I had a meeting on Friday with a senior leader facing a common problem. There are many changes going on and his people have developed the view that 'head office doesn't know anything about what we do and their restructures don't make sense' along other related non-productive views. He wants his team on the front foot so they are part of the change agenda and avoid have the changes 'done to them'.
I was reminded of an activity described by Fred Kofman(1) that I use in nearly every leadership program we run. The activity helps show people that their explanations aren't constructive without telling them so (telling them usually just creates resistance to your message).
The activity aims to illustrate that we can choose how we respond to situations (response-ability). Kofman stands at the front of the room and drops a pen, then asks "what caused the pen to fall?" "Gravity" is usually the first answer. Sometimes people point out that "you dropped it." Both answers are correct, but Kofman points out that the usefulness of the answer is related to our purpose.
If your purpose is to prevent the pen from falling again, pointing out that the pen falls "because of gravity" will not help you. Essentially this means that as long as there is gravity the pen will fall, and there is nothing you can do about it. On the other hand, if you say that you dropped the pen, there is something you can do about it. The exercise demonstrates the important distinction between self-empowering explanations ("I dropped it") and explanations that remove your power to influence the situation ("gravity caused the pen to fall").
In Kofman's words, your explanation determines if you will be a 'victim' or a 'player.'>
1. Kofman, F. (2006), 'Conscious Business: How to build value through values', Sounds True Press, page 33.
Kevin shared this story with me the other day. It's too good not to retell.
A few years back, there was an ad agency called Allen Brady and Marsh (ABM). It was a very showbiz agency, and not very fashionable. They were pitching for the British Rail account against some very good agencies and to say they were considered 'underdogs' would be an understatement.
If they were to stand any chance of winning this account they had to find a way to prove they knew something the other, more fashionable agencies didn’t.
Apparently, on the day of the pitch, the top management team of British Rail turned up at the ABM offices. When they arrived at reception it was deserted.
The Chairman checked his watch, and they were on time.
He looked around, and there was no one in sight — just a very scruffy reception area littered with crumpled newspapers, food wrappers, cigarette butts, and cushions with holes burned in them.
It looked like the worst agency they’d ever been in.
Eventually, a scruffy woman appeared and sat behind the desk. She ignored them and started rummaging in a drawer. The Chairman coughed. She ignored him, so he coughed again.
He said, “Excuse me, we’re here to see ...” The woman replied, “Be with you in a minute love.”
He said, “But we have an appointment ...” and she replied abruptly, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
The Chairman was fuming. “This is outrageous" he said, "we’ve been waiting more than fifteen minutes.”
“Can’t help that love” the receptionist replied.
The Chairman had enough. “Right that’s it, we’re leaving” he declared, and the top management team of British Rail started to walk out.
At that very moment, a door opened and out stepped the agency creative director, Peter Marsh.
He’d been watching everything.
He shook the Chairman’s hand warmly and said, “Gentlemen, you’ve just experienced what the public’s impression of British Rail is. Now, if you’ll come this way, we’ll show you exactly how we’re going to turn that around.”
And he took the British Rail management team into the boardroom and went through their pitch about how bright the future could be, if ABM was their agency, which of course, it became.
This story is a great example of someone deliberately doing something remarkable (something people remark on) to make a real impact and to make people feel the need for change. It's these kind of actions that inevitably trigger stories, and positively influence others.
How might you use this aspect of story triggering in your change initiative to show people what is different, not just tell them? How can you make them 'feel' the need for change?
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A particular type of story that gets retold in organisations is the story about when ‘power’ was challenged and the result.
We collected the following story from a client about how challenge, or more accurately, a perceived challenge, was handled by their former chief executive:
Keith just asked a question during one of John’s Chief Executive Roadshows, and all he was really saying was, ‘I think there’s a problem. We need to fix it’. Keith wasn’t having a go at John, just trying to get a problem fixed. But apparently after that session, John pulled him aside and tore a strip off him, and that story went through this place like Epsom salts. From then on, no-one was going to open up in those sessions.
Some work we did recently with a City Council gave us a contrasting example.
On our first visit to the council’s main building, we found that the receptionist was very efficient – a little abrupt perhaps, but she left you in no doubt as to what was required of you as a visitor and the processes and procedures you had to follow. When we were in a lift with our client, we made a light-hearted comment about how efficient the receptionist was. The client laughed and told us a story about the day their CEO walked into the building to find she’d left her ID pass in her car. The receptionist denied her access. The CEO shrugged her shoulders and, without saying a word, went back to her car to get her pass. The next time we were at the council building, someone else told us exactly the same story. It had obviously had an impact across the organisation.
So what stories about challenging 'power' are being told in your organisation? What do they say about your culture? If you wanted to trigger a different story around this how could you do it?
