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From CEO to Chief Story Teller: Part one, the challenge

Allen Schoer
Allen Schoer is founder and CEO of The TAI Group, a boutique consulting firm pioneering new directions in executive leadership and organizational change.

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.

By Allen Schoer  |  December 3, 2009; 10:54 AM ET  | Category:  Leadership skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: What business leaders can teach government | Next: Mastering the three "I's" of storytelling


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The statement made here that CEOs need to understand their role as Chief Storyteller seems overly simplistic. The modus operandi of big business has historically reduced staff to human capital; as such, a workers can feel eminently replaceable and ergo, undervalued. This lack of appreciation for the humanity of company is a key flaw of many companies. Given the capitalistic nature of the typical corporate environment, I find it difficult to swallow that employees will be happier or better treated in a company where the CEO is merely an accomplished storyteller. I couldn't agree with Mr. Schoer more, however, on the point that a company which fosters creativity is going in the right direction. Well said - would that there were more like you!

Posted by: Swimfan98 | December 8, 2009 11:16 AM

Obviously, storytelling can't substitute for action or for a point of view. And I understand all our skepticism and fear of being misled, but I think the bigger issue for leaders is that when we don't tell our own stories, others are created around us, leading to misunderstanding and frustration. It's up to us to discover what stories we want to tell and then make sure we tell them.

Posted by: TTexecdev | December 8, 2009 10:56 AM

Greencity has a point. We have been bamboozled in the past by a good storyteller. It certainly can gloss over issues. I like to think that we can sense when this is happening. We have to hope that if this is a new initiative, to have CEOs become storytellers, that they can communicate authentically, from the heart as well as from their wallets. And that we trust ourselves to listen and call them on it when they are glossing over the issues.

Posted by: egs53 | December 8, 2009 9:04 AM

I found Mr. Schoer's comments on Storytelling enlightening - I can see that this is a way in - to motivate, to inspire and to mobilize. Looking forward to the next installment - interested in the concrete methods of putting this into play - thanks for starting the conversation.

Posted by: sheilabw1 | December 8, 2009 8:49 AM

It's refreshing to know that there is a possibility of a world where CEOs and leaders talk with their employees not at them, and at the same time, include some positive spark even when things are or may seem to be dim. I am definitely looking forward to more on this topic.

Posted by: Aceman | December 7, 2009 10:54 PM

As Simplicity38 rightly says, numbers are numbers. But I think that's missing the point about the importance of corporate storytelling. Good stories don't have to be fairy tales and facts are more powerful than fiction in the business world. Therefore, it's NOT about "spin", but about "truth telling". Everyone's over the idea of spin, whether it's from politicians, bankers, or sports "heroes". What we need to hear - and to speak - is the truth. Facts that are a great antiseptic, just like sunlight. Those facts need context and relevance. If, as a CEO, you speak the truth with conviction and care, then trust will follow as day follows night.

Posted by: grmhorwood1 | December 7, 2009 1:37 PM

It is so good to hear Mr Schoer talk about the importance of bringing story telling into the corporate arena.
Story telling brings Humanity into the daily communications that we have with each other

Posted by: mfilan | December 7, 2009 10:35 AM

Perhaps we should add that a solid value set, character, and integrity go a long way with storytelling.

Posted by: 82dcab | December 7, 2009 10:22 AM

As a huge fan of storytelling, I really enjoyed reading Schoer's perspective. I agree that especially in tough economic times we need stories to stay engaged and motivated. However, the numbers are the numbers - whether P&L's, compensation, shareholder return, etc. How does Schoer connect storytelling to the stark picture the numbers are painting - at least at my company (financial services).

Posted by: simplicity38 | December 6, 2009 3:11 PM

This guy seems really great.

Posted by: reniucubs | December 6, 2009 10:43 AM

Storyteller can be a double entendre for liar. Training CEO's as storytellers may just make them better liars. I think the problem that CEO's are having is not being bad storytellers, it's the fact that they are taking bonuses while their employees are being laid off. It's also that they're out of touch. You can sell me a pile of manure with a beatiful story, but at the end of the day, it's still just a pile of manure.

Posted by: commentator1234 | December 5, 2009 5:24 PM

Broadly speaking I agree with Mr. Schoer's perspective on storytelling. However, a leader can fall into some traps using storytelling such as deluding himself or herself that a "feel good" moment has more impact than it really does. Also you've got to be a good storyteller to be sure the employees get the message. Finally, and perhaps worst, employees might feel snowed--that issues are being covered up or reshaped to serve leadership. How can one avoid these traps?

Posted by: scarey2 | December 5, 2009 12:16 AM

I appreciate Mr. Schoer's comments. As a speechwriter and activist I know the power of story first hand. I am glad to see this topic being further defined and discussed in the media as it is an important one.
Thanks for the posting.

Posted by: GreenCity | December 4, 2009 9:05 PM

I agree the the comment about Obama, but can't beautiful words and stories gloss over dangerous motives and actions?

