The CEO as Chief Meaning-Maker: Why CEOs Need to Tell More Stories

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Eight years ago, I received a call from a CHRO who confided in me that my client (a new CEO) was doing a very poor job of inspiring the troops. She concluded with this statement: “He’s not making meaning for employees.” I thought it was a brilliant insight into one of the key roles a CEO must play.

In the intervening years, I’ve learned that, to be successful, CEOs can make meaning by telling stories that inspire, engage, and inform employees. Essentially, the successful CEO must learn the art of storytelling. This is especially true of the need to tell the company vision/strategy story of the future.

In their “Ascending to the C-Suite” research, McKinsey found that 88% of C-Suite leaders consider the ability to tell a strategy/vision story to be the most important determinant of success—yet only 30% of the 1000 respondents reported that it was easy to create such a story. This finding is repeated in other research.

Why are leaders so challenged by storytelling? It’s just not that easy. Not all CEOs are natural storytellers. For many, storytelling is an art developed only through disciplined practice. It also requires vulnerability—not always a trait found in CEOs (humility being the difference between a strong ego and a healthy ego).

Whether you are a CEO or not, here are my five tips to help you improve your storytelling.

  1. 1. Ditch the boring PowerPoint.

Most leaders are taught to dump all of their thinking into a PowerPoint. However, it’s a tool designed by engineers to capture ideas and order those ideas in some sort of logical fashion. When you tell stories, you are not necessarily doing an idea dump or presenting something logical.

People rarely remember what they’ve viewed in a PowerPoint. Research suggests that they rarely recall more than four slides—and they tend to remember four slides that have the most similar content. Your PowerPoint is doing battle with all the other PowerPoints and information sources out there. But stories? People recall them for a very long time.

More importantly, if you are looking to inspire and motivate, people are rarely inspired and motivated by facts alone. On the contrary, if they have facts/statistics/experiences of their own that counter the point you are trying to make, they won’t be inspired to do what’s different, needed, or great. In contrast, a good story marries facts with emotion.

A tip: If you must use PowerPoint, have 4–5 slides with images, not words. Look at the keynotes given by Tim Cook—they rarely have bullets and always have WOW images (for example, when highlighting how much money has been paid to app developers, Cook had a visual of a check for $3 billion). I have a CEO client who tells a story about where his values come from with one image: his father and himself outside the shop where his father worked. What do employees remember? A moving story about how his father served customers. They remember the image because images move us much more than words.

  1. 2. Tell your personal story (be vulnerable).

This is a tough task for any of us. Just think about the times you’ve written, drawn, or created something and how nervous you were about putting it out there. People might like or dislike it—you’ll be judged. And, as the most senior leader, the CEO has no option but to declare who she is and what she stands for.

This often takes the form of talking about what has shaped you as a person. It can mean speaking about the adversity you have endured, your family’s struggles and triumphs, personal challenges, change, lost opportunity, awkward situations, or even how you got something wrong (failure). When we start working together, few of my clients are comfortable telling personal stories. The good news is, once you start telling stories, you connect more intimately with your audience. Your stories say more about you as a leader than anything else you might speak about. It is important that people know your character and values—both of which were not shaped and tested in a safe harbor. They were formed and tested in the rough sea or in uncharted waters. Don’t be afraid to speak about what shaped you or what challenges you. For example, I have a CEO client who has wholeheartedly embraced artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data mining. He tells a great story about his reluctance to allow his son to travel to soccer practice in a self-driving car—perfectly communicating a multitude of issues about a disruptive but imperative business trend.

You see, when you speak about yourself and your challenges, you are being vulnerable. This is the only way that people learn how to trust you. This is particularly important for a new CEO who has come in from the outside or who has not managed all of the business before becoming the CEO (e.g. CFO, Division President).

  1. 3. Use the classic story format.

Stories need to be simple and follow a pretty standard format. First, you present yourself or the organization as the protagonist who is facing a problem or challenge. The second, main part of the story should be about the challenge and the changes the protagonist has to make to address the challenge. If you are telling a story about company values or behavior, this is where you spell out what you want people to do. Finally, the story’s ending should inspire the listener. Describe the outcome when an individual, a team, or the organization comes together to force a good ending (in spite of adversity).

A tip here is to tell a linear, chronological story. Sometimes leaders over-complicate stories and jump back and forth. This makes it harder for the listener to follow the story and discover the meaning in the story. Another option is to invite an employee to tell part of the story. You’ll need to coach the employee to tell the story in a succinct, moving way.

Remember, the goal here is to engage, inspire, and educate your audience. A good story can accomplish all of this.

I encourage you to have a small repertoire of 3–5 stories. You’ll have to tell the stories multiple times and adjust them to the audience (employees, board, investors, etc.). You can revisit a story to add a new and interesting dimension, but the story should still point to the message/meaning it is meant to convey.

4. Can’t think of stories? Keep a story journal.

Some CEOs tell me, “I have so few stories” and my response is, “Every day you have interactions that are the basis for great stories. You are always hearing about people overcoming obstacles and doing great things, so write those stories in a notebook.”

Here are the steps to capture your stories:

(a)  In your journal, take time to write your observations and assessments about your company and your world. This is, quite simply, gathering information.

(b)  Figure out what your experience and reflections are teaching you. Where is the wisdom? What is giving you real authority? (Few leaders have real authority—this is definitely something to be cultivated.) It’s good to have a muse or coach help you make sense of your stories and craft them into wisdom. That said, it is important not to create a story that is perfectly scripted—this is especially true if there is an emotion associated with the story. When you journal, ask yourself: “What’s the learning/wisdom in this story and what emotion does it require?”

(c)  I advise all my clients to have reflection time built into their calendar. This includes time to write in your journal, process experiences, and refine your stories. This is especially true if you are a CEO or CEO candidate/designate who needs to tell a new strategy story.

5. Practice and plan.

Practice. Most leaders have grown up crafting the perfect (mostly tactical) PowerPoints. This habit has to be undone when you are the CEO. At least two days before you deliver a speech or presentation, you need to be practicing, not still tweaking your story. You should (where possible) practice with a communications coach and/or with a live audience of trusted colleagues. In reality, few of your team will have either the expertise or the candor you need to help you become a great storyteller.

Plan. The most successful CEOs plan to tell their stories repeatedly in a variety of different venues. If you’ve invested time in developing your stories, make sure you plan to tell them often. The board and employees should get tired of hearing your stories. You may be familiar with the Rule of Seven: Marketing research shows people have to hear the same story seven times before they can easily recall the key messages.
I recommend that you identify your audiences and simply plan to speak to those audiences over a year-long time period. You can use a variety of formats to tell the story: in an all-company webcast, at a site visit, during a leadership training, at offsites and board meetings. Plan for it.

Tip: avoid after-lunch or after-dinner speeches—they are the most difficult times to deliver an important speech or tell an important story. Your audience will have full bellies and perhaps have enjoyed some alcohol, making them sleepy and unable to retain your message.

Great stories appeal to both the heart and the mind. They are what will define you. Long after you’ve left the CEO role, people will remember how you made them feel and the content of your character. This is an intentional element in the crafting of your legacy and the impact you’ve sought to have at your company.

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