma and are very confident in the ‘rightness’ of their view of the world.[Tschoegl et. al. 2007]

Tetlock, a psychologist, is Professor of Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. His research found that, in the main, experts were no more accurate in their predictions than ‘a monkey throwing darts’. But he clearly showed that foxes produce much more accurate forecasts than hedgehogs. He also found that when faced with their erroneous forecasts, foxes tended to acknowledge their error and adjust their thinking. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, rationalise their errors away on the basis that they were ‘nearly right’ or ‘unpredictable events interfered in the outcome’ or by pointing to the few occasions when they had got it right.

The implications of this research are many, but one that that reinforces my own experience is to be wary of highly confident people proclaiming a view and running down those with alternative perspectives.

It’s my view that Tetlock’s findings are also relevant in our organisations. We love to treated complex (wicked) problems as if they are technical problems that can be predicted and solved. The experts who stridently proclaim their opinions as being facts are often wrong. The people who stride the corridors and make the most noise are not necessarily the stars. The leaders who are most confident they are excellent at leading people are often the worst leaders.

In media and in organisations, the hedgehogs get the airtime. But the foxes are the ones to listen to.

  1. Tetlock, P. (2005): Expert Political Judgement: How good is it? How Can We Know?, Princeton University Press.
  2. Gardner, D. (2011): Future babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You can do better, Dutton, London.
  3. Tschoegl, A.E and Armstrong, S., Review of Philip E. Tetlock: (2007): “Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know?” in International Journal of Forecasting, Volume 23, Issue 2, 2007, pages 339-342

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Dynamic tension and team success

Posted by Mark Schenk - May 22, 2013
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Leadership

Earlier this week Shawn sent me an email. “You must see Steve Jobs: The Lost interview. It’s available on iTunes” (its the movie, not the radio show).

So, naturally I downloaded it and am halfway through it. It’s riveting. Jobs answers nearly every question with a story. When the interviewer talks about developing the first Macintosh, he asks “what is the secret of building a great product?”, Steve tells him that the secret of a great product is understanding that having a great idea is only 10% of the battle. The other 90% is getting a great team together who focus on content rather than process and understand that it never turns out the way you planned: it constantly changes and evolves and you need to make tremendous trade-offs. He tells this story:

When I was a young kid, there was a widowed man who lived up the street. He was in his 80s and a little scary looking and I got to know him a little bit, he might have paid me to cut his lawn or something like that. One day he said “come into my garage, I want to show you something.” He pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It had a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. We went out into the backyard and collected some rocks; just some regular old, ugly rocks. We put them into the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder. We closed the lid up and turned it on and he said “come back tomorrow”. The can was making a racket as the stones were tumbling around. I came back the next day and we opened the can and we took out these amazingly beautiful, polished rocks. Those common stones that had gone in, through rubbing up against each other (Steve starts slapping his hands, emulating the stones hitting each other), creating a bit of friction, a bit of noise, had produced these beautiful, polished rocks. And that’s always, in my mind, been my metaphor for a team that is working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people, bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes. Making some noise. And, working together, they polish each other and they polish the ideas and what comes out are really beautiful stones.

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Victim or player?

Posted by Mark Schenk - April 15, 2013
Filed in Leadership

I had a meeting on Friday with a senior leader facing a common problem. There are many changes going on and his people have developed the view that ‘head office doesn’t know anything about what we do and their restructures don’t make sense’ along other related non-productive views. He wants his team on the front foot so they are part of the change agenda and avoid have the changes ‘done to them’.

I was reminded of an activity described by Fred Kofman(1) that I use in nearly every leadership program we run. The activity helps show people that their explanations aren’t constructive without telling them so (telling them usually just creates resistance to your message).

The activity aims to illustrate that we can choose how we respond to situations (response-ability). Kofman stands at the front of the room and drops a pen, then asks “what caused the pen to fall?” “Gravity” is usually the first answer. Sometimes people point out that “you dropped it.” Both answers are correct, but Kofman points out that the usefulness of the answer is related to our purpose.

If your purpose is to prevent the pen from falling again, pointing out that the pen falls “because of gravity” will not help you. Essentially this means that as long as there is gravity the pen will fall, and there is nothing you can do about it. On the other hand, if you say that you dropped the pen, there is something you can do about it. The exercise demonstrates the important distinction between self-empowering explanations (“I dropped it”) and explanations that remove your power to influence the situation (“gravity caused the pen to fall”).

