Lead With A Story – Not A Spreadsheet

February 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

lead+with+a+storyFor more than twenty years of teaching and facilitating corporate leadership programs, I’ve had the privilege to experience officers as they visited and spoke to my classes. They were there to present and connect with very important populations – the ones who manage the front lines of large, global organizations.  Until a few years ago, these incredibly smart and experienced executives pretty much followed the same path with their pitches:

  • “Good morning, I’m (name),
  • “I started in (company)  in  (year), “
  • “First, I worked as (role)  in (sub-business), then moved to (another sub- business) where I eventually took over running (current major responsibility).”
  • “Let me show you what we do in our business (show slides of products and services most everyone in the class knows about – really well).”
  • “Here’s how we’ve done on our key measures (show finance slides showing a 5 year progression on revenue, cash flow,  margins, etc.).”
  • “Our challenge is to grow (key measure), and it looks like we’re on track (describe broad strategy).
  • (30 minutes later) “What questions do you have?”

Get the picture?  The irony is that to get to their level, these men and women had to have accomplished a lot, overcome a lot, experienced a lot.  A lot that others could learn9781596591318 from.  Yet from the back of the class, what I saw was disconnection. In the 1990’s I saw copies of newspapers on participants’ desks getting furtive glances; later it was  Blackberries held under the desks.

That was then. Today, many of the most successful organizations are using storytelling as a key leadership tool.  Companies like General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Microsoft, FedEx, NASA, The World Bank and others are intentionally helping their leaders learn to lead with stories instead of bullet points. Goodbye Power Point. Hello Corporate Officer and your stories.  Hello stories that captivate, engage, and persuade.  Stories that teach lessons about:

  • Learning from personal failure,
  • Integrity,
  • Making tough decisions,
  • Balancing people with profit,
  • The necessity of a clear vision & purpose,
  • The importance of inclusion,
  • External focus and what serving a customer means,
  • The challenge of those first 90 days on a new job,
  • Heroes and what they achieved,
  • Positional power not being enough to influence commitment.

When the stories are structured and told well, you can feel the engagement in the room.  For me, it feels like I’m a kid again. Wide-eyed and wanting to ask  “… then what happened next?”

I’ve been inspired to decrease the Power Point, and use more storytelling in my classes. More fun for me, more emotional movement for them.  I use my own stories and the stories I heard from others.  I also use the stories from Paul Smith’s book: Lead With A Story. He shares true stories that any of us can use to inspire & lead others.  BIG HELP:  Paul indexes his stories based on common leadership themes (Culture, Values, Diversity, Customer Service, Leading Change, Policy, etc.).  He also teaches how to structure your own story to capture attention (think Hollywood).

From Paul’s book, here’s a story I use when I teach Global Effectiveness. It demonstrates the importance of knowing the local culture in which you work.  It’s a story told often by P&G CEO Bob McDonald when he speaks to execs operating in different countries:

AT 5.46 A.M. on January 1995, a massive earthquake shook the city of Kobe, Japan, killing 5,000 people, and leaving 300,000 injured or homeless.  Measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, it was the worst earthquake Japan had experienced in 70 years. One of the hardest hit parts of the city was Rokko Island, a man made island about 2 miles square that sits 500 yards off the southern coastline, in the Port of Kobe.  It’s connected to the mainland by only two bridges.  Both were heavily damaged by the quake, and impassible.  For several days people on the island were unable to leave, and food and supplies were slow to get in. P&G’s Northeast Asia headquarters is located on Rokko, as are the homes of many of it’s employees who work there.

During the days after the quake some of the only accessible food was vending machines.  When a vending machine was found working, a line would quickly form in front of it until its contents were gone. At one such machine, on P&G grounds, one of the men lined up was an expat manager from the United States on a temporary assignment in Kobe. When he finally reached the front of the line, he purchased four beverages – one for each member of his family-and then left. If he had been more observant, he would have noticed that everyone else in line purchased only one beverage and then went to the back of the line to wait for an opportunity to buy a second or third.

Fairness, and attention to the group is an important part of the Japanese culture.  Everyone in line surely would have preferred to purchase several items at once.  But out of respect and fairness to others, they waited in line for each purchase.  And while the expat manager didn’t notice what the Japanese employees did at the vending machine, they certainly noticed what he did.  Even in this most extreme situation-when a man could surely be forgiven for thinking of his family first-his behavior was viewed as dishonorable.  Long before the office was repaired and ready to resume operations, word had spread of his misdeed. His reputation was damaged to the point that he could no longer function as a leader.  You can’t lead a group of people that doesn’t respect you.

Thank you Paul for teaching us how to lead, one story at a time.

§ 2 Responses to Lead With A Story – Not A Spreadsheet

  • Paul Mentag says:

    Thanks Allen. . . a great reminder of this powerful mode of communication. I have ordered Paul Smith’s book!

    Now I am heading outside to begin the process of moving 30” of snow from the driveway!



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