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039 – Reply all and touch many

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 18, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Have you ever felt nervous about making a mistake at work? Jill Roche shares a story which suggests you should look at mistakes as opportunities.

Email mistake

This week we welcome our first guest speaker for 2019 to Anecdotally Speaking! Jill Roche is the Chief of Corporate Affairs at World Vision Australia. She shares a story which suggests we should look at mistakes as opportunities.

Imagine unthinkingly hitting the ‘reply all’ button on an email and sending a note, intended for your immediate team, to your entire organisation! Jill made this mistake, but she owned it and used it to make a point.

For your storybank

Tags: character, communication, connection story, culture, mistakes 

In September 2018, a large earthquake struck Sulawesi, Indonesia, triggering a tsunami and several landslides.

Staff at World Vision Australia were quick to respond to the disaster. They pulled together an emergency response team, appealed to the Australian public to raise funds, and sent a high profile contingent, including chief advocate Tim Costello, from Australia to Indonesia. Their goal was to garner political and financial support, and media coverage, for the response in Indonesia.

It was a very busy time for the organisation. One of the organisation’s board members, the Chair of the World Vision International Board, reached out and said, “Hey, I feel like you guys are doing so much great work there. I would like to come in and just be in the building, be present. I want staff to know that their board is supporting the work they are doing, responding to this emergency while doing all their normal work.” She would fly into Melbourne from another Australian state and arrive within the next 24-48 hours.

Jill Roche, the organisation’s Chief of Corporate Affairs, recognised what a rare opportunity it would be for staff to have such close proximity to one of their board members. She and her team accordingly decided they would do what they could to maximise the opportunity.

The team managed to arrange a full day’s agenda, consisting of a series of events and activities that the board member could be involved in. They did so while continuing to manage the organisation’s emergency response communications.

They then sent an email out to all staff, inviting them to participate.

Jill received this email and, in a flurry of activity, didn’t pause to think before she hit the ‘reply all’ button. She wanted to praise her team for pulling it all together, so wrote “Wow, this has turned into a whole big fancy thing now”, and hit send. Her response went to every single person in the organisation.

Ten minutes later, replies started coming in, “Do you know you just sent that to everyone?”

Jill hit the reply all button again, this time intentionally, and replied very formally, “Yes, I acknowledge that I hit the reply all button. That message wasn’t intended for all staff, please disregard”.

Later that day, she reflected on her error. She thought, “I’m missing an opportunity if I don’t do something with this… I’ve made a mistake… It was highly visible… I can’t just pretend it didn’t happen”.

The next day, the board member arrived. Jill was asked to fill in for one of her colleagues and speak at a town hall meeting, to share a story about why she worked at World Vision.

Jill got up on stage and started speaking. She soon paused and asked her audience, “Are you aware of the mistake I made yesterday? Have you ever felt nervous about making a mistake at work?” She spoke about her mistake, then shared the responses she had received to her email.

The responses weren’t pointing out her error. Instead, they were encouraging and supportive. They asked, “Are you okay? That must’ve been embarrassing,” and “Is there anything I can do to lighten your load?”

Jill used the story to illustrate the compassion and grace within her organisation.

After she had finished speaking, her colleagues came up to her and told her how great her speech was.

Podcast Transcript

Shawn:        

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk. And before we start the podcast today I’d just like to let everybody know that we’ve been busy planning our year. 2019 is going to have lots of travel for the Anecdote team and we’ve set a bunch of public events all over the world. If you go to our events page www.anecdote.com/events you’ll be able to see all those events and hopefully we’ll see you somewhere around the planet.

Speaking of travel, Shawn you’ve been on the road.

Shawn:       

Yes I have, I’ve been out recording some of our customers telling stories that we can play back to you in the podcasts in the next coming weeks, and I would like to introduce you to the first guest for today…

Jill:

My name is Jill Roche but most people refer to me as Jilly, well those that are familiar with me refer to me as Jilly. I work for World Vision Australia, so a part of an international, not for profit NGO organisation but focused in their Australian operations.

My portfolio is corporate affairs, which is a whole bunch of stuff which usually requires some sort of explanation but it’s generally functions that are focused on promoting and protecting our brand and reputation and identity.

Shawn:

Fantastic. We’ve known each other for a while now haven’t we, sort of doing projects over the years and lots of interesting story promos which has been fabulous.

