Tag : leadership communications

Storytelling needs a narrative

I’m kind of sick of everyone in business talking about storytelling.  It’s become a buzzword that people don’t truly understand or know how to use.

If you’re in marketing or corporate communications you’ve been in that strategy meeting where someone inevitably says, “We need to do more  storytelling.”

But most leaders, marketers and communicators don’t really know what to say when they’re told to “tell a story.”

“About what? To what end?,” many wonder. Others push back, “Oh, I don’t like telling stories about myself.”

Here’s my take.  Before telling useful stories,  organizations need a narrative, the reason for being.  The uber purpose.  The big picture context.  Then it becomes much easier for people to share anecdotes and stories that support  that narrative. More importantly, it helps the people –  citizens, employees, customers  — understand what’s important and  how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

A narrative is like a clothesline,  and you hang your policies from it, says David Gergen, communications adviser to four U.S. presidents. Similarly, companies hang its products and services from the clothesline.

Narratives are simple explanations.  You shouldn’t need training for people in the organization to “get it.” (A communications executive of a global company told me that his company has a narrative, but I’d have to read the PowerPoint deck to really understand it.  Sounds like there’s more work to do.)

Here are a few examples:

  • The narrative of the United States has been about exploring.  For Israel it’s protecting and defending.
  • For Nike it’s about serving and honoring the inner athlete.  Patagonia is about doing no harm to the environment.
  • Southwest Airlines’ makes it simple and fun to fly. FedEx absolutely, positively delivers the best customer experience.
  • My company’s narrative is about creating clarity from complexity.  The Rebels at Work movement is helping corporate rebels inside large organizations be more successful in creating positive change. An executive coach friend is about helping strong leaders become better people.

These narratives can be like North Stars — a fixed point in the sky that can be used to guide decisions, serve as a organizing prompt for telling relevant stories, open up thinking about new products or ways to work.

Narratives can also be a quest.  I like John Hagel’s view in this Forbes article:

Story chronicles the path and progress of a limited set of protagonists – from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of a story arc.  Narratives, in contrast, are designed for a growing number of protagonists — many of whom are yet to be defined — who share a common quest or journey that is yet to be fully resolved or completed.

How do we find our narrative?

To help companies find their narrative, I invite people to think of their organization as a cause or movement and speed write a rallying cry, starting with a verb.  Or  quickly write many responses to the “I believe that ….” prompt about their organization or company. No over-thinking, self-editing or  corporate speak.  Just ideas, beliefs and aspiration, from the gut.

I’ve also been suggesting to marketing and corporate communications executives that they NOT make this a formal process.  Take some narrative possibilities and insert them into casual business conversations. Then into some presentations as a way of setting context to your ideas.  See how people react. Ask them, “Does this help you better understand our strategy?  Do you see how this new product line fits with our overall business?  Can you imagine how this policy falls outside of our focus?  Is this something you’d like to be part of?”

See how well the narrative serves you. If it works,  quietly seed it so it can grow and serve others without bringing in committees, copywriters, lawyers or naysayers.  Insert it into the CEO’s talking points.  Use it to frame the next acquisition or product launch.  If it helps, then make it better known and  part of the company’s leadership strategy.

And if it doesn’t resonate? Keep experimenting.

Finding a narrative gives your organization meaning.

And meaning changes everything.


Additional reading:

“Still Waiting for the Narrator in Chief: Why the president lost his ability to tell a story,” by Matt Bai, New York Times Sunday Magazine, 11/4/2012.

“The Pull Narrative: In Search of Persistent Context” by John Hagel









Will Obama fairness message stick?

Note: Every four years I start following political communications strategies they way some people follow sports.  Like sports, political strategies can be focused, executed with creativity and discipline, and inspire the fans. Similarly they can be a train wreck. 

I think President Obama is onto a potentially powerful message strategy in his campaign speeches. Now, he needs to support that platform  with emotional stories, and convey the three essential messages more clearly and consistently.

The platform is essentially about fairness.

In America we’ve always been greater together than on our own. We succeed when we’re all rising. This  big, inclusive, generous, bold, ambitious vision of America is what’s at stake, is what we’re fighting for.

