Communications, leadership and storytelling

SimonCommunications, General1 Comment

I’ve been doing some reflective thinking this week in a few odd gaps here and there. Sometimes it’s good to step away from the day-to-day of emails, tasks, meetings and calls and make a bit of time to read, think and learn.

Two things that I’ve kept coming back to this week have been the role of communications skills in effective leadership and the value of using storytelling in communications. And of course the crossover between the two as well.

As part of my personal development, I’m currently participating in an advanced leadership development programme with a small group of delegates from the private and public sector. It’s quite challenging as it’s forcing me to relook at pretty much everything I do in my professional existence, how I do it and crucially how I can do it better.

It’s a useful time for me to be doing this as since January I’ve taken on responsibility for a major change programme as well as leading communications and marketing. I knew the skills that this would demand would be different and it’s a great opportunity for me to learn and do different styles of leadership, particularly in a sphere where I can’t fall back on professional skills and experience in a particular discipline.

Effective leaders are good communicators. I knew that before I took on the new role.

But unpicking that a bit more is interesting. And this article in the Harvard Business Review really helped sum it up for me – and make a link to my other favourite topic at the moment – how we can make communications in a busy, crowded landscape of messages and user generated content really standout – a challenge in which for me the telling of connective stories is really important.

The article starts of about risk, but the interesting part for me was halfway through when it starts talking about the role of a CEO:

It’s the CEO’s job to convey that unmistakably — to tell stories about your strategy and your culture that clearly illustrate the individual behaviors necessary to making the company work and the behaviors you don’t want.

This resonates particularly at the moment given the debate about Barclays and its misdemeanours – and whether those at the top knew about what was happening. For me, leadership can’t be about knowing everything that’s going on – it’s impractical but more importantly it’s not enabling for people in the team. So the description above sums up nicely what the role of a leader should be – and how it relates to what actually happens in an organisation.

Storytelling is nothing new. It’s the original form of person to person communication that’s existed for thousands of years.

But good communicators are now refocussing on storytelling as means to create authentic, engaging content that goes beyond the practical dissemination of information to reach people in a more meaningful way.

Stories are particularly effective in a time when bland corporate communications lack the emotional energy and reach that’s needed in an era when person to person communications have re-emerged through social media as a more dominant force in how influence is exercised.

Mindtools has a useful typology of stories that can be used in communications:

  • “Who I Am” Stories…If you tell a “Who I Am” story when you first become a team leader, you can give a powerful insight into what really motivates you.
  • “Why I’m Here” Stories…The goal is to replace suspicion with trust, and help your team realize that you don’t have any hidden agendas. Show that you’re a good person, and that you want to work together with them to achieve a common goal.
  • Teaching Stories – It can be very hard to teach without demonstrating, and that’s the whole purpose of Teaching Stories….Use Teaching Stories to make a lesson clear and to help people remember why they’re doing something in the first place.
  • Vision Stories – Tell these to inspire hope, especially when your team needs occasional reminders of why they’re doing what they should be doing…Find a story that reminds everyone what the ultimate goal is, and why it’s important that everyone reaches that goal. This type of story should be told from your heart, with emotion.
  • “Values in Action” Stories…Every value can mean something different from person to person. If you want to pass on values to your team, start by defining what those values mean to you.
  • “I Know What You’re Thinking” Stories…The advantage of telling this type of story is that you can recognize another person’s objections, and then show why those objections aren’t applicable in this situation. You can show respect for the other point of view while convincing the person that you’re right.

What I need to do is think more about how I can use this range of types of story in what I do – both my personal leadership role and when I am supporting others in the organisation to communicate to help achieve their goals. That’s something I am going to actively do over the coming weeks.

I know I struggle to recall experiences spontaneously, so I’m going to start documenting some of my key stories to help me tell them more effectively when the situation demands. Plus on my travels around the organisation I am going to actively seek out stories, particularly those involving customers, that I could draw on in my leadership of the team.

I’ll leave you with three roles for storytelling in leadership from the Harvard article – which I’ll be thinking about in more detail over the next few days. The first one is expressed in the context of a professional services firm, but is just as relevant if you think about it in terms of organisational behaviour in other contexts:

The first have to do with our…organization. We talk freely about the clients we want as part of the PwC portfolio — and the clients we don’t want. In some cases, they may not be willing to pay the fees, and as a result we don’t want to go too low because we couldn’t do the work in a way that meets our standard of quality. We’re clearly trying to grow revenue, but people need to understand that we have to do it in a profitable and risk-adjusted way. So, without naming any names of companies, we talk about times when we walked away from work, for whatever reason. That’s one series of stories.

The second set is about individual behavior. Your personal brand is tremendously important. What you put on social media today is tremendously important. So talking about what is appropriate to put on there and what is not, what builds your personal brand and what detracts from it, that’s another series of stories that I tell.

The third set has to do with our people. The average age of our employees is 27. We as senior managers need to model the same behaviors we expect of them. So we tell stories about how the leadership team — top management, middle management — does the same things as everyone else so they can see those goals come to life. Every year, for instance, I do three town halls for the entire firm — that’s about 35,000 people. One of the first questions we ask at these town halls is: Tell us about your last vacation when you actually got a chance to leave? How did you balance the work/life flexibility issue? So each town hall starts with a story about how a senior manager found that balance. These are powerful examples of behavior we want our people to emulate.

One Comment on “Communications, leadership and storytelling”

  1. Sian Fording

    Hi Simon, hope all is going well with your leadership development programme – sounds really interesting, hope you tell us more!

    Also, you make some great points about storytelling as an effective tool for leadership communications, how often can that element be forgotten? I especially like your idea of documenting some key stories ready to use, as this is something I find hard to conjure from my mind as well.

    We have some resources on our website which might be of use to you about Narrative Leadership – hope you find them useful: http://goo.gl/Kf7b2

    Keep telling stories 🙂

    Sian @sianfording

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