With this podcast, Jill, we are always looking out for stories that people tell in an organisational setting, and I know you’ve got one to share with us. It might be useful to give us a little bit of context like, what do we need to know to understand this story?

Jill:

Sure. It’s a small story but I think it’s a good illustration of the opportunity for demonstrating leadership through storytelling. And in particular demonstrating leadership through making mistakes and bringing those to life through a story.

September last year there was a huge earthquake and tsunami that hit Sulawesi in Indonesia. One of the aspects of World Vision’s work is we respond to humanitarian and emergency affairs. So as soon as the earthquake and tsunami hit we reached out to our colleagues who are based in Indonesia to check if they were okay and to find out what the impact was.

On the basis of that, we pulled together an emergency response team, decided we would appeal to the Australian public to raise funds, and we sent a pretty high profile contingent if you like, from Australia to Indonesia and that included our chief advocate, Tim Costello.

The idea behind that was; A) our staff on the ground would feel their colleagues are working alongside and for and supporting them in their response locally in Indonesia. But also to garner media and political and financial support for the response in Indonesia.

So it was pretty full on busy time, it always is in an emergency and it’s one of the things World Vision does really well. Everyone knows what their role is in an emergency but it’s full on flat tack, 24/7 find of work. It’s a pretty intense kind of working environment to be in.

And information’s flying around all the time, often chaotic, not confirmed, needing to be confirmed before we reach out to our supporter base to say, hey support us in this response.

We have to be clear what we are doing on the ground. What are we raising funds for, how will the money have an impact and we have to make sure that we are aligned with governments and all those sorts of things.

There are a lot of steps, a lot of information and a lot of communication that happens and it’s tiring for staff that are involved.

In the mist of that we had lots of, I guess offers of encouragement, support prayers coming in from supporters from partners and from our board. And in particular, one of our board members who also happens to be our international board chair reached out and said, ‘hey I feel like you guys are doing so much work there, I want to come in and just be in the building, be present so that the staff know that their board are supporting the work that they are doing’.

You are responding to an emergency while you are doing all the normal work that you have to be doing as well. All the other stuff we do doesn’t just stop just because a tsunami hits, it just increases.

So she is based in another state. And she said,  let me fly into Victoria where your head office is, let me just be in the building, be with staff, I don’t want to make a big fuss about it but let me come and I will do that in the next 24/48 hours.

Anyone that works in an organisation knows that it is a rare opportunity to have close proximity to your board directors, particularly for staff. If you work in the government space like I do, you get to meet the board periodically and spend time with them but for staff that is a really unusual experience.   

So we wanted to make sure that we maximised the opportunity that came with having this board member in the building. We weren’t just going to let her turn up and kind of find her way around. We wanted to put some stuff in place.

That meant I had to put a lot of pressure on my team to get a full day’s agenda sorted. We needed a staff town hall scheduled. We needed to do a bunch of things to maximise the value of having her in the building. And we had to do that while still managing all the emergency response communications.  

So my team did an amazing job and pulled together a whole sequence of events and activities for her to be involved in. And they sent an invitation out to all staff saying, great news, she’s going to be in the building, meet us at this time, blah, blah, blah.

I, in my flurry of activity, I didn’t pause long enough to think before I hit the reply all button, that my response would go back to everybody in our entire organisation.

Shawn:

(Laughter)

Jill:

So in an effort to want to praise my team for pulling stuff together I hit reply all and wrote, ‘wow this has turned into a whole big fancy thing now.’ That went to every single employee in the building and I paused for about ten minutes and then the emails started coming.

Do you realise that you have responded to everyone and everyone was sending me messages. So I sent back a formal reply and said to everyone, yes, so I acknowledge I hit the all reply button, that message wasn’t intended for everyone, please disregard and it had a kind of formal tone to it.

But then later that day I kind of thought it’s a really missed opportunity if I don’t do something with that. It’s highly visible internally, I’ve made a mistake. I can’t just drive past it and pretend it didn’t happen; I need to do something with it.

So, the next day she arrived and we had the Town Hall and I was the MC. But I was also asked at the last minute to step in for my colleague who was in Indonesia and I needed to share a story about why I worked at World Vision.