  1. Every American gets a fair shot if they’re willing to work hard to get ahead.
  2. Every American needs to do their fair share.
  3. Every American plays by the same set of rules.

Our brains react to five threats or rewards: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Choosing fairness is both an American value and connects with the 99 percent who are outraged at the inequities of the one percenters, which both Romney and Gingrich are.

Scientists have also found that fairness can be linked to achievement.  “Fairness between strangers at the individual level is what allows social organisms to thrive, and to out-compete more selfish societies, ” according to a Fast Co. article last year about a study done by evolutionary scientist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia.

While I think most voters want the “certainty” brain circuits lit in this election — more jobs, stable housing prices, assurances about no new taxes, withdrawal from Middle East — those are things that no politician should promise as he or she has so little control over those outcomes.

But fairness? Fairness provides an opportunity for all boats to rise. And who doesn’t want a better country for themselves AND their family, friends, neighbors and countrymen?

If I were running the Obama campaign I would support the platform by:

  • Share stories of Americans — famous and everyday — who have gotten a fair shot, succeeded, and give back.  Make the message real, emotional and aspirational through individuals’ stories.  Even the President’s own.
  • Highlight people who are doing their fair share — and then some. Social entrepreneurs. Small business owners committed to their employees and their communities. Community college teachers. Hospice nurses.  Tireless community volunteers.  Generous individual donors to vital non-profits. You can whine about how unfair life is, or you can do. Celebrate the doers.
  • Give concrete examples of distorted rules that need to be changed to level the playing field. Specifics make a message real.

During his first term President Obama has not emotionally connected as well as he could with Americans, and what he most believes in seems kind of vague to the average Joe and Jane. People don’t want wonk-ish  explanations. They want to be inspired.

While I am comforted to know that a leader has the intellectual chops to lead amid complexity, most people want a president who “gets them” — feels their pain, their hopes — and has the conviction to make things happen to address those pains and hopes.

Conviction is emotional, passionate, fierce and focused.

Obama potentially can deliver on this. Romney, not so much. Gingrich, potentially.

Let the election communications strategies begin in earnest!

Open a can of worms

“How do you think the elephant got in the room?” my friend Maria DeCarvalho asked as we were talking about a messy corporate situation.  “Someone lets them in when they’re small.  Most of us see them but don’t have the courage to recognize a potential problem and get rid of it before it grows into an elephant.”

A  frank and generous executive coach, Maria believes that knowing how to have difficult conversations is an essential leadership skill — and one that few of us have ever been taught.

Rather than ignore signs of disagreement, negativity or skepticism, she encourages people to learn how to open  a can of worms. “You find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long.”

Here’s Maria’s recent blog post explaining how to open up a can of worms. More of her sage advice can be found on her blog.

People are always communicating. Always.

I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of conversations or meetings in which you’ve noticed others roll their eyes, cross their arms, raise their eyebrows, press their lips together, pull out their smartphones, look down or away, exchange quick glances across a table, or just sit there and not say anything.

These messages are as clear and real as if they had been put into words.  In fact, they can be the most important part of the conversation because people are telegraphing how they actually feel.

The trouble, of course, is that it can be awkward and uncomfortable to acknowledge these signals because they seem negative and a little slippery.  They are often subtle, and sometimes they go by quickly.  Who wants to open up a can of worms?

You do.  You’re going to find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long at all.

So, grab your can opener and use these two simple steps to increase the honesty and comfort of conversations in which these behaviors are occurring:

1.  Stop thinking about signals like arm-crossing and long silence as criticism or rudeness and start calling them information. The people who are giving you these signals are letting you know how they feel.

2. Do a quick, friendly check in, just as you do when you are using your listening skills:

  • Bob, you look a little skeptical. What are you thinking?
  • Ted and Sarah?  Is there something you’re worried about that it would help us to know?
  • Garry, I’m sensing there’s something about this that you don’t like.  Where are you on this idea?
  • Anna, I’m sitting here wondering if you’ve sort of checked out of the conversation.  Is there something that’s not working for you?

Notice that each one of my suggestions ends with a  NOW WHAT? request for something back from the person.  That reduces awkwardness and helps move the conversation along.

