From CEO to Chief Story Teller: Part one, the challenge
If CEO was ever a revered position, worthy of respect, that time is gone. In our collective consciousness, CEOs have become villains. The term itself now evokes Wall Street tycoons asking for government handouts, heartless downsizers, and those who reward themselves with perks despite the call for belt-tightening.
If you're a CEO yourself, you're probably bristling right now and saying, "That doesn't describe me." But the fact is, dear CEOs, even the innocent among us have work to do. In a time of economic hardship, we need to not only renew our business mission and inspire followers, but also redefine the very role of a CEO -- and that starts with storytelling.
Your capacity to re-energize the creative thinking of yourself and your colleagues and followers depends on your ability to tell the right story. Powerful narratives can effectively reframe the past, reposition the present, and stimulate innovation. The good news is you don't have to spend time and money on strategic reviews, retreats and consulting services. Rather, you simply need to understand that being a CEO means that you are your organization's Chief Story Teller.
Why storytelling? We've been telling stories to each other since we started sitting around fires. On a very basic human level, narratives give meaning to strategy and help us identify what's really important. As U.K.-based innovation strategist Matt Kingdon says, "the greatest tool of engagement of all is a story well told."
As an organization's leader, the Chief Story Teller role is yours alone. Only you can positively connect the facts, meaning and emotional impact of change. And only you can give permission for risk taking and innovation. Left alone, employees create their own stories, which usually emphasize what's going wrong rather than what's going right. Your job is to acknowledge those difficulties while recognizing success so your stories become the company's stories.
Storytelling works Consider the CEO of a global listed company who was hired and fired late last year. He left a battered share price and demoralized workforce. It wasn't because he hid the bad news -- this CEO spoke plainly about the company's situation. But he failed to synthesize the company's past or present; he couldn't shape a new narrative. This was a critical failure. While he defined objectives and strategies clearly, he did not imbue those facts with a spark of meaning, so crucial for inspiring employees and stockholders.
Contrast this with the compelling narrative of national courage created by Sir Winston Churchill as Britain faced overwhelming odds in 1940. Or Abraham Lincoln unfolding the story of an indivisible nation as the Civil War raged around him. Or Barack Obama's narrative of change in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Powerful stories win elections and wars. They inspire people to reach beyond their limits.
Start experimenting In upcoming blogs, I'll share examples where storytelling has worked in companies large and small. And I'll be offering you practical help in how to become the Chief Story Teller, including how to uncover your own storytelling talents (even if you're not aware of them); how to build a new narrative for your own company, and how to help your employees find their own place in your company's story. Finally, you'll learn what to expect when you adopt this approach as your own.
Until next week's post, here are some questions to answer -- and yes, get out a pen and paper.
- What kind of stories do you like and how do they start?
- Who are your favorite storytellers and what makes them so good?
- How could you hook the imaginations of your employees, and where do you want to take them?
Share your answers here, and I'll be back next week to talk more about story-telling.
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