Archive for May, 2010

Storytelling: A Lost Art?

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

A letter to the editor in today’s Wall Street Journal bemoans the writer’s perception that “we so rarely…teach by telling a great story” anymore. She cites examples of engaging storytelling from her recent experiences at a series of events centered around a college graduation. She also references a recent article in the Journal, Michael Judge’s May 25th piece, “On Good Fences and Sometimes Good Neighbors” as an excellent example of teaching through story.

Do you agree that our society has largely lost the art of storytelling? Are we too busy to share our personal stories with anyone? Or to listen to anyone else’s story? Tell us what you think, or better yet, point us to some examples of stories you’ve heard or read recently that enriched your life in some way: by moving you, teaching you, inspiring you or just plain entertaining you.

Leading Change: Just Like Storytelling, Effectiveness Is in the Details

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, “The Journal Report” focused on hot topics in management, such as how to lead change successfully. In an article by Mitchell Lee Marks, PhD, associate professor of management at San Francisco State University’s College of Business, one of the key points is that details matter. The same is true of storytelling, which is at the core of leadership communication, particularly in critical times, such as workforce reductions, changes in direction, mergers and acquisitions.

One of the crucial details that is often overlooked is the need to allow time “on the clock” for employees to grieve what was. It’s amazing that leaders usually forget that their people are, uh, human (!) and that they have strong emotions about their work environment. When people aren’t allowed to vent deeply felt emotions to an understanding manager, those feelings will block the company’s ability to move ahead as surely as if the Great Wall of China suddenly appeared and kept everyone from getting to their offices or workstations.

In one case, a client company had studiously avoided the emotional toll that a merger had taken on their professional workforce–even though the emotions were palpable seven years after the merger had occurred!! The problem was positive in its origins: the professionals were proud of their former company’s brand reputation, and they were convinced that their new colleagues couldn’t possibly share their level of commitment to superb quality.

Are you providing your workforce the opportunity to express feelings about major changes before expecting them to embrace the new way of doing business? Are you sharing stories about your own experiences of dealing with change and how you overcame your own resistance? What difference did you see in your team’s response when you gave them a chance to express their feelings?        

Top Performance Requires Ongoing Training

Friday, May 21st, 2010

When the economy heads downward, and especially when it remains sluggish as it has the past two years, many organizations make cuts in the very areas they need the most. Consider training, for example. It’s always important to develop employees’ skills and expand their knowledge, and it’s particularly crucial after staffing levels have been slashed. A smaller staff needs to be more  proficient, more productive and more efficient than ever. People need to make solid decisions in less time with fewer resources, and that requires ongoing training.

Anyone who doubts that statement need only consider the opposite outcomes of two commercial airline crises last year. In February 2009 a Continental connection flight ran into trouble as it approached Buffalo, NY; the ensuing crash killed all 49 people onboard and one person on the ground. Investigators later identified several factors, including ice buildup on the wings and erroneous actions by the pilot and co-pilot.

In contrast, a month earlier when a US Airways flight lost its engines shortly after take-off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the pilot quickly determined that he didn’t have enough power to return to LaGuardia or get to a closer airport in New Jersey. His only option, he decided, was to land in the Hudson River. He successfully did so without causing serious injury to any of the 155 passengers.

The main difference in the two outcomes:  Pilot experience–and quick thinking due to ongoing training.

What are you doing to ensure that your team, and especially those in key leadership positions, are prepared to make solid decisions and take quick action in any situation? Are you developing their skills and expanding their knowledge bases to ensure continued success for them and for your entire organization?

To gain and maintain market share, particularly in a slow economy, you need to help your people sharpen their skills. You need to help them successfully manage daily challenges now and prepare them to lead the charge when opportunities arise as the economy turns around.  

Storytelling Strengthens Nonprofit Boards

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

When a nonprofit foundation asked me to introduce its board members to the power of story, I designed a presentation for a quarterly board meeting that was in part a keynote and in part a workshop. The reason: It was important for the board members to have time to apply the principles right away so they could experience the power of stories on an audience.

By sharing a story “on the spot” with a partner, each person was able to confirm that stories do, indeed

  • engage an audience’s attention
  • create personal connections
  • deliver a key message effectively
  • help the listener “feel” the point
  • make the message memorable, or as Dan and Chip Heath say, “sticky”

We’re following up on that experience with individual coaching sessions so that all the board members can identify, develop and hone a personal story that exemplifies their commitment to the Foundation and its work. Their personal stories are far more effective than any data they can share with the community about how the Foundation serves the community’s needs.

What stories can you tell that will make your favorite nonprofit’s work “come alive”?

Is BP CEO An Effective Communicator?

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Effective communication is one of the core competencies of a skillful leader, and some management gurus say it is the main responsibility of a leader. Good communication skills center on understanding the audience’s top concerns and needs and addressing those effectively. Without the ability to do that, how can a CEO, for example, ever hope to win support and commitment for his/her vision from key stakeholders and others affected by an organization’s actions?

With that in mind, it’s difficult to comprehend the comments of BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward in an interview with a British newspaper. Asked to address the worldwide impact of the disastrous break in the company’s Gulf of Mexico oil pipeline, Hayward said, “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

It’s hard to imagine he could make matters worse, but Hayward did. He followed up by assuring the The Guardian that BP would “fix” the disaster, but “the only question is, we do not know when.”

He apparently sees no need to worry about an event that may turn out to be the biggest ecological disaster in U.S. history. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil per day (more than 100,000 to date) are leaking from the pipeline, which was damaged more than three weeks ago by an explosion that killed 11 workers.

Does he inspire confidence in you? An understanding of people’s concerns? A sense of urgency in solving the problem? I’d love to hear what you think.

Stories Energize Sales Staff, Teach How-Tos

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

When outbound marketing was added to their list of responsibilities, anxiety began to build among the inside sales staff at a Seattle company. They knew how to handle inbound calls successfully, but just the thought of initiating “cold” calls made many of them shudder. The client asked me to lead a Corporate Storytelling session to teach the sales managers how to use stories to help prepare the telemarketing team for their new duties.

The sales department had been sharing success stories, but the focus had been on the dollar value of the top producer’s sales each month. The agent’s picture was featured in a special place on the office wall with the person’s total sales for the month prominently displayed.

What was missing was the key information that could help everyone be more successful: A description of HOW the top producer had achieved the most sales. What was that person doing that the others weren’t? How did s/he convert information from an “ordinary” customer inquiry to a sale? What, exactly, triggered the customer’s desire to “sign on the dotted line”?

In my training session with the sales managers, the focus was on developing stories they could share to calm their teams’ anxieties. The managers concentrated specifically on stories about the key techniques and habits that had enabled them to build stellar track records.

When the success stories in the sales department began including the HOW information, everyone became more engaged in the monthly competition, the entire sales staff learned new techniques from the monthly winners’ and the manager’s stories, and the inside sales team felt prepared for their new roles. Sales escalated, the “success story” feature was expanded to an entire wall outside the company cafeteria–and the entire organization was fired up.

Communication: A Key to Brand Building

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

“Honest, ongoing communication and collaboration between consumers and brands,” is essential for creating and sustaining a brand leadership position, according to a recently released report from Millward Brown. Open, ongoing communication enables a company to “understand and process the key changes and trends shaping the post-recession world,” Millward Brown says.

Among the findings reported in Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands 2010, the firm says sustainability, social responsibility, health, trust and personalization are among the top-of-mind consumer values these days. Would you agree? Write and let us know.