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Connecting through storytelling



The skill has the potential to engage employees at all levels, especially, the millennial.

Leadership Guru Warren Bennis, decades ago, outlined certain key competencies which made for an effective leader. These include managing four key aspects: meaning, attention, trust and self. Increasingly leaders in all walks of life, be it corporations or outside, find it challenging to build, sustain and demonstrate these competencies.

Leadership development programs place emphasis on these four competencies, and many more, and list ways to acquiring these competencies. Here, the effectiveness of these competencies exhibited by the leaders also depends on the employee base they are leading. The bulk of today’s workforce comprises millennials and leading them requires a significant change in the intent, extent and the content of the communication. The present generation has varied interests, they are technologically savvy, and make fewer pretenses about what they are interested in and what they are not. To lead this new generation workforce that Gary Hamel dubs as the ‘Facebook Generation’ leaders of organizations have a mammoth task at hand: communicating their vision, values and expectations and holding their audience’s attention through such communication. Hollywood’s top writing consultant Robert McKee in his June’03 article published in the Harvard Business Review titled: Storytelling that moves people, says, “Most executives struggle to communicate, let alone inspire. Too often they get lost in the accoutrements of company speak: PowerPoint slides, dry memos, and hyperbolic missives from the corporate communication department. Even the most carefully researched and considered efforts are routinely greeted with cynicism, lassitude or outright dismissal!”

This is precisely where leaders have an important competency to pick up and master. Simply stated: it is the storytelling competence. Great leaders are known for being great story tellers. McKee adds: “… if you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”

Storytelling, when handled well, has significant potential to engage employees at all levels. Especially in dealing with a workforce from the current generations that have a fleeting attention span. Fortunately, it is a skill that leaders can learn, with effort.

Leaders will do well to recognize the power of storytelling and sign up for a few lessons. Learning and Development divisions within organizations too should promote and teach this competency for leaders at all levels. Whether you are a first line team lead or a division head or a CEO, storytelling can help you get your point of view across with your team a lot better. Stories have enormous recall value and stories stick much longer.

Credible stories go a long way in reinforcing a uniform message across the board in organizations.

Many organizations such as Easter Seals and Duke Endowment have recently started using compelling and reliable stories on their websites. One of the many stories that I share in my business communication course at the IIMs is a reiteration of a story by Herb Kelleher, one of the founders and former CEO of Southwest Airlines in the US. His story to the investors and employees went a long way in communicating the vision and strategy of Southwest Airlines that no amount of strategy sessions or presentations could have explained. It runs somewhat like this. He would say, “It is funny that I get letters all the time from shareholders, and they are often angry letters.

They say, America West is flying between Los Angeles and Las Vegas for $149 one way and you, Herb Kelleher, at Southwest are pricing the same one way ticket at $79. Don’t you have the decency to at least kick up your price to $129? Why are you leaving so much on the table! They would ask. Well, what I do is write back and reply: “Thank you so much for your letter. However, you don’t really understand who we are and who our competition is; it is the automobile, it is not other airlines. That is how we price our tickets.”

MIT’s Slogan Management Review’s 2002 (summer) issue carries another classic article on this subject titled: How Storytelling builds next-generation leaders. This article captures the following elements of effective storytelling in much detail. It puts forth the following guidelines:

Effective stories are context specific: Story-teller might reflect on his experience during an earlier stage of his or her career, even one that happened at another company. The important thing is to relate the experience to the company’s current challenges.

They are level-appropriate: The challenge for the leader / coach is to frame a story so that participants can see themselves in it and reflect on what they might do to resolve the problems they face.

Such stories are told by respected role-models: Story-tellers must bring their personal credibility to the process so that stories carry the necessary weight.

They must have drama: The drama challenges the participants to reflect on whether they want, and will be able to, make similar tough choices that are required of leaders of today’s complex organizational setup.

They have high learning value: Effective stories must produce changes in behavior.

In the end, what better way to end this story on storytelling than by quoting a definition of a story by the Institute of Knowledge Management: “A tiny fuse that detonates tacit understanding in the mind of the listener” It is never too late for leaders to build their ability to tell stories with credibility and through that engage and inspire their people.”

The writer is an Executive Coach and HR Adviser. He is also a visiting professor at several IIMs

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 13, 2014)

Re-posted this blog in our website with permission from Mr. C. Mahalingam.

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