CEO Barbara DeBuono: Leading with questions

Executives can lay out a goal and what they think needs to be done to achieve that goal.  People then (hopefully) follow orders and business moves ahead.

This traditional leadership approach cultivates a follower culture. Yet, follower cultures don’t cultivate creativity, innovation, transparency or engagement.

Barbara DeBuono, CEO of Orbis International, takes a different approach, one that more and more highly-effective leaders are adopting: she poses important, provocative questions and then facilitates and guides meaningful conversations. Conversations where people figure out together the ways they believe the organization can best achieve the goal.

She explained the approach to The New York times’ Adam Bryant in the “Corner Office” column:

I asked a group of people at Orbis, “Do you think we’re a high performing organization?” and then I shut my mouth. I wanted them to give me the answer.

I also asked them, “What do you think a high performing organization would look like?”

The next question I ask: “Do you want to be one? And if so, what is a high performing organization? Let’s discuss what it is.

Barbara explains that taking this kind of honest, open conversational approach gets people to drop their defenses, opens up honest conversations about difficult issues, and creates a new energy level among people. “I definitely see a spring in people’s step,” she remarked.

I’m noticing that those who lead effectively:

  • Ask important questions
  • Make it safe for people to have real conversations about the issues
  • Listen intently
  • Trust that the group will discover how to move things forward

The end of employee communications as we know it

Will companies need employee communications departments three or five years from now? I think not.

Just as Twitter is changing how news and information is gathered and shared. So will social communication change business communication, eliminating the need for a centralized employee communications function.

In an interview this week NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen said, “Because of Twitter, the news system is tending toward a state where every user is a node in the news gathering network. And a distributor. That’s a very different system.”

Employee communications will quickly evolve into a very different system as well. With every employee a node in the company information network. Whether it’s Twitter, a private company social network or some other social form of communications, people will want to find out what’s going on in the company — not just from executives and department heads but from one another.

A Fortune 100 company called this morning to talk about new skills and competencies for corporate communications professionals. There are many, which I’ll try to address in another post.  But this got me to thinking that perhaps we need to elevate the conversation to what communications skills and competencies executives need in this evolving world.

Soon — or maybe it’s already here — executives will need to be direct communicators, like all team members. How they participate will determine the effectiveness of workplace communications and how well they attract talent.   Not the Intranet, the employee newsletter, the beautiful posters or the occasional and well-scripted town hall meeting.

While this transition like all transitions will be full of uncertainty, I hope it is not full of fear. Leaders with a clear sense of purpose and passion for their employees, customers and community  have all they need to be superb communicators. Just be yourself. And help people see the way forward.

Why executives need social media

While social media continues to transform our society, executives remain unconvinced that it’s relevant to their work.  I disagree and here are some concrete reasons why I believe  social media is a basic leadership competency. This is a hot topic so if you have additional thoughts please share them.

Manifesting leadership behavior

Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, authors of the Harvard Business Review article “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership,” have researched and found social leadership competencies and behaviors, as noted above and explained more fully in their article.  I would contend that there are uses of social communications that help to manifest these behaviors, especially in large, geographically dispersed organizations where leaders can’t have as much face to face time with their people.

Using Twitter or responding to posts on the company Facebook page can also humanize an executive and recognize  an individual employees, making them feel more valued.

During an interview today a middle manager told me that one of the best days in her position was when the CEO sent a personal note, congratulating her on turning around what had been one of the most poorly performing units of the organization. “That note made me feel so valued,” she explained of the incident that happened a few years ago.  “Today recognizing me on our Facebook page or a Tweet would do the same. Why don’t executives do this more?”

Social media surprise: increase in employee satisfaction

One of the surprises of FedEx’s use of social media for customer service is not that customer sentiment has improved, but that that their employee satisfaction scores have risen. Their front line service reps like their jobs more because they are receiving public recognition on Twitter from those customers that they so diligently help. They feel valued. (Disclaimer: FedEx is one of my clients.)

Note the word “feel.”  To lead people, you must make them feel valued And social media provides a way to do this. Mother Teresa once said, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” Do you know how easy it easy to share short kind words via a blog response, “Nice job,”  a simple re-tweet (RT) of a colleague’s Tweet, or just clicking “Like” on a Facebook comment. Short and kind goes a long way and it’s easy.

