Stories still seem fluffy to some leaders.

With their bias towards numbers, charts, and graphs to predict trends for the next quarter, leaders prefer data which can be quantified (understandably so) – because they sound most palatable to shareholders. Numbers almost, always, sound credible and certain.

However, numbers are statisticians’ ways of interpreting data. It offers one perspective of looking at the world. And it is data scientists who make correlations between variables. To do what?

To tell a story.

You see, stories help us organise and shape experiences. Stories help us make sense of things. They become the link to connect the dots from one thing to the next – because if it’s not plausible in a narrative form, it is not logical in reality.

Stories help us make sense of meanings.

Jerome Bruner, an American cognitive psychologist, said that humans have “a readiness or predisposition to organize experience into a narrative form, into plot structures and the rest”.

It is a way for us to make sense of chaos, to find causality between disparate events, and to articulate differences in opinions. Yet, some managers are quick to dismiss the ‘fluffiness’ of storytelling as a public speaking technique, merely to entice or distract.

If you look closely, storytelling is the heartbeat of an organisation’s culture. It is alive.

It is whispered and heard in pantries and toilets.

It is lived and bandied about in cubicles and hallways.

It is expressed and suppressed in boardrooms.

Stories breathe life into an organisation – but they also reflect the state of being, whether the team is thriving or struggling. To every story of promotion, there is a story of disappointment. To every story of celebration, there is a story of rejection. Both contradictory sets of stories form the cultural fabric of your organisation’s identity.

Howard Gardner, Professor of Education at Harvard, coined the phrase “stories of identity”. He states that they are “more important than memos, mission statements, newsletters, speeches, and policy manuals… [They] constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.” In other words, stories of identity reveal who you are, where you come from, what your needs, wants, and feelings are; they are narratives embodying attitudes, beliefs, and values.

In a Fortune article in 1998 (see link), Thomas A Stewart also acknowledges the power of stories in business. He writes: “Stories anoint role models, impart values, and show how to execute indescribably complex tasks.” Stewart recounts how the CEO of Nightime Pediatrics Clinics from Salt Lake City was worried that values such as child-centred care, teamwork, and informality were being undermined with the strictures of managed care. They then gathered stories of reminiscences from doctors, nurses, clerks, and parents.

“They spoke of a doctor who bent the clinic’s rules to treat a disoriented old woman; a payroll manager who persuaded management to trash an expensive investment in flawed new software; a nurse who drove a teenage mother and her sick child home on a snowy night. The result – a small book called Nightime Stories – was given out at the company’s 15th birthday celebration last year. Says [CEO]Lever-Pollary: ‘It has helped people remember what’s special about us. My staff now has examples to follow. I think patients are getting better service.” (see link)

Here are the different stories a leader needs access to, in order to grow the corporate culture of the organisation:

1.   Stories and memories by founders

– how the company started, what its vision was, what struggles the founders faced, what their dreams were?

2.   Stories by investors

– what were the motivations for investment, what impact they envisioned for the company?

3.   Stories by senior and middle-level managers

– what aspects of their operations take up their time and energy, how they overcome that, what high-level strategies they use, what human-to-human connections are made?

4.   Stories by front-end employees and customer service staff

– what experiences do they encounter, what questions are most asked, how do they answer difficult questions, how are decisions made?

5.   Stories by back-end employees and support staff

– what experiences and struggles are faced on a daily basis, what are the operational and financial constraints, who makes decisions and how are they made, how promotions and firing decisions are made, are the policy documents dead or alive?

6.   Stories told by partners

– how efficient and effective are the systems in terms of processes from raw materials to manufacturing, from shipping to warehousing, from distribution to sales, what stories are most encountered, who makes decisions and how are they made?

7.   Stories told by customers

– what are their usual complaints, what are their experiences, are they actively writing reviews, taking photos on social media and creating or reusing hashtags, how are they becoming your brand ambassadors?

8.   Stories told by the community

– what stories are told by community members who are not direct customers about your organisation’s physical presence, are there consequences to the environment that they are not particularly happy about, and how are you engaging and mobilising the community towards acts of care?

These 8 groups of people – all of them are storytellers with data in different ways – form the corporate narrative, and are data points for you to enter and, improvisationally respond to.

Only when a leader is in touch with the ground is he truly able to feel the sentiments of the people and make some emotional and logical sense to the big picture.

What’s your story?

© 2010 | EDMUND CHOW