Blog

006 – Accidentally winding up a bank

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 12, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

The way leaders react in times of high stress is a good measure of their character. And it is in these times of strain everyone is taking note of what the leader is doing. The leader’s reaction creates new stories that make the organisation’s culture. You can’t underestimate how important these moments are.

Our story today is one of these moments. It happened in a law firm.

business-man-running

So why do the stories of our senior leaders’ actions get retold? It turns out that we are very mindful of the actions of anyone with power because powerful people can affect our lives. Power can come in many forms, there is hierarchy power, money power, expertise power, beauty power, celebrity power, and the power that comes from knowing powerful people. If you want to tell a story people will sit up and take notice then share one featuring a powerful person.

Most people think that stories are merely about events that have happened in the past. When people share stories of their leaders it is also an indicator of how they might respond in the future. If they have behaved well in the past it’s likely they will do so in the future. Each story retold becomes a data point that helps factor the organisation’s psychological safety.

And as Google discovered, psychological safety makes for the most productive teams.

For your story bank

A relatively junior lawyer is working on a solvency matter in the morning keen to get to a firm lunch.

He gets the paperwork off to the regulator to put a company into insolvency on behalf of a bank.

He races off to lunch but when he walks into the restaurant the senior partner says he needs to get back to the office right away. There’s a big problem with the insolvency he had just done.

As he’s getting back to his office he hears what the problem is. They got the paperwork back to front and was putting the bank into insolvency. The regulators had already sent the information to the bank’s board which just happened to be meeting that lunchtime.

As he walks into his office the elevator door opens at the other end of the corridor and there was the managing partner looking straight at him.

The partner strides down the corridor and when he gets right up to the junior lawyer he puts his hands on the junior lawyer’s shoulders and says “Are you OK? It’s going to be alright. We will get this all fixed …”

That was 20 years ago. He joined back then just to get some experience and would probably have moved to his next firm. But now that junior lawyer is one of the senior leaders of that law firm.

Podcast Transcript

Shawn:

Welcome back to Anecdotally Speaking, the podcast that helps leaders and sellers tell great oral stories. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:   

And I’m Mark Schenk.

Shawn:  

It’s great again to be here.

Mark:    

Episode 6.

Shawn:

Episode 6. So, I hear you’re doing a bit of travel, Mark. I think that’s the next thing on your list. Where are you off to?

Mark:  

It is indeed. Well, tomorrow I’m leaving Melbourne, where it’s a lovely 26° Celsius, it’s a lovely day here and I’m going to Minneapolis. I’m busily trying to find enough warm clothes to survive a week over there; gloves, beanies, and scarves.

Shawn:   

I hear that Minneapolis, at this time of the year, you’re looking at perhaps -20° Celsius.

Mark:  

Yeah, in fact, I was on the phone to the client just the other day and it was -20° and they said ‘yeah, but you’ve got to add another 20° for wind chill.’ So, I go, ‘oh, no’.

Shawn:

That’ll test you.

Mark:   

Yeah, that will test me.

Shawn:   

Well, it’ll be good. I’d like to see some photos out of that so keep us posted. Don’t freeze to death whatever you do.

Now, you’ve got a story for us. Set that one up for us and give us a sense of what that one’s going to be about.

Mark:

Well this example illustrates the tremendous impact a leader can have in how they respond to a crisis. Now, this story was shared three or four years ago. I was up in Sydney working with a law firm. They were launching their new values and one of the values was respect.

So, big event, Darling Harbour and the entire firm was there. I had the value of respect and they would come through in groups of about 50 and I just got them to share examples of where they saw the value of respect, or not.

And one of the senior partners shared an experience that had happened to him 20 years earlier. He was relatively junior, at that time, in the insolvency practice. And what that means is that a creditor, there’s an outstanding debt and the debtor doesn’t pay and when the payment period’s expired the creditor is told to place them into insolvency.

In insolvency practice, one of the key things that they did was to submit the applications for insolvency to the regulator.

He said it was a Friday morning and there was a big lunchtime event. They had an insolvency matter to deal with in the morning and they worked hard, under pressure, so that they could get to the restaurant at lunchtime.

And it took a bit longer than they had hoped so they got to the restaurant a little bit late and everybody was waiting, and he said:

“I walked into the restaurant and the senior partner looked up and said, ‘you need to go back to the office right now’. And I go ‘what?’ Anyway, I’ve turned around and walked out and I’m started making calls and over the next 10 minutes or so, as I’m going back to the office, the story comes together.

We’ve made a huge mistake. The bank is placing our small company into insolvency, we’d got it the wrong way around and we’d submitted the paperwork that the small company was making the bank insolvent. And by the time I’d got back to the office I heard that the Regulator had contacted the Board at the Bank (and they were actually meeting in New Zealand at the time) telling them they’d been placed into insolvency—one of Australia’s biggest banks.

This was huge. I went up to my office. I was walking towards my office door and the elevators opened at the other end of the corridor and the National Managing partner was just looking at me. And he strides towards me and I’m thinking it’s all over, red rover.

He walks up to me and he puts his hand on my shoulder and he just looks me in the face and he goes, ‘Are you o.k.? We’ll get through this, this is a mistake, but I just want to make sure that you’re o.k.’

That moment had a huge impact on me because I had joined that law firm because they were very well known, and I was going to build my resume and move on. But I’m still here and a lot of it is because of that moment.”

Shawn:  

Holy smoke.

Mark:   

And that’s respect.

Shawn:   

What a great story. It’s one of those ones that flip our expectations, right? Let’s talk about why that story works. What are some of the things for you that stand out that really make that story work?