Five practical reasons executives need social media

Put socially intelligent leadership strategy aside. Here are five practical reasons for executives to be using social media.

Support company initiatives: As companies launch Facebook pages for employee engagement or internal communities in lieu of newsletters and Intranets, executives should want to be part of these efforts. If  something is important to the company, executives need to show up to make people believe it’s important.

Taking the pulse, being engaged: Similarly, how can you  take the pulse of your people and company if you’re not hanging out where they’re talking, which more and more is online? Showing up and posting responses or comments shows that you’re listening and care about people’s ideas.  Visible listening on these social channels sends a message that you value what your people. It also show’s leadership is engaged.  There are so many programs today aimed at “employee engagement.”  What about leadership engagement going the other way to employees and customers?

Appeal to Gen Y talent: If you really want to attract and hold onto valuable GenY talent, using social media sends a signal that you’re progressive and a company with a desirable collaborative culture. It’s not just the PR department Tweeting, there’s a company culture of open collaborating, sharing and recognizing people’s ideas.

Manage the company’s reputation:  Being involved in key social channels can help you build reputation equity, show you’re an innovative company with diverse people with diverse ideas, attract talent, and help customers see how passionate and dedicated you are to being the best in the industry.  Perceptions today are more influenced by people seeing an ongoing persona of an executive and getting to know who they are as a person from what they share in social media — this social communications sharing is far more influential than  any one or two media articles or handful of speeches.

Speeches at conferences: Today at conferences people live Tweet the speakers and refer to them by their Twitter handles. Oops, what if you’re speaking and you have no Twitter handle? It’s not a big deal. But it’s sort of like showing up to speak and forgetting to wear socks.

Changing your behavior to inspire theirs

Today you can be a highly effective leader and have no social communications competence, sort of like in the late 1980s/early 90′s when executives had no email addresses.  But if you really want to connect to your customers and people, you need to change to how they work, learn, share, and live.  The conservative Mayo Clinic recently said that “the social media revolution is the most far-reaching communications development since Guttenberg’s printing press.”

But it’s more than about communications.  This is about leadership, and changing your management behavior to make people feel valued, recognized, and a part of a movement, which is your company’s mission.

I asked the middle manager about her advice to executives, and she recommend that they all think on this Maya Angelou quote: 

“I have learned that people will forget what you have said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Lessons in leadership: where are you coming from?

Writer, educator and activist Parker Palmer has for years been helping leaders, teachers, and medical professionals connect with their inner values and learn how to rely on that soulful wisdom to guide their professional lives.  Listening to our inner teacher, he writes in “A Hidden Wholeness,” prevents burn out and helps us stay passionate and engaged in work and relationships that are meaningful.

“When we live behind a wall, people close to us become wary of the gap between our onstage performance and backstage reality. Distrusting our duplicity and seeking to protect themselves, they hold us at arm’s length.”

It was interesting to read the interview with Niki Leondakis, COO of the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, in the Sunday New York Times “Corner Office” column about her leadership approach, which is grounded in standing for our values as leaders.  It is very much in synch with Palmer’s insights.

So what advice would you give to new managers?

“I would talk to a young manager about who they are, what they believe in, and find the foundation or platform, if you will, to communicate consistently to the people you work with so they know what you stand for and what you believe in.

“When they experience that from you, they understand the place that it’s coming from. Otherwise, they fill in their own blanks.”

At a business dinner party two years ago I met Ed Godin, senior VP of HR at Brightcove. Ed opened up the dinner by asking everyone what their “power alleys” were — what we felt were our real gifts and talents.  The question wasn’t about titles or companies or any of those superficial things we so often use to introduce ourselves. It was a great conversation starter because it helped us to quickly begin to know each other for one another.

Understanding our real talents and inner beliefs helpfully guides our individual behavior as leaders. But as Niki Leondakis explains, articulating those beliefs also helps us with people we work with and for.  When you know what’s really motivating a person, you don’t fill in your own blanks, or get frustrated by actions that seem to be grounded in nothing but company politics.

Sort of like that old adage, “the truth can set you free.” When we know what we all value, we can get  on with collaborating and working in a way that is true to who we are. And maybe even have some fun doing so.

