How storytelling changed a CEO’s leadership
This is the story of a leader in crisis who discovered authentic storytelling to gain an ‘emotional edge’ that helped to create motivation, buy-in and belief where before there was none.
Hannah was the London-based CEO of an international conglomerate of manufacturing companies. The origins of the company were male and British colonial but Hannah was European and grew up in the Middle East. Nevertheless, she rose fast; Hannah did not fit the company archetype but succeeded because she was driven, commercial and always kept the bottom line in sharp focus. In short, she delivered results.
When her parent company radically changed its business model, it moved much of its manufacturing to the developing nations from which it once took only raw materials. Hannah was tasked to drive the change from London against tight deadlines while simultaneously downsizing the London office. It was a big ask. ‘I had people I needed to do hectic and important work. They all knew that if they were successful they basically worked themselves out of a job.’
When I arrived, I found Hannah’s people understood the project; they could see it was rational. But from senior executives down, they were detached, confused and fearful about the future. Hannah needed to deliver ‘people’ results – discretionary effort in adverse circumstances – but her customary focus on the bottom line was not connecting. The work began to grind to a halt. Her people needed more.
It was when we dug down together into Hannah’s strengths that we made the key discovery. ‘Since I was a child fairness was very important but I’ve never really associated it much to the business. I always believed my private person was other than my business person.’ Hannah’s ‘split personality’ was a revelation to her:
‘As we went through the process, it suddenly hit me that you can’t split one person out of the other. Because I found that basically even with all my commercialism, at the end of the day the things I would chose to do in business are about doing the right thing – giving back something better than I got, being fairer.’
I showed Hannah that her ‘two selves’ were actually compatible. Mapping her strengths onto the needs of the organization produced a powerful fit since she genuinely believed her company was ‘doing the right thing’. It made a huge difference to her communication style. ‘I started sharing with people. The story was still the same story – we were doing this because it was more commercial, but it was also the right thing: the resources belonged to these countries. But the way I engaged with people, I got into the emotional more.’
Hannah began to listen more and use many more stories to celebrate and inspire:
‘I used all sorts of stories from other people in the company. Lots of examples of people behaving with integrity, behaving according to the values, some of them very small but making it much more human. Some were stories that I’d heard many times before, some came because as you start talking to people you hear more.’
Hannah saw her new story-driven approach produce measurable results:
‘Beforehand I was much more businesslike. But giving time for talking to people about things which are not just “One, two, three, here’s what I wanted to tell you” created buy-in to the vision. I saw people relate to the change. They connected to the stories, looked at the issues and thought much more out of the box. Before it was about “We have to do this, but I will do what I have to do and that’s it”, now they are actually willing to try and find better, more creative solutions.’
Achieving this ‘emotional edge’ delivered benefits to Hannah’s organization at every level. Her staff were motivated, her senior executives engaged in ensuring best-practice change management. Everyone could answer the inevitable question ‘What’s in it for me?’
‘I got them energized, committed and realistic, willing to look beyond “I’m going to lose my job” into “Well how am I going to do it best.” It was pride – people had pride in what they were doing. It made life so much better.’
There were direct benefits for Hannah too:
‘I had a corporate communications department where I was signing things off half-awake. I am giving much more time and attention to communication now. I’m more attentive to detail and the small things, whether I’m chairing a board meeting, meeting ministers and presidents or talking to consumers and staff. The process of being true to myself, and telling more stories, gave me more confidence to do what I’m doing: it’s a challenge and I love challenges.’