Mark:        

The shock of actually placing the bank into insolvency.

Shawn:

I actually laughed when you said that because you go, ‘oh my god, how does that actually happen?’ But I think the little detail about the fact that the Board was meeting in New Zealand. I think, for some reason, that for me made it an even more plausible story.

Mark:  

It kind of increases the stakes.

Shawn:

It does; one of those funny coincidences that it’s actually happening right there and then. It happens all the time. So, I thought that was a nice detail in the story. I thought that was a nice detail in the story; the New Zealand reference was a good one.

Of course, in any of these stories we have expectations and we have stereotypes of how we think people are going to respond. So, we think senior leader in law firm is going to be a kickass sort of guy that’s going to take no prisoners.

I love that scene where the elevator doors and open and there he is looking straight at the poor fellow who’s made the error and he strides towards him. And I’m thinking, ‘oh my god, he’s going to cop it, right?’ So that’s the twist, right?

Shawn:   

Exactly and that tiny action had a huge impact on that guy and he’s still there 20 years later.

Mark:

Yes, I’ve heard lots of examples like that actually. It’s such an important thing.

Shawn:  

Is there anything else we need to say about the actual structure, features, or characteristics of the story that help it work?

Mark:   

I’m thinking it probably took about two and a half minutes to tell, which in some circumstances is a bit long. So, paring it back might make it even better. I’m not sure how I’d do that but practice it a few times and take out any details that aren’t essential.

But, of course, you’ve got to be careful not to strip out any of the details that make a difference.

Shawn:      

True, yeah but that’s a good point. My rule of thumb is anywhere between one and three minutes makes a good business story. As soon as you push beyond that you kind of need to be on a stage somewhere where you have full command and people give you that flexibility to tell a much longer story.

But when you’re just having conversations with people you don’t often have that. In fact, there is a strategy you can use if you do have a longer story. I had to give a talk to a group of executives just the other day and I had a story I wanted to tell and so I told the first minute and a half of the story and then through the rest of the meeting I added elements of the story.

And that’s another way to be able to tell a longer story but you’re not trying to fill it all right up front, to front load it. Going back to your story though; where would you tell it? What would be the circumstances where this would be a great story to tell?

Mark:  

Well, what does respect look like in our organisation? Every company has got values and a lot of them have definitions, which don’t really mean anything. I heard a great description once; ‘values are like a talisman that you hang on the wall to ward off evil spirits’.

Shawn:   

Yeah, right, why not?

Mark:    

But I think having real life examples of what the value looks like is a fantastic way to illustrate that value and influence behaviour that more of that sort of thing happens.

Shawn:   

I think the other thing for me too is that if you’re talking to a group of leaders and saying, ‘guys, guess what? When there’s a crisis the spotlight is on you’. Everyone is looking at you. Here is your time to shine; don’t stuff it up.

In fact, you could do something that’s so remarkable people will tell stories about that.

Mark:     

For 20 years.

Shawn:      

For 20 years. I mean the guy is still telling that story, right? Imagine if leaders become aware of that great opportunity when there’s a stuff-up here’s your time to shine.

Mark:    

That is a fantastic application to encourage leaders to think about the way they respond to bad news.

Shawn:  

I guess another application would be in interviews and people are trying to get a sense of the culture of the organisation and saying ‘what sort of culture do you have?

Mark: 

Recruitment interviews?

Shawn:  

Recruitment interviews or even just a casual conversation you’re having with a group of people and they want to get a sense of the type of organisation you are, instead of giving that woolly, high-level description; we value respect, collaboration, and integrity, you could just go down to a specific instance and say, ‘let me give you an example’.

Mark:

So, responding to the question ’what’s it like working in your organisation?’ What’s it like to work there? Well, let me tell you what it’s like to work here and tell that story and suddenly people are going ‘wow.’ Whereas the normal response is ‘oh, it’s very collaborative and there’s a lot of respect and I feel quite valued and I could probably do with a bit more autonomy’.

Shawn: 

Exactly. Is there anything we could do to make that story even better? I’m just jumping back to the previous section. I’m just wondering if there’s anything.

Mark:   

I sense you’ve got an idea.

Shawn:      

Talking about specifics and details; there are bits in there that we didn’t provide as details because it’s confidential. We didn’t name the law firm, the partner but if you were in that organisation you would provide those details. So, you’ve got to be aware of your context, right?

Mark:       

Absolutely.

Shawn:      

Well, let’s give this a rating, Mark? That story, where would you put it?

Mark:        

And not just because it’s a story I told but I’d give that one an 8

Shawn:   

Yeah, for me it’s a 7.5. I think it’s a great story of surprise and it shows leadership at its best, right? If we can get more of those out there we could surely do with a great leadership.

Mark:    

It would help certainly restore humanity to a lot more workplaces.

Shawn:     

That’s for sure.

Shawn:  

Well guys, again thanks for listening to Anecdotally Speaking. Please get on to iTunes or Android and rate the show and make a comment—it just helps people find the show. We’re just trying to get the word out and thanks again for tuning in.

And we’re really just hoping you get out there and put your stories to work. Till next time.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

One Response to “006 – Accidentally winding up a bank”

  1. Ronnie Dunetz Says:

    Like this one, I would say it gives the message of “people over profits” very strongly. Also, “We got your back”, we are in this together.

    What I like most about this is the focus of the “conflict” that can really be made visceral: who amongst us does not remember feeling the “terror” of having really made a BIG mistake, the sweat going down our backs, we think we have lost “everything” and then…the authentic leader shows what he is made of!

    Lovely story, thanks.

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