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Uncovering alignment with authentic stories

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.

Why become an effective storyteller? Yes, you can repair your reputation, deliver more effective messages and have a greater impact on your people. But, ultimately, storytelling also enables you to create a more powerful organization.

Narratives promote alignment, and a more cohesive culture yields greater performance and productivity. But alignment doesn't mean coercing others to agree with you. When people are encouraged to share the fundamental principles that are essential to their lives and work, they discover commonalities. An enduring bond forms, outlasting daily disagreements, pressures and stress. Over time, this organic approach can shape your new legacy and lift your company to a higher level of effectiveness.

Here are five ways to use storytelling to promote alignment in your organization.

Beware the superficial. It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to "build" or "impose" alignment from the outside. Many businesses take this superficial approach. Consider the CEO of a newly-merged company who hired an advertising agency to define the values and vision. Based on one "brainstorming" session with only the senior team, they constructed a "new narrative." At the expensive launch party, they rolled out some hip new slogans, logos and giveaways. It was the perfect "outsourced solution." Within three months, however, 25 percent of the staff had departed. Productivity and customer service collapsed.

Uncover authentic alignment. Imposed or assumed alignment isn't real. True alignment must be uncovered. It's there within your company no matter how divisive the behaviors may appear. Stories uncover shared identities and principles. Once your people begin to articulate their values through stories, they'll reach out to each other in new ways. Your job as chief storyteller is to fully promote that bonding.

I'm encouraged that more companies are using the transformative power of storytelling. One multinational I know of has struggled for years with a damaging market perception. Despite playing a crucial role in global commerce, they have a reputation for only driving profits and dominating markets. Compelling scientific data and aggressive marketing campaigns have not been effective.

But now senior management is undertaking a radical experiment. People at all levels are being encouraged to tell their own stories. The themes include: "Why are you passionate about your work?" and "What's the impact you want to have through it?" Already there is evidence of renewed vitality and partnership. Perceptions and experience are shifting "one story at a time."

Storytelling is contagious. We all experience how stories prompt sharing: "Your story reminds me of the time..." While you're the Chief Storyteller, yours isn't the only important account waiting to be told. You're just the catalyst. It's your job to help other narratives find the light of day by:

• Inviting people to tell you how they see the company going forward and what their role will be in making that happen; and,

• Creating opportunities for them to speak in team meetings, conferences, town halls and through internal publications.

This is essential. Stories form the basis of a collective identity and they are the first step towards the deep-seated alignment I'm referring to.

Keep asking questions. As you craft your own narrative, ask people about the issues on their minds. What do they need you to address? Ask good questions and people will know you're listening.

When you deliver your narrative, remember your listeners are carrying on a dialogue with you in their own minds. Encourage this "virtual" participation with questions like: "What does that mean for your work going forward?" or "Will this change your approach? If so, how?" Acknowledge what they might be thinking: "I appreciate this might change your thinking." Or "This is a new approach. Let's think it through."

By the way, never ask rhetorical questions -- they always sounds like you're talking to yourself.

After your presentation, the real work starts. Seek feedback. Do people relate to you and identify with the mission? How? You'll hear similar themes and ideas, both pro and con. No matter how divided you think people might be, you'll also hear shared themes. Point them out. They're the bedrock of your new culture.

The power of inclusion. The language you use to convey your narrative is powerful. Don't take it for granted. Encourage shared ownership and strong relationships. Use words like "we", "us" and "our", rather than "I", "me" and "mine".

And in all discussions, replace "Yes, but..." with "Yes, and..." This approach invites collaboration and exploration.

PRACTICE TIME. Ask your people about meaningful moments they've had at work. What made them noteworthy and how can they be replicated?

Invite exploration. Where do they see the company going? What's the impact they'd like to have? What support do they need from you? When you hear common themes, acknowledge the similarities in viewpoints and aspirations.


Earlier posts in this series:

Crafting the irresistible narrative

Mastering the three 'I's' of storytelling

From CEO to chief story teller: Part one, the challenge."

By Allen Schoer  |  January 7, 2010; 10:01 AM ET  | Category:  Communication skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Breaking down communication barriers | Next: Breaking out of self-defeating narratives

Comments

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The key to getting along and making things happen is communication. But if talking "at" instead of engaging "with" is not producing the intended results, why not go for this new approach of storytelling? Let others know you are a real person. Open a meeting with a bold statement and see if they look up from their blackberries. Tell a story about success from listening to others. All of us have come up with ideas or felt more passionate about something after hearing what someone else experienced or success through a different approach. Most important of all let the other people in your company know they are valuable or why did you hire them? Not just so you,the CEO can tell them what to do, but together as a unit you can be successful. They are valuable because you will listen and incorporate their ideas and reward them for becoming part of the team you want.

Posted by: outwest1967 | January 14, 2010 12:16 AM

Seeking feedback, as you put it, the "real work" -- is hard to do. It requires a willingness to listen, which isn't always pleasant and can be tedious (and also requires others around you to believe you really want any feedback). I'd like to hear more about specific examples of how feedback, unexpected and expected, shaped a business's actions.

Posted by: atny06 | January 9, 2010 10:53 AM

When I think about how much I learned about the my grandparents from the stories they told of how they grew up I not only learned about my families history I also learned about the world they lived in. Stories are a natural transfer of information they have sticking power.
why not use them in the corporate setting as a means of communication,stories bring us back to our humanity.

