By Gerry Lantz
What Stories Should Leaders Tell? And Why.
The CEO and C-Suite leaders are under pressure like never before given the near “black swan” event brought on by the pandemic. C-suite leaders have two broad responsibilities: make decisions and move the company forward profitably. As companies face the “next normal” within their companies and their markets, they need every persuasive tool available to them.
I would add these two strategic skills for effective leadership, specifically:
• Be a story detective
• Be a storyteller
I can hear you saying: “What, are you nuts? With everything she has to do, you’re saying she has to become an orator or an entertainer.”
Nope, not at all. Just don’t be afraid to tell stories. We were born to do it. Whatever steps any senior leader takes to become a story detective and storyteller can improve her ability to, well, lead. And much more.
Savvy business leaders know that stories…
- Can add stability and calm in times of great uncertainty
- Organize required change in a way people need to hear it
- Cause listening, making points easier to recall, re-tell, and act on
- Reduce complexity by keeping plans and priorities simple
- Support cultural values—so beliefs and behavior are held in common
- Add passion, personality, meaning to the day-to-day
- Work across small groups and large and multiple locations
“Stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.” Jennifer Aaker, Marketing Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Business Study
Storytelling in business has been a “hot” topic for at least 25 years. Unfortunately, storytelling is often perceived as a “soft skill”. Yet, stories can help deliver solid results by promoting strategic and cultural alignment, harmonizing marketing and sales messages, and achieving consensus about how to engage and develop customer relationships.
Stories have the power to communicate memorably and persuasively in so many areas fundamental to business success.
- Motivate employees to follow you
- Get agreement to desired decisions
- Encapsulate a strategy and required actions
- Launch and build businesses
- Set a memorable agenda
- Help sell faster and more effectively
- Solidify a culture and its values
- Share learning and to teach
- Recruit, train, reward employees
Employees want to feel they have a stake in the company and its direction. More than information, employees respond to empathy, authenticity, and a sense of shared experience and commitment. Those attributes register powerfully in stories.
Be a Story Detective
Finding stories can be easier if you gather them strategically. Construct a framework for capturing extraordinary and ordinary events that carry meaning beyond just “what happened”. Forge link a story can have to a larger objective or strategy.
- Notice people doing extraordinary things or every day heroic acts
- Highlight when the organization at its best
- Catch someone doing something right
- Look for “How we do things around here” culture stories
- Ask customers to relate their experience of working with your company
- Urge the sales department, call center, and customer service, who are the “voice of the customer”, to share what they hear and know
- Lookout for stories that surprise, delight, and land a point you want to make
Be a Storyteller. (But, Which Ones?)
Start with two story types that can help achieve multiple business and cultural objectives.
What is the vision for the company as it faces a post-Covid world? Now is the time to revisit your vision, mission, and values—they are either evergreen no matter the market circumstances or they need to be aired out and adjusted.
Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (2006), believes leaders must answer the big questions about the company’s purpose. Each question and its answer can be a strong platform for powerful stories.
- Who am I?
- Who are we?
- Where are we going?
- How are we going to get there?
In today’s highly volatile business environment, answering these questions could be tantamount to asking people to follow you into dangerous territory. As Senge states, “The best way to get people to venture into unknown terrain is to make it desirable by taking them there in their imaginations.” That’s material for a galvanizing story: authentic, accessible, and achievable if everyone feels they have a stake in the challenge.
Do not fear to make your stories personal. The best stories are about people, not usually processes, which are typically dull. Here are some springboards for engaging personal leadership stories.
- What are your highest aspirations for yourself, for the company?
- What has your own work or life experience taught you to be true?
- What is the hardest truth for you, for the company to acknowledge, accept, and act on?
- What do you love about the company, the industry?
- Who has inspired you and why?
Stories are an integral part of creating a culture by design and not by accident. Wrap stories around each value to anchor it in the real-world experience of employees.
Celebrate employees who do something “right” with a story. Some examples are:
- Collaboration between silos
- Relationship building with customers
- Helping a customer say “yes” to close a sale
- Going the extra mile to fix a problem
I call these extra effort stories, “Frodo Stories” after the hobbit character in Lord of the Rings. He struggles against overwhelming odds to throw the last “ring of power” into “crack of doom” and save Middle Earth. Theatrical, you bet. It is highly likely that throughout your organization there are people who make extraordinary effort, struggle against the odds, create wholly new solutions, and achieve exceptional results. Tell their story.
Stories Are Everywhere
Corporate vision and culture are bigger than your buildings (or your home office). Positive stories work best to move a vision and culture forward. Try these for starters:
- Founder’s or founding stories
- How we grew stories
- Change and innovation stories
- What we do well stories
- When is the organization at its best?
- When are or have you been most proud of your organization, others, yourself?
You were born to tell stories. Stories improve in the telling. Start now.