In Kofman’s words, your explanation determines if you will be a ‘victim’ or a ‘player.'</>

1. Kofman, F. (2006), ‘Conscious Business: How to build value through values’, Sounds True Press, page 33.

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Feeling the need for change

Posted by Daryl Cook - March 21, 2013
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Leadership

Kevin shared this story with me the other day. It’s too good not to retell.
> A few years back, there was an ad agency called Allen Brady and Marsh (ABM). It was a very showbiz agency, and not very fashionable. They were pitching for the British Rail account against some very good agencies and to say they were considered ‘underdogs’ would be an understatement.
> If they were to stand any chance of winning this account they had to find a way to prove they knew something the other, more fashionable agencies didn’t.
> Apparently, on the day of the pitch, the top management team of British Rail turned up at the ABM offices. When they arrived at reception it was deserted.
> The Chairman checked his watch, and they were on time.
> He looked around, and there was no one in sight — just a very scruffy reception area littered with crumpled newspapers, food wrappers, cigarette butts, and cushions with holes burned in them.
> It looked like the worst agency they’d ever been in.
> Eventually, a scruffy woman appeared and sat behind the desk. She ignored them and started rummaging in a drawer. The Chairman coughed. She ignored him, so he coughed again.
> Silence.
> He said, “Excuse me, we’re here to see …” The woman replied, “Be with you in a minute love.”
> He said, “But we have an appointment …” and she replied abruptly, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
> The Chairman was fuming. “This is outrageous” he said, “we’ve been waiting more than fifteen minutes.”
> “Can’t help that love” the receptionist replied.
> The Chairman had enough. “Right that’s it, we’re leaving” he declared, and the top management team of British Rail started to walk out.
> At that very moment, a door opened and out stepped the agency creative director, Peter Marsh.
> He’d been watching everything.
> He shook the Chairman’s hand warmly and said, “Gentlemen, you’ve just experienced what the public’s impression of British Rail is. Now, if you’ll come this way, we’ll show you exactly how we’re going to turn that around.”
> And he took the British Rail management team into the boardroom and went through their pitch about how bright the future could be, if ABM was their agency, which of course, it became.
This story is a great example of someone deliberately doing something remarkable (something people remark on) to make a real impact and to make people feel the need for change. It’s these kind of actions that inevitably trigger stories, and positively influence others.
How might you use this aspect of story triggering in your change initiative to show people what is different, not just tell them? How can you make them ‘feel’ the need for change?

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Show don’t tell

Posted by Kevin Bishop - March 15, 2013
Filed in Leadership

St Francis Story Quote

Click to see larger version 800×600

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Challenging ‘power’ and the stories that triggers

Posted by Kevin Bishop - March 8, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Leadership

A particular type of story that gets retold in organisations is the story about when ‘power’ was challenged and the result.

We collected the following story from a client about how challenge, or more accurately, a perceived challenge, was handled by their former chief executive:

Keith just asked a question during one of John’s Chief Executive Roadshows, and all he was really saying was, ‘I think there’s a problem. We need to fix it’. Keith wasn’t having a go at John, just trying to get a problem fixed. But apparently after that session, John pulled him aside and tore a strip off him, and that story went through this place like Epsom salts. From then on, no-one was going to open up in those sessions.

Some work we did recently with a City Council gave us a contrasting example.

On our first visit to the council’s main building, we found that the receptionist was very efficient – a little abrupt perhaps, but she left you in no doubt as to what was required of you as a visitor and the processes and procedures you had to follow. When we were in a lift with our client, we made a light-hearted comment about how efficient the receptionist was. The client laughed and told us a story about the day their CEO walked into the building to find she’d left her ID pass in her car. The receptionist denied her access. The CEO shrugged her shoulders and, without saying a word, went back to her car to get her pass. The next time we were at the council building, someone else told us exactly the same story. It had obviously had an impact across the organisation.

So what stories about challenging ‘power’ are being told in your organisation? What do they say about your culture? If you wanted to trigger a different story around this how could you do it?

Love to hear your views


Practical application of business storytelling

Posted by Mark Schenk - March 5, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Leadership

I was asked last week about the practical application of things we cover in our Storytelling for Leaders workshop. Fortunately, we had a very recent example to relate.

We ran a session in late November with the senior HR team for a large company and one of the participants called me in December to give some feedback.

During the workshop you helped me with a story I needed to explain the history and achievements of the major culture change initiative I am leading. With the new CEO arriving, I needed to win her support as the project was under threat. You gave me some great feedback around the essential components of the story and how to tell it without being long-winded. A few days after the workshop I got a phone call advising the new CEO would see me in 2 hours for a 30 minute meeting. I practised the story a couple of times before the meeting. Three minutes into the meeting, I have told the story and the new CEO was asking me how she could support the project. I was amazed at how effective the story was and how quickly I could communicate such a complex issue.

