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Story telling in organisations, families and indeed all kinds of tribes is powerful and revealing. The stories give insight into what is valued, rewarded and subsequently insights into culture.

Whether leaders actively shape their organisation or not, stories are being told anyway. Stories of how ‘some people get away with murder around here’ because they:

(a) are of a particular status,
(b) have been here for a particular length of time or
(c) generate a particular amount of revenue

get told over cups of coffee and in lunch rooms all over the world.

Being originally from Ireland, now living in Sydney but spending lots of time travelling around Asia with work, I am always fascinated by what emerges within the organisational narrative.

US based firms actively use stories to amplify the organisational traits they want the world to know about. For example, Zappos’ have a story that has been retold on many platforms about one customer service call operator staying on a call for over ten hours to keep the customer happy. Whole Foods regularly talk about their staff taking such a keen interest in their customers they notice when someone has not being in the store for awhile and then will take it upon themselves to visit / call that customer to check they are ok.

Perth based writer and consultant Bernadette Jiwa has built her business around helping organisations get clear on the stories they want to tell their markets. Her book, Difference, suggests that context is the differentiator between a good idea and a commercial success. Context is having a clear understanding who the product or service is for; what it is that they really want deep down, and; why they will care about one thing more than another.

She proposes that marketing and sales are less about persuasion and more about understanding. If you don’t understand your potential customer’s worldview how can you tell a brand story that matches it? Specifically, how can leaders shape stories to support their “go to market” strategies and long term sustainability?

Most leaders are not naturally skilled at telling stories and have to learn the structure of story telling. If we start with asking questions, the story naturally emerges.

A few years ago I sat in a 3 day leadership team meeting and observed that during the day time meeting the conversation was very logical, factual and maybe even boring at times. In contrast, at night over dinner and drinks, the leaders shared examples of the various enterprise software sales they had made and recalled the positive impacts that software had on the business of their customers and the end consumer. I heard stories of pride, immense pride that their organisation was able to have that positive impact on others.

When we discussed this the following day those leaders realised they were not sharing that level of pride within their organisation.

Using a simple one-person camera and basic interview techniques, they started asking their sales teams questions about what customer stories they had that should be shared amongst other colleagues. Each story was told by the individual without prompting and all finished with the individual commenting that ….“that is the reason I am proud to work here…”.

They started with a question and finished with a range of insightful, emotional and connective stories that fashioned the organisation.

Shawn Callahan from Anecdote regularly help leaders develop story telling abilities in organisations. They also start with asking questions. Some beauties they ask in workshops are available to download here.

I have adapted some of their questions and over the years have found they always generate some marvellous stories for the leader to use.

  • When have you found yourself following someone when you didn’t expect to?
  • When have you seen a leader make a gutsy move against the odds and come up trumps?
  • What causes people to lose respect for others around here?
  • “Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing themselves…” How does that resonate for you the leader?
  • We have two ears and one mouth so best to listen twice as much as we talk. How often do you get that ratio wrong? What happens?
  • Good enough versus perfect?
  • Ever failed by succeeding or succeeded by failing?
  • Gandhi said that “your values become your destiny”. How does this resonate around here?
  • Trust takes years to build and moments to destroy. How do the leaders around here embody trust?

Great stories at their core are providing great insights to important questions.

Disney knew that.
Hollywood knows that.
Seth Godin knows that.
Most authors know that.

For the leader, to create a compelling story or narrative for your organisation, take time to answer the most important questions. And then tell that story over and over and over again until it sticks.

This will illustrate the character you want to build in your organisation, emphasise credibility for those who demonstrate this character and ultimately, foster confidence in the people who are following your leadership – they will know what you stand for.

How are you answering the questions you need to ask?

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