Is Storytelling One of Your Leadership Superpowers?

I’ve been working with some senior leaders recently on using powerful tools like storytelling to engage others in strategy. Just last week, I also saw a headline that Marvel’s most recent movie – Ant Man and the Wasp – opened in 1st place this past weekend. It was their 20th straight #1 opening. Marvel is telling some great stories. How can we, as leaders, start telling some great stories?

A recent article in The Mission identified 20 Storytelling Lessons We Can Learn from Marvel, analyzing what makes them so good at the art of the story. I’m not going to discuss all 20, but but here are three that all leaders can use to make storytelling one of their superpowers.

  • Heroes are not inherently interesting. Only dynamic, flawed characters can connect with dynamic, flawed humans. Too often leaders, especially senior leaders, are viewed by other people in the organization as being different from them. And, too often, these leaders hide the parts of themselves that would make people believe any differently. I’ve facilitated many leadership sessions where a senior leader shares his or her story. The most impactful stories are those where the senior leader opens up and shares the stories of the hardships, the mistakes, the questioning of themselves and the missteps that they have experienced in their lives and careers. And what they did to overcome those challenges that led to success.
  • The world is more than blue sky and green grass. Create a believable universe, not a pretty backdrop. When we tell a story, we may tend to gloss over the parts that aren’t too pretty. We only talk about all the benefits that will come from the company transformation. Just like showing your own human, less than perfect side, you should paint a realistic picture of what your team and your organization faces. “The new organizational structure will position the company to be more successful. AND… yes, it will mean growing pains. Some people will no longer fit into the company’s future, and some people will have to learn new ways of working or report to new managers. And we’ll all have to manage a degree of uncertainty as all the kinks are worked out. We don’t take these steps lightly.  But there is no growth without growing pains.“
  • Avoid info-dumping by maintaining a thread of suspense until the last possible moment. I recently saw a video by Lani Peterson, who is an executive coach and storytelling expert. She explained what happens when we talk facts and figures. She notes that we make sense out of information by turning it into a story and comparing it to other stories we’ve experienced. We, as the listener, have to do all the work. As leaders, if we are focusing on facts and figures – info dumping – rather than weaving a story that builds to a important point, we are not engaging our listeners. Instead, they’re in their own heads, working to figure out how to make sense of what we are telling them. When you’re communicating, don’t rely on Powerpoint or spreadsheets to share where the organization is going or why a particular decision was made. Build a good story that pulls the pieces of the story together, allowing for the big reveal at the end.

If you’re a fan of Iron Man, one of Marvel’s most successful heroes, you probably see all three of these dynamics play out. Marvel gives us a character, Tony Stark (he inhabits the iron suits) who is deeply flawed. Like most people, he struggles with his weaknesses, overcoming them on the way to saving the world. Likewise, Marvel also doesn’t try to paint the good guys’ organizations in the story with an overly flattering brush. Like the heroes, the agencies eventually overcome their own challenges. And finally, like most good stories, there is a feel-good twist at the end. A sense of the heroics of overcoming difficulties both superhuman (defeating an evil empire) and every-day (salvaging a friendship, or coming together as a team) in the service of a greater good.

Growth by Design

I was having a conversation with a CEO earlier this week. The business is very successful and healthy. But like most CEO’s, he is concerned with growth and what’s next for his company. During our conversation, we talked about taking a step back, what I sometimes call taking in the view from the balcony. This view allows you to see how the different aspects of the business and organization are working together (or against each other) to achieve today’s results. And begs the question… how effectively will our current structure and processes spur that next phase of growth? Taking this view helps you to create growth by design, making it easier to align and integrate purposefully. And it prepares the organization to take that next step.

Growth by Design is our framework for helping clients build an organization that can propel them to the next level. It has three core components.

  • It’s starts with compelling clarity, ensuring alignment of the vision, mission, goals and culture. Every leader and every employee should know at all times exactly what their priorities are and how they fit with the strategy and goals of the organization. A how they both serve the mission.
  • Second, you need to leverage the critical drivers – understanding and instilling the growth imperative, making change agility part of your company’s DNA, and ensuring you have the talent to innovate and execute.
  • Third, the organization needs to build adaptive structures and processes– both business and human resources/talent processes and structures — that meet today’s needs but also prepare the organization for what’s next.

Asking the right questions and finding the best answers will help even the most challenged CEOs and senior teams cut through the fog. Building a compelling strategy for what lies ahead… begins by design.

Change and Keeping the End in Mind

change_innovation

Trying to promote change and innovation? Keep the end in mind with a robust, vivid, compelling vision that you keep front and center. It can unleash innovation and be a touchstone, barometer and guide for what and how things get done.

When you have a robust vision of the future, it opens up possibilities. Rather than closing down options, it can allow for change and innovation. With a robust and compelling vision, the focus becomes on achieving the vision — on moving forward — not just making the here and now more efficient or productive or less risky. It allows people to engage in creative thinking about how to get to that vision because ultimately there can be a wide variety of ways to achieve it. Without a vision:

  • people and organizations become overly focused on what and how things are done now
  • change represents uncertainty and as humans, we hate uncertainty
  • there is no gauge to measure a new idea, which makes the idea that much harder to justify pursuing

The vision provides a road map for how something new or different is, indeed, not leading us into uncertainty but closer to the ultimate destination.

And it’s important that the vision not just be a statement that hangs on the wall. It needs to serve as a tool to guide conversations, to help make decisions, to determine how resources are allocated and to promote debate.

How are your vision helping promote change and innovation?