So I had to pull it together. At 6am that morning, I’m typing up notes about why I work at World Vision. It struck me that the response I had received the day before from our staff when I had made a mistake was actually illustrative of one of the reasons why I work at World Vision.

So I did a little spiel but then I kind of paused and I asked the audience if they were aware of the mistake I had made the day before. And I asked the audience, about a few hundred people sitting in our auditorium in Darwin and then I asked people if they were ever nervous about making a mistake at work?

I paused for a little bit, then I offered to lighten their load by poking fun at myself, but also sharing the gracious responses I got from people the day before. When I did make a mistake, the emails I got weren’t, ‘did you know you did this wrong?’

The emails I got were, ‘are you okay? ‘That must have been embarrassing, is there anything I can do to help clean up?’ ‘Now that you’ve got that organised is there anything else that we can do?’ And I just had messages of encouragement and support which showed real, I think, compassion and grace that exists in our workforce.

Being able to share that in the Town Hall and say, it’s terrifying to think that you are going to make a mistake. If you are in charge of communications of the entire organisation like I am and you make a rooky mistake like hitting reply all, there is possibly no more embarrassing example I could put forward.

But the response I got back from people was just a beautiful sense of encouragement, a bit of fun and levity attached to it and kind of a lightening of the heaviness that was existing in the building at that particular time.

Afterwards I had people come up to me and say, that was so great a) that you didn’t have time to prepare your notes in the morning and you just spoke from the heart and  b) that you were prepared to call out that you’d made a mistake and you were poking a bit of fun at yourself but at the same time letting us know, nothing grave is going to happen if you stuff up at work , acknowledge your mistake, learn from it and work differently in response to it.

Shawn:

That’s lovely. What a great story, Jill. That’s terrific I’ve got tingles up my spine. It’s funny it’s the small human things in many ways. So tell me this, when you got up and then told it in the auditorium as the story line, the thing that happened, what was the feeling or  did you get a sense of the response or maybe even after the event?

Jill:               

I think part of the response I got was the way in which I approached it which was to poke a bit of fun at myself.

Shawn:

Self-deprecation, we love it.

Jill:

So there was shared laughter when I said, could you imagine doing this, what a rooky, everyone laughed. There were lots of nodding heads when I said sometimes you can be really fearful about making mistakes but actually I have found, particularly in World Vision, and it exists in other organisations but particularly where we work, that what you are usually met with is support and encouragement.

So we have been having conversations as an executive team about our strategic direction, wanting to be a learning organisation, how you innovate and to innovate you have to be comfortable with failure. And you can’t be comfortable with failure if you have a fear of making a mistake.

So I thought this is such a tiny little example but it’s a good demonstration of the fact that you can make mistakes, it’s okay to be vulnerable and poke fun at yourself as well. Just because I am part of the leadership team, doesn’t mean I’m infallible. We all know that but.

Shawn:

It’s nice to be reminded

Jill:

It’s nice to be reminded and to be okay with that.

Shawn:

Fantastic. Well thanks, Jill, we are going to have fun with that. Mark and I are going to chat about the story and all the things we love about it so thanks again for coming along on our podcast.

Jill:

You’re welcome, it’s a pleasure.

 

                                                      ——————————–

 

Shawn:

Hey, that was a great little story there. It’s fantastic to hear some of our customers talk about how they are using storytelling.

Mark:

Yeah, and of course Jill attended one of our programmes many years ago and so she has had a bit of practice at storytelling and it’s great to see that she’s doing it and getting some great results.

Shawn:

Just that habit of storytelling. It’s one of the things we are always talking about; how do you develop that habit so it comes naturally?

Mark:          

And obviously Jill has been practising because there she is, on stage with very little practice, telling a very effective story.

Shawn:

Yeah indeed. Now as we would like to do it, Mark of course we will start of talking about things that we really love in that story. What worked for us, lets pull it apart a little bit and dig in then we will talk about things that would make it better and where you can use it.

So for you what do you reckon, what are some of the big things that stand out for you?

Mark:

First thing is vulnerability. Just a story about a mistake, showing vulnerability and how powerful that is to demonstrate your character. She could have told any story, but she choose to tell one about a mistake, show vulnerability and had really good response from that.

And you’ve probably done the same thing as I have around the world and just watched people share stories about stories about vulnerability. I’ve never seen somebody’s character do anything other than increase in the eyes of the listener when you share a story about a moment when you made a mistake.

