by: Issues: May / June 2007. Categories: Leadership.

A manager’s best attempt to build loyalty and engage employees may often end up being counter-productive. Too often, disengagement is the result. A relatively new and effective device for engaging employees in setting direction is storytelling, which appeals to employees’ emotions. This author, who has successfully developed stories for large corporations, describes how to do it.

Leading a business is all about risk – taking it and mitigating it. Regardless of how strategically you think, how tactically you tackle emerging situations and how decisively you act, you never quite know whether you’ll hit the mark and get where you want to go.

Therefore, despite the preaching and pleading of leadership gurus for collaboration and engagement, when leaders set corporate direction, the natural tendency is towards maintaining as much control as possible. One of today’s hottest set of buzzwords – employee engagement – falls on deaf ears as most corporate leaders opt for the safe and systematic over the daring practice of involving employees in direction-setting.

What actually happens when a business leader steps back from total control and asks employees to collaborate in corporate strategizing or calls on them to become engaged in shaping a new reality and determining their company’s future direction? And what happens when that leader issues a really big challenge: Give me a story that will help us all visualize the shape of things to come and see what our future might look like.

In fact, exciting things happen. The buzzword “employee engagement” is suddenly hot and is filled with purpose. And something that humans have used since the beginning of time to understand where they are now and what they should do next – building and telling stories – is called on once again to serve that purpose.

Leave it to a master visionary and reductionist, Steven Covey, to sum it up pointedly and pithily, yet with a great deal of profound wisdom. After presenting us with a bestseller containing seven habits to make us more effective, he gives us the 8th Habit Approach: “You assume people are knowledge workers and are reasonable and capable and treat them as such. The idea is, involve people in the problem and work out solutions together. When people understand the 8th Habit, it puts the 7 Habits under the main tent, because the 8th Habit deals with organizational leadership and causes people to think strategically.”

Leadership meets employee expectations

Collaboration, involvement and engagement embody the expectations of today’s corporate workers. For organizational leaders, meeting these expectations is a means to an end. Covey’s 8th Habit Approach is a positive call for change and for leaders to find creative ways to link strategy to action.

Calling on employees to help create a storyline that links the company’s past and present to a new future direction is one way leaders can break their fixed focus on risk management and total control, and seek out collaborative solutions.

The power of stories and storytelling is undeniable. As David Hutchens points out in the book, Stories Trainers Tell, a story is “a narrative that illustrates complex interconnections between agents, ideas, events and even abstract concepts.” Telling and listening to them, writing and reading them, liking and using them to impart wisdom and ideas are an integral part of being human. In the same book, Paula Bartholome imparts some storytelling wisdom and at the same time an important purpose for stories: “Stories ground people to think differently – to be able to listen and hear things they haven’t been able to in the past.”

Using stories for corporate purposes

There is no doubt that stories can work their magic around campfires and in a child’s room at night. But what about around “corporate campfires” and in the rooms of a big and busy business corporation?

To many business leaders, stories seem out of place in a corporate setting and therefore get only limited use – to illustrate points in speeches and in annual reports, for example.

Yet the time that stories can really work their magic in a corporate setting comes when leaders step boldly and use them strategically within a change management initiative. Why take that strategic step, or leap of faith, at all?

One of the groundbreakers when it comes to using stories and storytelling to support corporate strategy development is Robert McKee – award-winning screenwriter, former lecturer at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema & Television and well-known speaker on the art and use of storytelling. His article in the June 2003 edition of the Harvard Business Review sparked a lot of interest and influenced many business leaders.

Here is what McKee said about why CEOs and business leaders should look at stories in a completely different light and use them more strategically: “A big part of a CEO’s job is to motivate people to reach certain goals. To do that, he or she must engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is a story. There are two ways to persuade people. The first is by using conventional rhetoric, which is what most executives are trained in. It’s an intellectual process, and in the business world it usually consists of a PowerPoint presentation…. The other way to persuade people – and ultimately a much more powerful way – is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy.”

Stories and change

One Canadian business leaders influenced by McKee’s article was Phil Blake, CEO of Bayer Inc., the Canadian arm of the German pharmaceutical and life sciences company. For Blake, the HBR article reinforced his thinking that, as a speaker, the most effective way to convey your important messages is by telling an engaging story.

Just as McKee encourages business leaders not only to understand the past but also to project the future by creating scenarios, Blake points out that “stories break down complex ideas into emotional moments which can mean something to everyone.”

Blake adds, “For everyone in a company, being involved in the business is a common experience, but one that we all experience differently. Every cause and effect and every decision we make is driven by emotion. The data that business leaders love so much actually supports emotion.”

Incorporating a story into a change management strategy wasn’t a blind leap of faith for Blake. Nor did he see it as risky. Instead, he saw it as “a process that helps to build trust.”

Timing is important. Times of widespread change demand bold actions and committed leaders who are prepared to break away from traditional ways of doing things.

“During a time of organizational uncertainty, leaders have to be willing to show some vulnerability while considering various strategies and outcomes before the final decisions need to be made,” Blake contends. From his perspective, the benefits include a coming together during a period of uncertainty, working together toward a common purpose and a sense of involvement that can contribute to employee retention and build commitment.

What is it about a story that makes it well suited for use in a change management strategy? The premise for all stories is change, and a story unfolds in a series of scenarios based on changes in actions, emotions, characters, events, settings and sometimes as a result of what McKee calls “inciting incidents” that turn lives upside down.