We often hear people say things like ‘I don’t have time to tell stories.’ This example helps explain the response we normally give to such comments…’you don’t have time not to use stories’.

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Story-triggering and behavioural integrity

Posted by Kevin Bishop - February 27, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Employee Engagement, Leadership

People judge their leaders by how their actions align with their words. And how aligned these two things are then triggers stories that get told, and retold, across the organisation.

People are looking to see how the messages they hear from their leaders in corporate communications, presentations, and in the organisation’s espoused values actually align with how these leaders behave day-to-day. The term used to describe this alignment between a leader’s words and their actions is behavioural integrity.

Behavioural integrity (BI) is achieved when what leaders say and what leaders do are aligned. Research shows that employees’ perception of their leaders’ BI has huge implications for individual, team and organisational performance. Employees who perceive strong BI in their leaders show increased trust, commitment and willingness to go the extra mile, thus improving customer satisfaction, decreasing employee turnover and improving profitability. (#1)

In 2002, researchers at Cornell University conducted a survey of 6500 employees across 76 US and Canadian Holiday Inn hotels (#2). They asked employees to rate on a 5-point scale how closely their managers’ words and actions were aligned. The researchers then compared the results of the survey with customer satisfaction surveys and staff and financial records.

The results were unambiguous: the hotels whose leaders received a high BI score were substantially more profitable than the hotels whose leaders’ BI was perceived to be weaker. The analysis showed that a one-eighth of a point improvement on the 5-point rating scale could be expected to increase profits by 2.5 per cent. In the case of the Holiday Inn study, that translated to a bottom-line impact of over US$250,000 per one-eighth-point improvement.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, best-selling author Patrick Lencioni argues that the foundation of a functional team is trust.(#3) Lack of trust, he asserts, opens the floodgates to four other dysfunctions: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. These five dysfunctions combine to sabotage even the most well-intentioned, intelligent and motivated teams. This assertion is in line with the results of the Cornell study, which found that BI is a precursor of trust and credibility.

In other words, for employees to trust their leaders and each other – the foundation of performance – they need to perceive a strong alignment between their manager’s words and actions.

This isn’t to say that BI means ‘doing the right thing’. It simply means doing what you say you will do, acting in a way that is consistent with your values and the messages you send. We may mistrust and even dislike someone who espouses and enacts values we consider unappealing, but we will give them some credit for representing those values honestly, thus displaying high BI.

Consider this story about former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, who is currently serving a 24-year prison term for conspiracy, insider trading, making false statements and securities fraud. One morning there was a long line of cars waiting to get into the Enron car park when Skilling’s car roared up and pushed into the front of the queue. In response to the honks of protest and frustration, Skilling just raised his middle finger.(#4)

Maybe this was exactly the message Skilling was trying to get across: ‘People from Enron don’t just stand in a queue and wait for their turn. We go straight to the front, push in, and take what is ours. And if anyone has a problem with that, we tell them where to go’. It certainly sounds like an action that was consistent with everything else he said and did while at Enron. I do think his behaviour maybe somewhat different in the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado?

So, why do stories about leaders’ BI get retold in organisations? Why do they trigger so many stories?

Employees look to either the behaviour of their leaders, or to stories about their behaviour, to judge their character. They want to find out who their leaders are, what they value, what they are passionate about and what annoys them. This is partly so they can predict the leaders’ future behaviour and its potential impact on them.

It’s often mistakenly believed that stories are just accounts of things that happened in the past. In fact, by revealing patterns of behaviour and personal tendencies, stories are also predictors of the future. By understanding how their leaders are likely to act, employees can modify their behaviour to reduce the risk to their own security, or alternatively to increase the likelihood that they will be treated favourably.

As author Tony Simons notes; “employees focus substantial attention on their managers partly because they depend on them for rewards, promotions, favourable assignments, resources and the like”.(#5)

This is why the stories leaders trigger by their actions are so important. They have a disproportionate impact on how people perceive their character and therefore their trustworthiness.


(#1) Simons, T. (2002). ‘Behavioral integrity: the perceived alignment between managers’ words and deeds as a research focus’, Organization Science, vol. 13, no. 1.

(#2) Simons, T. (2002). ‘The high cost of lost trust’ in the Harvard Business Review, September, 2002.

(#3) Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Jossey-Bass, New York.

(#4) Roberston, I. (2012). The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, Bloomsbury, London.

(#5) Simons, T. (2002). ‘Behavioral integrity: the perceived alignment between managers’ words and deeds as a research focus’, Organization Science, vol. 13, no. 1.

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