Posted by: marsdenthomas | December 4, 2009 2:18 PM

Mr. Shoer's message is an inspiring and uplifting call-to-action. Our business, industry, and political leaders have (always have had) the gifts of opportunity and circumstance to inspire greatness and lasting, meaningful achievement around them. Perhaps if more of our leaders are challenged and inspired to accept those gifts, we might look out over a much changed national landscape. Looking forward to the next installment!

Posted by: dsetlow | December 4, 2009 10:41 AM

It takes a very compelling narrative to overcome the negativity the current recession has created. It's a worrying factor that the storytellers in chief in the US and UK seem to have lost the story plot. Smart listeners can always tell the difference between fact and wishful thinking. So corporate storytelling must link to the wider narrative as well...

Posted by: grmhorwood1 | December 4, 2009 4:58 AM

Thank you for this post. It has me thinking about the power of stories--how stories connect us to our past, to one another, and to the possibility of a shared mission, vision or future.

I look forward to next week's post.

Posted by: jvn00 | December 3, 2009 8:59 PM

Indeed Obama got elected based on the strength of the narrative of "hope" and "change", however he seems to have lost his zest for being the Storyteller in Chief. 

I'd be interested in hearing strategies for how leaders can sustain compelling stories and narratives over time and through the different chapters of change.

Posted by: MichaelWeitz | December 3, 2009 5:18 PM

As you point out, true leadership is based on effective communication skills. No matter the subject, good storytelling also conveys a sincere message that the listener is a welcome participant in the story. When an audience (of one or thousands) feels it is safe to participate, there's open conversation that leads to new ideas. One of the best leaders I ever worked with wasn't a high level manager. That's the other lesson. Leaders can be found anywhere in our organizations and we have something we can learn from all of them.

Posted by: bgconsult | December 3, 2009 4:59 PM

I look forward to next week's post!

Posted by: jweitz1 | December 3, 2009 3:38 PM

thank you. i like this use of storytelling in business, i think it's the way to get make it working, fun, motivating and moving.
would love to read more about it, examples etc , in your upcoming blogs.

Posted by: arcomg | December 3, 2009 3:32 PM

There is nothing more vivid or engaging than a story well told and a great legacy of a CEO is to become the CST: Chief Story Teller. It would be inspiring to create a corporate "sacred bundle" of artifacts as the nomadic plains Indians did and develop stories around them. They could become the history of a company and reinforce its values. What an anchor that would be in difficult times.

Posted by: onepotato | December 3, 2009 3:11 PM

I like the idea of people within the company finding a way to fit into the narrative that the CEO tells. Looking forward to hearing more about how that works.

Posted by: vp382 | December 3, 2009 3:05 PM

Schoer is right - up to a point. Once the talking is over, then the walking has to start. It's actions that speak louder than words, so the best stories have to be backed up by CEOs showing they mean what they say. That's the only way to establish the trust and confidence we need to rebuild our shell-shocked businesses and economy.

Posted by: grmhorwood1 | December 3, 2009 2:51 PM

As a manager and strategist responsible for keeping people engaged and focused, this made my day. Every organization has a story. A company leader tying in difficulties and successes to guide that story stands out to me. I look forward to part two.

Posted by: solida | December 3, 2009 2:19 PM

It's wonderful to hear a CEO talk about how stories are a way to be heard, to help change perceptions. It helps convey their humanity and helps them be better understood. I look forward to the next installment.

Posted by: egs53 | December 3, 2009 2:02 PM

I totally agree. The greatest leaders I know are able to communicate complex ideas through storytelling, moving information from a mere concept into a visceral experience, thereby cementing ideas, images and relationship in the listener. I look forward to spending time on these questions.

Posted by: ag1205 | December 3, 2009 1:47 PM

He's right. Inspiration and motivation are key, especially in these times. I find myself so bogged down in the day to day that I'm communicating less with my employees. I need everyone to be on board, contributing effectively. However, I am far from a storyteller so am keen to learn more.

Posted by: jnyc | December 3, 2009 1:35 PM

This makes a lot of sense to me as I work in a field where I have seen the art of story telling work in big and small companies, in good and bad times.
I commend Mr. Schoer for championing this lost art and asking the right questions.
Can't wait for his next blog.

Posted by: Hoochum | December 3, 2009 1:06 PM

I agree that sharing stories is an extremely effective trait of a true leader. The truly great leaders are those who share their vision for the company through their personal stories and reveal who they are beyond the "job description". Those are the leaders I like to follow

Posted by: tenten1 | December 3, 2009 1:00 PM

Obama is a great storyteller and in his campaign, if you look specifically at the first 'yes we can' speech, he is retelling an American narrative. He uses story to link past, present and hold a light the possibility of the future. His stories, sometimes just images, are inspiring, moving, emotional, vivid, filled with a momentum that drives his message and got a movement going!

Posted by: jeorourke69 | December 3, 2009 12:59 PM

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