A Canadian example: The Bayer story

Traditional strategy development practices won’t work when it comes to involving employees in a change management process around corporate direction setting that includes the creation of a storyline. The occasion instead calls for creativity.

While Blake called for a story, the job fell to Doug Grant, then Vice-President of Public Affairs and head of the communications function, to make it happen. Grant, now Vice President, Haemotology/Cardiology, was certain that a bold new approach was needed. “It was a period of upheaval for our company,” he said. “We had always relied on one-way communication from the CEO and were good at it. But now we needed to communicate better, and we definitely needed to get better at two-way communication and dialoging with employees.”

Involving employees in an innovative feedback exercise might kick-start this. Grant added, “We wanted people to understand about the tough times we had been through and help them make important personal choices. At the same time, we hoped most of them would commit to being a part of the company’s very different future. A story could engage them visually and verbally, while getting them to think about what should happen next.”

Under Grant’s guidance, employees developed a non-traditional engagement strategy to create “The Bayer Story”. The core activity was a series of 10 strategic roundtables held at various locations across the country, in English and French. Each roundtable consisted of 12 to 15 randomly selected employees who had agreed to participate. I facilitated each of the 90-minute roundtables.

The strategic roundtables included three areas of focus, based on the three objectives set for the project:

  • Gauge employee understanding for several key business decisions made by the parent company in Germany that would affect significantly the Canadian company
  • Capture feedback on the current effectiveness of employee communications and how it could be improved
  • Create stories that, in turn, would be the basis for building “The Bayer Story” – past, present and, especially, future.

The story-building activity took up the majority of the time in the roundtables. The activity was based on storyboarding, a staple technique used in advertising, cinema and television.

A storyboard consists of 9 to 12 blank panes, arranged in lines of three panes each on a white, mat board. Just like ad and film creative types, who fill the panes with a storyline for a potential new ad or movie, the employees worked in small creative groups to lay out a Bayer storyline. Each pane would depict a scene in their story, which could start anywhere in the past but had to conclude in the near future.

The groups were encouraged to use any type of fictional genre and to be sure to feature the usual elements that appear in novels and movies – change, conflict, emotion, people interaction, symbols, exciting moments and the like. They dived into the activity with gusto. The result was more than 30 completed storyboards, most of which were highly dramatic and clearly displayed the passion of the storyteller and sincere concern for the protagonist, Bayer Inc.

My own job then changed from facilitator to creative director. The common elements, similar scenes and recurring themes from the 30+ storyboards were fused into a single storyline. A single storyboard to depict it was created in 12 panes of original pen-and-ink, black-and-white drawings.

The company’s senior managers, who all had been interviewed prior to the start of the project for their “take” on a storyline, re-entered the picture at the end of the project. At a strategic planning session, the managers ran through a shorter version of the strategic roundtables to experience the story-building activity. After they were presented with “The Bayer Story”, based on the creative work of the employee groups, they committed to using it in communications within their own divisions.

The CEO had his story. A text was developed to support the visuals, which were converted into a PowerPoint presentation.

The resulting Bayer Story featured stormy seas and periods of calm, warning signs and symbols of hope, times of intense struggle and moments of celebration, people who have lost their way and cheering throngs. It also featured a McKee-type “inciting incident” that forced the company’s leadership to think about making significant changes in business strategy and conduct. The fleet of sleek, fast, highly maneuverable ships that streaked away from the home port in the final panes of the storyboard brought the revamped company and its revitalized strategy into clear focus for employees.

Results speak louder than words

So what? Everyone likes a good story. When a story is used for corporate purposes, pragmatic goals are expected.

In the case of Bayer Inc., the results were impressive. The story was used in its entirety or in part by all mid-level managers and above. Blake used the story extensively. He called it “a cathartic experience for employees” that produced the ah-ha comprehension regarding the company’s future he had hoped for.

“More importantly,” he continued, “Once the story had done its job, we went about the task of implementing the new business strategy. What we did clearly worked, because we met the objectives targeted for accomplishment in five years in half that time!”

For Grant, several significant results will have a lasting impact on the company and its employees. “We revamped communications, delayering it to make it more direct and launching a new employee electronic newsletter and a Flash bulletin to make it more immediate,” Grant says. Important vehicles, such as the company intranet and television news service, were upgraded.

“We still do a lot of face-to-face communications involving the CEO. But all our communications are much more two-way now and we have a lot more events and celebrations to keep our people interested and involved,” he added.

Some employees left the company, not wanting to be part of the company’s new direction, but the vast majority stayed on board. And they are clearly committed to the company and engaged in corporate strategy. Every key measure in the company’s annual employee engagement survey now exceeds industry standards. And, positive change also shows up in the sales figures, with improvements in top-line results each of the past three years.

The story unfolds

It started with a story. The methodology to build the story worked effectively. And the resulting story affected employees in the two ways that many books and movies affect people – practically and emotionally.

The last word on the Bayer Story should come from a company employee. “People were looking for direction and organizational meaning,” said Michael Alderman, Vice President, Sales. “The engagement process and the story had a positive impact on employees. The involvement of many employees in the process made them feel part of the transformation and the story articulated the transformation. What came out of it was the recognition that the company had to change, had the ability to change and there would be more changes in the journey ahead. But that journey and the company’s future were now a lot clearer.”

Stories are unfolding in companies across Canada; and in each of them, the corporate drama of big events is actually a collective drama involving many individual lives. The story within a story here is that senior managers need to find innovative ways to meet the expectations of today’s workers to be involved in decisions that affect them.