“To change the culture, change the nature of the conversations across the company. And put stories to be at the heart of those conversations”.
This was the answer given to a global executive of one of the world’s largest companies when he asked us where they should start to build a more customer orientated organisation.
Increasingly, more people agree that use of stories is a key leadership competency. Why? Because they are central to influencing and inspiring change.
In a world where the rate of change means that organisations are increasingly having to roll back command-control practices and build more collaborative and empowered cultures, stories can play a pivotal role in educating and empowering employees at all levels – from senior executives to the least experienced staff. Consider this....
“Norma and Bruce are customers that own a Muffin Break franchise. A couple of months ago Norma came into the branch to do her daily banking. One of our customer service representatives - Robyn - commented to Norma that it looked like she had lost weight and seemed a bit stressed. Norma said that it was a tough week - 3 staff were off sick on the same day, she had to fire another, and, her husband has had a heart attack and is struggling to cope day-to-day.
Now we are going down to Muffin Break and picking up their banking & change order - save her queuing for a couple of weeks! - not a biggie, but Norma was so appreciative she cried!”
Most people find this story, which was shared amongst the team members of a bank branch, and then the whole organisation, fairly impactful. Stories generate emotions and feelings, and they stimulate the imagination. There’s no surprise that we remember the best stories, the ones that have touched our hearts or made us laugh.
At an organisational level, stories are not only personally meaningful, they are also a source of real knowledge. Think about it. Historically, all cultures and civilisations passed on their knowledge from one generation to the next by drawing pictures and telling stories.
“Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves, and you change the individuals and nations.” – Ben Okri
The same is very true of organisations! If you change the conversations and the stories being told, you will change the organisation. Now imagine an organisation where dozens, even hundreds of stories like the one above, stories uncovered from ‘within’ the organisation, are being shared and discussed on a weekly basis.
Stories that depict value being created – what we call ‘on-brand’ stories - can provide a real catalyst to change behaviours. Not because they prescribe rules or procedures to follow, but because they describe success in action. And they allow people to develop new insights around them and inspire them to do 'similar' things under different circumstances.
It’s interesting to think ‘why’ stories are so effective in this context? Sure there’s the usual thought – stories tick the box on many of the principles of effective communication. Go deeper, and science tells us that stories literally change the way we think and the way we act.
For example, neuroscience highlights to us that it is through ‘stories’ and the ‘experiences’ people have that new pathways are created in the brain (by discovering insights for ourselves), which ultimately influences how we make sense of the myriads of data we are exposed to in the world (or in this case the organisation).
We might think of culture as the neural patterns of the organisation. Stories illustrating and reinforcing vision and strategy, are an important conduit in creating new neural pathways at a company level (c.f. new organisational mindsets).
They create an environment where everyone has those ‘aha’ moments – an insight that connects what they do to the ‘something bigger. As that occurs, a different pattern of behaviour starts to emerge.
Very quickly, we start to see that success stories in organisations work at multiple levels.
Firstly, the sharing of success stories influences the climate of the organisation, simply because we are sharing and talking about successes. It helps to counter-balance all that time and focus we dedicate to problems and issues. It’s reshaping the subconscious of the organisation – the place where the core beliefs that underpin an organisation’s culture reside. Fundamentally it’s helping to build ‘confidence’ in doing things differently, which is undoubtedly an enduring characteristic of most of the most successful organisations and teams.
Secondly, as discussed above, every story we share provides us with insights, by highlighting what we or, others were doing during ‘high-point’ moments. Individuals and teams can then be easily led into a conversation about where else those ‘learnings’ can be applied.
Organisations that are serious about this are building in ‘deliberate practices’, which embed the use of stories into their day-to-day practices. They are also reinforcing the value of ‘looking out’ for examples of value being created. And the benefit of that goes well beyond providing a regular source of stories to share. They understand that by nurturing behaviours of seeking success stories they are further influencing the culture.
Thirdly then, it creates much greater awareness of what is actually going on and encourages people to think about what they are observing. That heightened awareness is fundamental to changing the patterns of behaviour and ultimately, the culture in the organisation.
Finally, if people are committed to finding success stories, it influences their behaviour towards creating those stories – as they go about their work and interact with others. I often say that an organisation is simply a group of people who come together to create something of value for others. And if that is true, then what matters is the quality of connections that are made between people on the inside of the organisation, and the quality of connections they then make with stakeholders on the outside. At the heart of that ‘quality’ is the demonstration of the ‘value we create for others’.
In this context, leadership is about giving people a clear and compelling picture of that value, then individually and collectively, really changing the mindsets of the people around the way ‘we work together’ to create that value. So make sure you always have two or three stories in your back pocket, which depict the value that your organisation aims to create for others. Try starting your team meetings by sharing one and take a minute to discuss. Simply ask, ‘what’s an insight we can get from that story?’. Then see how the tone and focus of the meeting shifts.
What makes a good story?
To start with many people can struggle to find and communicate a great story – and often end up with a ‘commendation’ or ‘opinion’ or a story that does not convey a key insight.
While there are a number of models relating to stories, we find the following framework developed by Australian business narrative specialists Anecdote to be particularly useful as a guide for assessing impactful stories:
The power of corporate storytelling is integral to the culture change initiatives we work with our client partners on, and is one of ON-Brand Partners core principles.