Posted by: mfilan | January 8, 2010 8:38 AM

The comments on Schoer's thesis here underline why the so-called "soft stuff" is actually the hard stuff of leadership. What's he's asking us to do takes time, focus and deep thought about others. We tend to shy away from it because "point and direct" is so much easier. It's generally easy to get so far with this approach - especially when employees fear for their jobs and security. But US business is going to be in even deeper trouble if we don't do everything we can to get great - not just good - performance out of our people and our businesses. Time to stop managing things and start leading people. Otherwise there will be even more CEOs on the streets with their workers in future.

Posted by: grmhorwood1 | January 8, 2010 5:34 AM

I am divided by your blog - I see the value of story telling at a Town Hall and other large conferences/meetings but on a Friday afternoon at 5.30 - I don't think my team want to listen to a story - they want to be told succinctly what they need to know/work on and then go home!
I have this vision of people at work not saying, "Good morning. Where's the report on the new plant development?" but "Once upon a time I was coming to work and it was wonderful how everyone greeted me and and waved and said, "Hello, boy you're looking great!" and that made me skip down the hallway until I realized I'd forgotten that the purpose of me coming to work was to get the report on the development of the new plant!!!" I guess it's all about fininding the right balance and time.

Posted by: gbritlyon3 | January 7, 2010 10:16 PM

"Seek Feedback". Those two words are a very bold directive. I don't know of many CEOs who could allow themselves to really listen to any kind of feedback other than praise. It is lonely at the top but I get the sense that it is better to be lonely than to let your well-built guard down. At least it is safer.

Posted by: marsdenthomas | January 7, 2010 6:50 PM

stories of battles won and lost, a moment of crisis, a challenge overcome, or a bad decision we never want to make again, defining moment stories when a choice was made that reflects the values both of the individual and organization IN ACTION.. i have recently worked with some military generals who know how to do this really well and ignite purpose in people by continuing this tradition of stories. it is one of the oldest human traditions we have-- it is so retro it is caveman like... we need to learn to do this all over again, but it is somewhere within our DNA

Posted by: jeorourke69 | January 7, 2010 4:37 PM

It's not just about alignment, although that's important to uncover. The more I talk to people and the more I listen, I learn it's being vulnerable that does more to promote trust and encourage alignment than almost anything else. It's exactly what you think will sink you that makes you soar. Stories are a way to turn vulnerability into an asset because a good story has something in it that was difficult for the storyteller to do. For me the vulnerability facilitates everything else Mr. Schoer mentions.

Posted by: emontops | January 7, 2010 4:33 PM

I like the idea of "chief storyteller" however,
what happens when your chief insists that he's not "creative", has no stories and just wants to get to the point and get moving?

Posted by: sheilabw1 | January 7, 2010 3:46 PM

Are there areas of business where telling stories is inappropriate? I participate regularly in my company's finance meetings, which seldom consist of anything other than numbers in stark, unembellished black and white. It's hard for me to imagine other members of my team feeling moved enough about last years' financials to tell stories about it, or themselves. I certainly don't wish to subscribe to the popular notion that all accountants are humorless robots; however, I find more individuals than not are free from any such flights of fancy. Is there a way to incorporate stories to please a difficult crowd, or is it more important to "know your audience" in order to accurately determine if sharing is appropriate?

Posted by: Swimfan98 | January 7, 2010 2:45 PM

Once I worked for Corp X - when I first joined, I was part of "The Corp X Family". We had a company magazine, department newsletter, frequent department and section informal lunchs and meetings, company library with historical documents.

Then came the drive to "add shareholder value" and "be lean and mean", "do more with less" etc. I became part of "The Corp X Team". Everything was evaluated to squeeze the last nickel for management bonuses, I mean shareholder value. The old knowledgeable guys and gals (who would be the ones who knew the stories) were downsized first as they were the most expensive. The company library was closed and the documents sold for pulp. Meetings were reduced as they interferred with work flow. This actually happened. The upper management who knew the industry were replaced by interchangable biz school grads who just cared about their bonus.

The old ways were erased for the love of money. Now the pioneering new direction of this botique consultant is to try to bring them back.

Why not, worked for Walt Disney and Disneyland.

Posted by: shadowmagician | January 7, 2010 2:32 PM

"Once your people begin to articulate their values through stories, they'll reach out to each other in new ways. Your job as chief storyteller is to fully promote that bonding"

I like this concept. What occurs for me, is that the success of "Chief Storyteller" seems to rely on that individual's character. What happens when the CEO's character is in question? Can he get better at this? How?

Posted by: FTAssociates | January 7, 2010 11:19 AM

It seems as though this will take so much time - it has to be its own "project". Training senior management in storytelling and being able to elicit stories of others. I'm curious about any cost benefit analysis that's been done in actually investing in this type of developmental training.

Posted by: jnyc | January 7, 2010 10:59 AM

This makes sense, especially the part about "superficial" stories imposed from people outside the organization. Schoer is talking about a "from the inside out" approach - and that takes time, energy, and commitment from senior management to make sure it happens throughout the organization.

Posted by: vp382 | January 7, 2010 10:53 AM

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