(Note: I wrote this 3.5 years ago – still relevant with a few updates!)
As a marketer and storyteller, I love that storytelling has made a huge resurgence in the last few years: in pop culture, in business culture, and in social communications. Storytelling is essential to high-functioning organizational cultures, to building community, and to creating that shared emotional narrative with employees and customers. Humans are wired for stories. It *is* the original social medium! And, according to research at Stanford University and Jennifer Aaker, stories are remembered up to 22X more than facts alone.
Executive Storytelling Leadership is Keeping the Flame and More
As storytelling methods have evolved, so, too, has executive storytelling changed. Yes, it still matters, and yet the role of the executive storyteller has evolved. Executives are keepers of the narrative flame, not the owners of it.
It’s their job to ensure that organizations maintain a culture of storytelling where everyone participates. It’s also their job to recognize that storytelling creates movements. Movements connect and add value for customers. To be a customer is one thing; to be part of a movement creates shared meaning and value. Look at TOMS Shoes as just one great example.
The Five Keys to Executive Storytelling Leadership Today
1. Execs must stoke the passion internally and externally with the truth. This is not about investing in a fictionalized mythology that doesn’t serve the organization. Execs keep the flame lit for honest stories that stand for something. When the organization veers off track, exec storytellers must be truth-tellers that hold the organization accountable to its mission. When things change, execs must understand that changing culture also means changing the stories the culture tells. A great exec storyteller not only makes sure the flame stays lit with employees and customers; he or she holds the company to that standard by making sure the reality matches the story, and vice-versa.
2. Execs empower other storytellers by creating a culture of storytelling. The best storytellers are often not in the exec suite; rather, they are often the employees closest to the customer and on the front lines of service. Storytelling is everyone’s responsibility. Employees co-create stories and are among a brand’s greatest champions. Great exec storytellers recognize that reality and let the best storytellers internally shine. That means reasonable guidelines; however, it also means throwing out the script and not killing positive creativity with too much unnecessary ‘process.’ Leaders encourage storytelling moments across the company by the way they lead, tell stories, and, more credibly, ACT on those stories. Telling and acting must be consistent (refer to point 4 below)!
3. Execs understand that the customers and employees need to see themselves in those stories, and will extend the narrative to reflect their experiences. Employees and customers will tell the main narrative of the company in their own ways – and that’s in the best interest of the company. People see themselves in a larger story and then shape it to fit the specifics of their needs. That means the larger story is working – so let champions do that in their own way as long as it honors the larger narrative at work.
4. Execs storytellers must create an organization of storyACTING, not just storyTELLING. Stories become the strategic GPS for decision-making. That means stories are acted on; not just told. For example, if a company says its mission is to revolutionize corporate finance, then ideas and opportunities that don’t advance that goal don’t make sense to sink investment into. If a company says it believes in empowering people, then its culture must put that into practice. Storytelling is key; storyACTing is what puts values into actions. StoryACTING is what creates momentum and drives success.
5. Exec storytellers recognize that stories are a barometer of organizational health, and that changing a culture also means changing a culture’s stories. Most leaders analyze the marketing and brand stories of a company to determine its marketplace effectiveness. They are important; however, If you want to know the health of a company to survive long-term, track the stories people tell about the culture. Stories and behavior shape culture. They are the most powerful internal and external marketing tools around. When stories turn toxic, cultural implosion is imminent. To change your culture, start by changing cultural behavior and the stories that define it. Exec storytellers spend time influencing the insiders – employees – because that is more important than influencing outsiders.
What does executive storytelling leadership mean to you? Leave a comment!
Kathy Klotz-Guest is a story and creativity strategist, speaker and author. She spent years managing marketing and communications in tech companies. An improviser and comedian as well as an MBA, MA, Kathy brings interactivity, inspiration and innovation to events, talks, and workshops. Interested in having her speak at your company? <a href=”https://www.keepingithuman.com/contact-kathy/”>Contact Kathy</a>.