Fire Up Your Firm Through Storytelling - Insurance Thought Leadership

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May 21, 2014

Fire Up Your Firm Through Storytelling

Summary:

In the midst of the sort of disruption facing the insurance industry, leaders must inspire employees with authentic stories.

Photo Courtesy of Alex Johnson

“Symbols, dramas, stories, vision and love–these are the stuff of effective leadership, much more so than formal processes or structures. When you involve people, they feel ownership and perform up to 1,000% better.”

Tom Peters, A Passion for Excellence

The speed of change in today’s world is so disorienting that people are struggling to maintain their equilibrium and sense of wellbeing. In times of chaos, and especially when basic needs are threatened, strong leadership is more important than ever. Because people are looking to the workplace now for all their needs — professional development, social activities, onsite health care and child care services — strong leadership is especially critical. Business leaders need to reassure employees that they will continue to receive the support they need, even as the organization continually adapts to the chaotic marketplace so that customers’ rapidly changing expectations can be met.

Communication is the key to accomplishing this goal, and the most effective approach is to develop an authentic story — and tell it effectively. A company needs to develop a story so bright and so right that its target audiences (employees, customers, stockholders, affiliates, suppliers, etc.) are drawn to the flame. This story needs to be told — and retold with new twists — at every opportunity. By reminding everyone affiliated with your organization of where you’re going and how you plan to get there — and most importantly, how each person can contribute — you will strengthen the culture and boost morale.

Stories have been the glue connecting people with their cultures and with one another throughout human history. In ancient cultures, and even relatively modern tribes, the oral tradition was the vehicle for passing tribal practices and history down through the generations. The designated tribal storyteller was responsible for ensuring that each member of the group understood the importance of his role in continuing the traditions upon which the very survival of the tribe depended. The storyteller also served as an entertainer, retelling familiar tales around the campfire and engaging the imaginations of all those in the circle.

Why have stories always been so central to human interactions? Because stories reach people at a deeper level than a litany of facts and figures, and stay with people longer. As the high-tech elements continually become more dominant, people hunger for high-touch interactions.

Stories in Corporate Cultures

Corporate cultures are no different from ethnic cultures or any other special-interest group in their need for, and dependence on, stories about themselves, which help to create a culture as well as keep it alive. While in our modern culture we often think of a story or myth as a fabrication, storytelling is, in fact, the primary tool we all use to communicate. “How’s your day going?” “What’s the status of your project?” “What’s the latest news on the company’s new product?” Each of these commonly posed questions is answered in story form, whether or not the speaker is aware of being a “storyteller.” Awareness, however, is essential to the process of identifying an organization’s core story.

“All you can do is relate the successful experiences you’ve had within the company. What else have we got besides stories? That’s what really hits home with people; it’s what brings meaning to the work we do…. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a story told appropriately is priceless. Telling one of our stories speaks volumes about our philosophy and our values.”

Jim Sinegal, co-founder and CEO, Costco Wholesale

From Around the Corporate Campfire: How Great Leaders Use Stories to Inspire Success, C&C Publishing, 2004

To reach key audiences, an organization’s story must be authentic; it must be based on corporate values and guiding principles. An authentic story reveals the true personality of the company. It reflects, in essence, the heart and soul of the organization. As such, the core story must be told by people in leadership roles in a consistent manner and on a regular basis to ensure that they control it. When a leader articulates the core story effectively and consistently, people at all levels of the organization are captivated by the vision and begin “singing from the same page.” This level of company-wide consistency and commitment enables an organization to cut through the clutter of the marketplace to reach its targeted audiences and draw them into the inner circle.

Team-Building Through Personal Stories

The storytelling approach also has proven to be a highly effective teambuilding system, which is especially fitting for a retreat. Work teams often choose to apply the process in telling their own personal stories before beginning the joint work of developing the organization’s story. In doing so, they experience two key aspects of working together:

  • Self-discovery is exciting.
  • Self-disclosure leads to trust.

Their excitement is contagious! As participants discover shared personal values, they begin building ties with co-workers with whom they formerly believed they had nothing in common.

“If I wanted to predict behavior, I could still predict it better with the stories told around the company than I could with any mission statement or five-year plan.”

Robert Shapiro, former chairman and CEO
Monsanto Corp. and Nutrasweet Group

In one memorable case some years ago, the storytelling process overcame what had seemed insurmountable barriers between an entrenched manager in a small municipal outpost and the new, sophisticated urban manager who had been brought in to replace him. The atmosphere, understandably, was tense as the first day of a two-day planning retreat began. Following a relaxing and playful creative exercise and the sharing of the team’s personal stories, however, the tension eased considerably. The two men warmed up to one another and continued their discussion over lunch. The rest of the retreat was extremely productive, with the outcomes far surpassing the expectations of everyone involved.

This experience demonstrates that the sharing of common values and a common mission helps people to

  • work together,
  • support one another and
  • serve the customer more effectively.

By incorporating storytelling as a part of your business practices and regularly including relevant stories on the agenda for meetings and retreats, you will propel your organization toward its goals. Red-hot stories will keep everyone fired up and eager to pass them along to everyone they encounter.

“Storytelling is the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.”

Howard Gardner, author and professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Key Takeaways

  1. During times of rapid change and economic uncertainty, such as is present in the insurance industry, strong leadership is more important than ever. Business leaders need to reassure employees that they will have the support they need to navigate the shifting landscape, and the most effective way to do that is to communicate often.
  2. The most effective communication tool is storytelling. By reminding employees of the organization’s values and demonstrating through story how those values are best enacted, leaders can help employees understand how they can succeed, even in trying times.
  3. Stories have always been the glue that helps people stick together, whether they are part of a tribe, a family, a professional association, a circle of friends—or a corporate “tribe.”
  4. A rapidly growing number of leading companies have discovered the power of story as a communication tool. When stories are told consistently and systematically, everyone in the organization works together better, stays focused on the mission and remains productive, ensuring continued success in the midst of change.
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About the Author

Evelyn Clark’s storytelling career began in the 8th grade with an English class essay. Titled “Cautious Clara,” it described her mother’s style of driving. The essay earned an “A,” amused her father and led him to recommend a news writing career. That idea inspired Evelyn to edit the high school newspaper, earn a journalism scholarship and complete a degree in communications.

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