Shawn:

It’s great for senior leaders isn’t it? They need to have that in their back pocket. And I loved the fact that this is something that happened the day before, right.

Mark:

Exactly

Shawn:

And then the next day she’s rolled it into a town hall meeting–that takes skill.

Mark:          

Yeah, the ability to notice the moment and as an opportunity to make a point.

Shawn:        

It wasn’t complicated or a big story and this is what we love. We are big proponents of small ‘s’ storytelling. This fits nicely into that category doesn’t it.

Mark:          

Yeah, so a small story about a mistake that had a big impact. It’s a great combination of a lesson for all of us.

Shawn:        

Indeed, now one of the things that stood out for me in that story is that there is quite a lot of dialogue, did you notice that?

Mark:           

Yeah, when I listened to it for the first time I wrote down some of the dialogue.

Shawn:       

Really.

Mark:          

Yeah, the board member saying, ‘I don’t want to make a fuss about it’. The question that Jill asked the group at the start of the presentation when she said, ‘have any of you been nervous about making a mistake?’ Those little bits of dialogue really enhance the story.

Shawn:        

Yes as soon as you hear dialogue as a listener you feel like you are right there. It’s like you are the other person in the huddle whose part of that conversation.

Mark:          

Of course you don’t want to take dialogue too far; she said this and I said that and she said this. That really runs out of steam very, very quickly. But selective use of important pieces of dialogue really enhances.

Shawn:       

I like too how she starts her presentation with a question. You know getting them to think about those moments where they’ve made mistakes. It’s just a nice segue into being able to talk about what happened to her. So I think that’s another great element of this.

Mark:          

And for those people who are thinking about preparing a presentation, one of the great ways to start is with a provocative question like that.

Shawn:        

Yeah indeed. So we’ve got dialogue, we’ve got that humility, that vulnerability that she was showing. I think there was another element in this. In some ways this story is told in two parts. The question I asked in the very beginning kind of set it up that way cause I said, ‘okay Jill what do we need to know to understand this story?’ So she gave us the back story.

Mark:          

The Sulawesi cyclone story.

Shawn:        

Exactly, so there was the emergency and all the things that came together for that, and just hearing that story you get a really good feel for the frenetic environment they would have been in.

Mark:          

And the high profile delegation, including Tim Costello, their ambassador.

Shawn:       

So I think that back story really does set things up nicely, just to hear a relatively small story but the big impact it has.

Mark:          

I guess having all that really does set the context for pushing the reply all.

Shawn:        

Yes, that’s right. It makes sense when you hear all that. You go yeah, I could have done that quite easily. In terms of other things that really made this story stand out I would say probably having a few names like Tim Costello. For those people who know that name, that immediately adds some extra credibility to your story.

It’s the detail, Sulawesi, everybody coming together in the headquarters. We probably could have a little more detail there I would say in that telling in terms of where that is. Maybe give us a bit of a picture of what it is. Is it a big room with lots of people with desks, phone calls going on, you know what is it?

Mark:           

Like an operation centre.

Shawn:        

Yes, exactly. What do you think of some of the other things that could make this story a   little bit better?

Mark:          

I guess the obvious one is duration. That story could be shorter. I’m not saying it should be but there is an opportunity to tell that story in a more condensed version.

Shawn:        

I think that would come too once you really understood why you were telling that story. And we’ve talked about this before; once you know the point of your story, you tend to drive towards that point and things get crunched down a little bit more to get to that end point.

Mark:          

So Jill was very clear on the point of telling the story in the Town Hall meeting. But in the setup, because you asked her that question about what do we need to know and that bit hadn’t been practised.

Shawn:        

She was just telling it of the top of her head.

Mark:          

And so again being clearer on the purpose of that original story could help to make it even shorter.

Shawn:         

I think this brings us to where would you tell this story? The bigger story that she told with the background, I think it’s to be told when she’s teaching other leaders about fast ways to build rapport using storytelling. It’s a great example of the use of storytelling.

It’s something that once other leaders in her organisation start to get that idea of how you do it, it just adds a capability they could use in all sorts of situations.

For people listening to the podcast, this is what we are asking you guys to do as well, keep your ear out. You’ve get to have your senses going to see what happening so you can take something that happened yesterday and roll it into standing in front of your team the next day. Right, small things.

