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“Once Upon a Time…”
Tell a Story Instead

(Published in York University Human Resources Student Association’s
The Network Newsletter, Edition 2, March 2005)

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Your CEO is heading out on the road to deliver her annual employee presentation in each location across the country. She’s armed with her usual collection of PowerPoint slides filled with numbers and graphs. You’re thrilled she wants to ensure all employees know what’s going on in the business, and have a common understanding of the goals for the coming year, but this methodology just isn’t getting employees as excited and passionate as they need to be to deliver this year’s tough business plan.

In today’s knowledge-based business environment, it’s critical that employees understand the dynamics of the business environment in which they are working. They also need to be clear on the company’s vision and the specific strategies senior management has chosen to implement. Employees and their managers can then be fully engaged, within their respective work groups, in developing and executing the department specific tactics that will ensure business objectives are reached. They’ll also have context within which to make decisions when interacting with demanding customers. There is no better way to ensure all employees share a common vision than through the use of stories. Few of us can remember the numbers we saw on the sales chart at yesterday afternoon’s meeting. Yet any of us who grew up in North America can retell the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” we heard years ago. That’s the power of storytelling.

I had the pleasure of working with an enlightened CEO in the financial services industry, Richard M. Evans, President & CEO of Liberty Insurance Company of Canada. Rick had asked me to sponsor a cross-functional team of employees from across the company. As we brainstormed how we could make a positive difference in the organization, the subject of Rick’s annual road show was raised. The group wanted to give Rick feedback that, in his third year as CEO, his annual PowerPoint slideshow was getting tiresome. After presenting the content over and over again, in over 23 locations, his delivery was getting rather boring too. The honour of being the bearer of “constructive feedback” was bestowed upon me. Rick laughed, “I’m not surprised they’re bored – I am too! By the time I get to my 14th group, it’s brutal for everyone!”

It was Rick’s idea to use a space theme. The business needed to move from a traditional sales volume based business to one focused on profitability. Our “Starship Liberty” would make the journey from the “Planet Volumus” to the “Star of Prosperity”. Suddenly energized, Rick bought a star on the internet. The map showing “Prosperity’s coordinates was unveiled at each presentation. Key business metrics were represented as gauges on the bridge’s control panel. Instead of focusing on the actual metric, the gauges were colour coded. Red signaled a danger zone – where the business results were clearly not good. Yellow was the caution zone and green indicated we were doing well. A needle outlined the current position and it moved (through animation) to where it needed to be.


Senior Management got into the spirit, each adopting a character to incorporate into the presentations. Rick was “Captain Rock” and I was the Ship’s Counselor. We played together on stage, having more and more fun as we moved across the country. Employees loved it and the impact on the organization was significant! Work teams began to decorate their offices. Stars and planets were hung from the ceilings. Spaceships were built, bulletin boards sported gauges posting function specific results, and space-themed contests were created. Every single employee in the organization was able to retell the story – our mission was to get to “Prosperity” in record time! The collective focus was nothing short of incredible!

A year later, significant progress had been made but we hadn’t quite reached “Prosperity” yet. This time Rick spoke of our industry in terms of being “in the Perfect Storm in an Alice-in-Wonderland world”. Being a movie buff, Rick was able to talk about the business environment using two analogies that employees could relate to. They got it! And our focus became even stronger.

"In the course of less than two years, the business saw a $68 million profit improvement on a revenue base of $378 million. And we’re convinced that the art of storytelling was instrumental in the turnaround."

Karen Todd is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant. She can be reached at 416-284-6752, karen@karentodd.com , or visit www.karentodd.com
 

"How to introduce "storytelling" to your senior executive team"

1. Introduce the concept of storytelling to your senior leadership team. When introducing something that runs the risk of being considered “a fluffy HR thing”, consider distributing an article as pre-reading to a meeting agenda item. Several good articles on storytelling are available through Harvard Business Online. Share any employee feedback you have indicating that improvement in communications is needed and outline how storytelling can be the answer.
2. Review the key elements of the business plan. Growth? Transformation? Cost cutting? What analogy best describes your company’s goals and strategies over the next year or two?
3. Use your knowledge of the personal hobbies and interests of your senior leadership team to suggest appropriate analogies that dovetail with a personal interest. Once you find such an analogy (especially if it’s the CEO’s!) there will be no stopping the creative ideas that come from your executive team.
4. Make note of the energy in the room as you brainstorm ideas. Senior managers rarely take time to “play” but when given the space to do so, they play with gusto! Don’t be surprised if your 15 minute agenda item turns into an hour of fun!
5. Debrief the experience calling explicit attention to the energy generated – proof of the power of storytelling. Ask the group to imagine the impact of that kind of energy being generated by every employee in the organization!
Other Articles by Karen Todd
BUSINESS
Considering a move to reduced work hours?
Published in The Briefcase Diaries column at www.weewelcome.ca  February 14, 2006
Lessons learned from bad HR bosses
Published in the Canadian HR Reporter, May 9, 2005
Next to the CEO, the leader of the HR function can be the most influential and important person in an organization.
Executive Assistants must use power, influence wisely
(Published in the Executive Assistant Update newsletter – December 2004)
Connect With Line Managers and Open the Firm Up to HR:
To play a lead role in organizational effectiveness HR must first gain manager’s trust.
(Published in the Canadian HR Reporter, November 8, 2004)
Creating a Culture of Feedback
360-degree feedback can be a way of life, not a program you impose
(Published in the Canadian HR Reporter, September 13, 2004)
Tell employees why they’re not getting promoted
Feedback can help staff avoid bitterness and maybe even get the next posting
(Published in the Globe and Mail, Career Section, September 15, 2002)
Very promising, very demanding
High potential employees often avoid lateral moves that would help them in the future
(Published in the Canadian HR Reporter, September 22, 2003)
Planning an Employee Meeting:
Model the future you’re trying to create
Mat Leave not Mat Left
Published in The Briefcase Diaries column at www.weewelcome.ca , November 25, 2005
HUMAN INTEREST
Where Has Common Sense Gone?
A Grocery Store Service Saga
Ditch the Cape, Supermom
Published in The Briefcase Diaries column at
www.weewelcome.ca,  October 7, 2005
Is Working From Home For You?
Unexpected Choices
(Published in the Canadian Down Syndrome Society Quarterly Newsletter, Winter 2005, Vol 18.1)
Please be Balanced: A Parent’s Ask of Healthcare Professionals
Published in the Ontario Association on Developmental Disabilities’ Journal on Development Disabilities
Vol 12 No 1

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