Love to hear your views
I was asked last week about the practical application of things we cover in our Storytelling for Leaders workshop. Fortunately, we had a very recent example to relate.
We ran a session in late November with the senior HR team for a large company and one of the participants called me in December to give some feedback.
We often hear people say things like 'I don't have time to tell stories.' This example helps explain the response we normally give to such comments…'you don't have time not to use stories'.
People judge their leaders by how their actions align with their words. And how aligned these two things are then triggers stories that get told, and retold, across the organisation.
People are looking to see how the messages they hear from their leaders in corporate communications, presentations, and in the organisation’s espoused values actually align with how these leaders behave day-to-day. The term used to describe this alignment between a leader’s words and their actions is behavioural integrity.
Behavioural integrity (BI) is achieved when what leaders say and what leaders do are aligned. Research shows that employees’ perception of their leaders’ BI has huge implications for individual, team and organisational performance. Employees who perceive strong BI in their leaders show increased trust, commitment and willingness to go the extra mile, thus improving customer satisfaction, decreasing employee turnover and improving profitability. (#1)
In 2002, researchers at Cornell University conducted a survey of 6500 employees across 76 US and Canadian Holiday Inn hotels (#2). They asked employees to rate on a 5-point scale how closely their managers’ words and actions were aligned. The researchers then compared the results of the survey with customer satisfaction surveys and staff and financial records.
The results were unambiguous: the hotels whose leaders received a high BI score were substantially more profitable than the hotels whose leaders’ BI was perceived to be weaker. The analysis showed that a one-eighth of a point improvement on the 5-point rating scale could be expected to increase profits by 2.5 per cent. In the case of the Holiday Inn study, that translated to a bottom-line impact of over US$250,000 per one-eighth-point improvement.
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, best-selling author Patrick Lencioni argues that the foundation of a functional team is trust.(#3) Lack of trust, he asserts, opens the floodgates to four other dysfunctions: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. These five dysfunctions combine to sabotage even the most well-intentioned, intelligent and motivated teams. This assertion is in line with the results of the Cornell study, which found that BI is a precursor of trust and credibility.
In other words, for employees to trust their leaders and each other – the foundation of performance – they need to perceive a strong alignment between their manager’s words and actions.
This isn’t to say that BI means ‘doing the right thing’. It simply means doing what you say you will do, acting in a way that is consistent with your values and the messages you send. We may mistrust and even dislike someone who espouses and enacts values we consider unappealing, but we will give them some credit for representing those values honestly, thus displaying high BI.
Consider this story about former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, who is currently serving a 24-year prison term for conspiracy, insider trading, making false statements and securities fraud. One morning there was a long line of cars waiting to get into the Enron car park when Skilling’s car roared up and pushed into the front of the queue. In response to the honks of protest and frustration, Skilling just raised his middle finger.(#4)
Maybe this was exactly the message Skilling was trying to get across: ‘People from Enron don’t just stand in a queue and wait for their turn. We go straight to the front, push in, and take what is ours. And if anyone has a problem with that, we tell them where to go’. It certainly sounds like an action that was consistent with everything else he said and did while at Enron. I do think his behaviour maybe somewhat different in the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado?
So, why do stories about leaders’ BI get retold in organisations? Why do they trigger so many stories?
Employees look to either the behaviour of their leaders, or to stories about their behaviour, to judge their character. They want to find out who their leaders are, what they value, what they are passionate about and what annoys them. This is partly so they can predict the leaders’ future behaviour and its potential impact on them.
It’s often mistakenly believed that stories are just accounts of things that happened in the past. In fact, by revealing patterns of behaviour and personal tendencies, stories are also predictors of the future. By understanding how their leaders are likely to act, employees can modify their behaviour to reduce the risk to their own security, or alternatively to increase the likelihood that they will be treated favourably.
As author Tony Simons notes; “employees focus substantial attention on their managers partly because they depend on them for rewards, promotions, favourable assignments, resources and the like”.(#5)
This is why the stories leaders trigger by their actions are so important. They have a disproportionate impact on how people perceive their character and therefore their trustworthiness.
(#1) Simons, T. (2002). ‘Behavioral integrity: the perceived alignment between managers’ words and deeds as a research focus’, Organization Science, vol. 13, no. 1.
(#2) Simons, T. (2002). ‘The high cost of lost trust’ in the Harvard Business Review, September, 2002.
(#3) Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Jossey-Bass, New York.
(#4) Roberston, I. (2012). The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, Bloomsbury, London.
(#5) Simons, T. (2002). ‘Behavioral integrity: the perceived alignment between managers’ words and deeds as a research focus’, Organization Science, vol. 13, no. 1.