Mark:           

I also think it could be used when she was trying to make a point about agile, about changing the organisation. Well agile organisations try things; they don’t always work out so here it’s okay to do that, just as an example.

Shawn:        

Yeah, I like that.

Mark:          

It’s an important one in fact that’s an example you could use. You could use Jill’s story in a very short version to share in any organisation–the way you need to behave in order to be able to be innovative.

Shawn:        

Yeah, you are right and she makes that point which is great. At this point we typically go for our score.

Mark:          

Before we go to our score I think there is one more really important aspect to what we just heard from Jill. That is the opportunity that Jill provides us all in looking for those errors or being aware of those mistakes as opportunities to make a point. Because what often happens is something goes wrong and we do want to cover up. We do want to pretend it didn’t happen and I really love what Jill said after she’d pushed the go button, she said, I didn’t want to pretend that it didn’t happen.

Shawn:        

Right.

Mark:          

But most of us do.

Shawn:        

Yeah, sweep it under the carpet.

Mark:          

We won’t talk about that again, and in the process of doing it we miss the opportunity of having a fantastic story in our story bank. I do want to draw this out because it’s not a point to be taken lightly because we all make mistakes.

Now we’ve heard that a thousand times and we do all make mistakes but if we sweep them under the table we lose the opportunity to have those stories in our story bank and we also lose enormous opportunity to connect with people.

So Robert Cialdini, world expert on influences; we are most influenced by people who are like us. If you are a leader and you stand on a stage and share a story about a mistake, you are instantly like everyone in your organisation and everyone in your audience.

Shawn:        

Everyone makes mistake.

Mark:          

Rather than sweep them under the table, look at them as potential opportunities to demonstrate your character.

Shawn:        

Yeah, that’s a really good point and it sort of relates also in organisations. We’ve seen a lot of businesses now looking at ways to get their values out and sticking in the organisation. This type of thing gives an insight into a value, that value of integrity. I have collected stories in organisations around that topic of integrity and I’ve heard some really great mistake stories.

The one that springs to mind was for a banker, ‘cause banks are in the spot light at the moment. This is a positive story about a bank. It was about a young lawyer who had just joined the bank and he did his first few pieces of work for other parts of the bank, legal work, and on this one particular project he submitted and got signed off, he realised he’d made a mistake on it, and he did consider just leaving it in.

Mark:          

So it was one of those mistakes where it was a chance that people wouldn’t notice?

Shawn:        

Yeah, in fact there was more than a good chance that no one would notice so he thought to himself he would let that slide. But then he thought is that the lawyer I want to be, the type of lawyer. Then he want ‘no, that’s not what I want to be’.

So with some embarrassment he had to go up to his boss and say look, I’ve made this error. It was embarrassing for his boss as he had to go over to the client, internal client and say, look we’ve made a mistake. But do you know what, both of those senior leaders eventually turned around and said to him, this is exactly what we want. This is right down the line, this is what our values are all about, and you’ve done the right thing and they praised him for it. So again you show not only your vulnerability, you show your humanity, you show that you’ve got these great values to be able to make these mistakes.

Mark:          

This is what this value looks like in real life.

Shawn:        

Yeah, it’s concrete. Love it.

Now ratings. I bought the story along so how about you kick off with a rating.

Mark:          

Okay. One of the things I absolutely loved about that is the illustration it gives to everybody about how easy it is to take a mistake and turn it into a really cool story. I’m going to give it a 7.

Shawn:       

I had that in my mind as well. It gives you a nice model of what to do. It was nice story to listen to. I know when I was listening to the story and I think I said it in the recording, ‘I had tingles in my spine’. It was just a very nice story to hear. If you have that sort of reaction you should be noticing those sorts of stories.

Mark:          

So the story describes what happens. A good story helps the listener picture what happens and a great story helps the listener feel what happens.

Shawn:        

Terrific.

Mark:          

Just a quick reminder about our events page on our website. If you do want to attend one of our workshops somewhere around the globe please have a look at the events page because we have quite a list for the rest of 2019.

Shawn:        

Yeah, it should be good getting involved in all that. Well I think we’ll wrap everything up. Thanks everyone for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and tune in next week for yet another story, another episode on how to put stories to work. Bye for now.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of 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:

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