The 10 forgotten marketing & communications skills


Business is communications, not the use of devices or channels, as important as they are. Here are 10 skills of the best leaders and marketers, often forgotten when hiring internal resources or outside consultants and agencies.

  1. Move over James Lipton: conducting interviews that uncover interesting, entertaining and enlightening ideas
  2. Texas girls do it best: politely hijacking the conversation, steering it to where you want it to go while making others feel really good about where you’re taking it. (My hypothesis is that Texas women excel at this.)
  3. Tackling the taboos: provoking healthy debate on “off limit” issues that need to be addressed, especially to overcome obstacles
  4. I believe!: performing vs. presenting in order to open minds and help people see the possibilities
  5. YouTube tribal chant: telling stories with video moves people rationally and emotionally, but too many of us have been exclusively trained in words
  6. Change the context, win the game: resetting context to help people see a situation through a different lens. One of the most powerful selling strategies.
  7. Reading between the lines: extracting meaning from what’s being talked about, in person and amid the millions of online/mobile “conversations”
  8. Mind your manners: practicing small kindnesses that make a big difference in getting great work done and  attracting people with well directed energy and talent
  9. The Jon Stewart revolution: creating stories that people love to share
  10. The innovator’s real dilemma: asking questions that get to the “aha”

Odd CEO behavior

This week Beth Israel Deaconess CEO Paul Levy did something unusual for a CEO. When faced with layoffs he asked his employees for ideas on what the hospital could do to protect lower wage earning employees– the hard working transporters, food service workers, housekeepers.

That’s right, asked an auditorium full of employees for their ideas. Talk about respecting your people and valuing their counsel.

And, boy, did he get ideas.  A floor or nurses unanimously volunteered to give up their pay raise. A finance guy suggested working a day less a week. The ideas kept coming after the meeting — almost 100 emails an hour to the CEO.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen wrote a beautiful column today about Levy’s bold leadership step, “A head with a heart.” Don’t miss it. Levy is an example of leadership for a new era, where CEOs trust, embrace and collaborate with employees to together do what’s best for all. Where participation creates solutions far more creative and accepting than those in the old command-and-control model.

“Paul Levy is trying something revolutionary, radical, maybe even impossible. He is trying to convince the people who work for him that the E in CEO can sometimes stand for empathy.”

Humanizing diplomatic communications

What was remarkable about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Asia last week was that it showed an innovative approach to diplomatic relations and communications. Rather than just the formal meetings with dignitaries Clinton showed a much more human communications style, both in style and actions, making time to speak at universities to talk with female students, to appear on a popular television show,  to go to church.

Clinton told reporters that she is determined to make a connection to people “in a way that is not traditional, not confined by the ministerial greeting and the staged handshake photo…I see our job right now, given where we are in the world and what we’ve inherited, as repairing relations, not only with people.”


Better yet, the previously overly cautious, overly messaged Clinton, has seen the light about the value of straight talk.

Mark Landler of The New York Times reported on Saturday: “Mrs. Clinton raised eyebrows among journalists and analysts with a frank assessment of how a succession struggle in North Korea could undermine talks over its nuclear program. She said she was baffled by the reaction.”

“Maybe this is unusual because you are suppose to be so careful that we spend hours avoiding stating the obvious,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I think it’s worth, perhaps, being more straightforward, trying to engage countries on the basis of the reality that exists.”

This straightforward, human approach to communications is what all people are craving — in foreign relations, in government, at school, in business. In fact, one of the effects of social media has been to amplify this desire.

Gary Hamel recently posted “25 Stretch Goals for Management” on the Harvard Business Publishing blog –  summarizing a two day summit of business leaders tackling the topic of how to reinvent management.  My favorite goal, which underscores Clinton’s recent style, is #24:

Humanize the language and practice of business. Tomorrow’s management systems must give as much credence to such timeless ideals as beauty, justice and community as they do to the traditional goals of efficiency, advantage and profit.”

Mrs. Clinton has come so far in changing her leadership communications style over the past two years to be more real, more human, more direct.  Now let’s help our business leaders do the same so they can be more inspiring leaders vs. merely effective managers.