As a manager, I have always had a lot of time for people who might not be overly talented but who always try their hardest. Highly talented people who won't 'put in' don't get much time or attention from me.
This afternoon a workshop participant told me a story he heard last week that makes this concept come to life.
Last Thursday, I met an executive encountering some significant challenges in a major culture change underway in his organisation. He had been inspired to use a story-based approach to help get traction.
He was keen to meet as he had some questions around the components of the story he was preparing to write. He had read Peter Guber's book 'Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story', and was planning to use the challenge-struggle-resolution structure described in it. He also needed to decide who would be the hero in the story: the company, a product, a staff member or himself.
If you are working in an organisation and struggling with similar questions then I give you the same advice as I gave him...
Not next week, not tomorrow. Now! Tear it up, throw it in the bin.
Most times I have seen leaders use similar approaches it has been a disaster and the change initiative has been set back. These sorts of structures are great for professionals (authors, script writers etc) but mostly come across as BS when used by amateurs. Some exceptional leaders, who are expert raconteurs can get away with it, but not the majority of us. We live in the land of business reality, not in Hollywood. There is no place for poor fiction in business storytelling.
Amateurs fall into the uncanny valley of business storytelling.
Please spare yourself and your change initiative from this fate.
Amateurs need simple structures and authentic examples. An occasional analogy can be used as well. Simple structures are the story spine or even simpler is the structure below:
- In the past...
- Then something happened...
- So now...
- And in the future...
Effective business storytelling is non-fiction: authentic and honest. Leave fiction to the experts.
Joseph Jiminez joined Novartis in 2007 as Head of Consumer Health, in charge of the over the counter business. He had a background in consumer packaged goods was a complete novice to the pharmaceuticals industry. Six months later he was appointed to lead the pharmaceuticals division. He was an unlikely choice, neither a scientist nor a physician, but the company wanted somebody with a fresh perspective. They were facing what's called a 'patent cliff' which occurs when a patent expires and generic drugs flood the market. In the Novartis case, the drug was Diovan (for high blood pressure) and in 2011/12 patents would expire reducing the revenue contribution from Diovan from 5 billion pa to 1 billion pa.
HBR published an article by Jimenez in its December 2012 issue, reflecting on how he went about averting the impact of the Diovan 'patent cliff'. Jiminez went on to became CEO in 2010.
At this stage I'd ask you to put aside any negative views you have regarding profit generation in the pharmaceuticals industry and look at this article for its business lessons.
One of the key lessons identified by Jiminez was the need for a fresh view - in this case it was provided by Jiminez himself. There is no doubt that a fresh perspective is extremely valuable. But don't just look for an outsider to come in and solve all your problems. As Jim Collins pointed out in Good to Great, 10 of the 11 CEOs of the 'great' companies came from within the organisation. And if you are looking for a fresh perspective, try a story listening approach by collecting examples from within your organisation and taking decision makers through a sensemaking process. The insights from this process are often significant. We wrote a whitepaper about using story-based approaches to create insight back in 2011.
Jiminez also identified one of the common patterns in organisations… "one of the key problems in transforming organisations is creating a culture where people are comfortable to speak up". Jimenez points out that it took considerable effort to make people throughout the company comfortable telling him what they really thought and that this was a significant part of this success.The article finishes "it takes a great team aligned around a common purpose to work through the challenges and deliver this." Great advice, but definitely much easier said than done.
Cynthia A. Montgomery is the Timken Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. One of the programs she teaches is for accomplished executives and entrepreneurs at one of Harvard's flagship programs.
Very early on in the program she asks these senior business people to list three words that come to mind when they hear the word strategy. Collectively they have produced 109 words, frequently giving top billing to 'plan', 'direction', and 'competitive advantage'.
In more than 2,000 responses, only 2 had anything to do with people: one said 'leadership', another 'visionary'.
Isn't that amazing. In over 2,000 responses from experienced, senior leaders and business owners, the term leadership was mentioned once in regard to strategy.
And as Montgomery, author of the book The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs, says; "Downplaying the link between a leader and a strategy, or failing to recognise it at all, is a dangerous oversight...After all, defining what an organisation will be, and why and to whom that will matter, is at the heart of a leader's role."
In a recent McKinsey Quarterly article 'How strategists lead' (paid access required for full article) she goes on to say:
"It is the leader...who must make the vital choices that determine a company's very identity, who says, "This is our purpose, not that. This is who we will be. This is why our customers and clients will prefer a world with us rather than without us." Others, inside and outside a company, will contribute in meaningful ways, but in the end it is the leader who bears responsibility for the choices that are made and indeed for the fact that choices are made at all."
Do you as a leader understand your role in creating, communicating and embedding strategy?