Executive and Business Coach at Change Agent
Years ago I worked for a well-known consumer products company on an under-performing product category. I was young and I was new to the industry. I had a fresh perspective, and I was able to innovate the way the company marketed their products. As a result, sales doubled in 2 years which was quite impressive for a low-tech category. Although the strategies I developed were impactful and I had a big budget to play with, I often ran into resistance for change when selling the business plan to some of the stakeholders. I felt like I had to drag them along with me.
Many years later I volunteered to raise money for a professional midwifery school in Mexico. I started with very few contacts but eventually I helped raise local funding to reduce the school’s dependency on international organizations. During the process I met some movers and shakers. The school administrators, who had struggled for years to find local partners, were scratching their heads. How was someone without any living or working experience in Mexico able to make these connections? I, too, was a little baffled why these influential people would talk to a volunteer who came to ask them for money. I would tell people that I had an angel on my shoulder. I was probably doing something right but I was not very clear what it was.
It wasn’t until I began coaching and motivational speaking that I came to recognize the leadership and strategic skills that I developed over the years and during the volunteer work in very challenging places, including rural Tanzania. I also came to understand the power of story-telling.
Having an inspiring vision is one of the qualities of great leaders. Many executives have grand visions but the visions are not inspiring unless they are communicated in such a way. That’s where story-telling skills come in. It’s the ability to engage your audience and mobilize them to join you on a big adventure. A good storyteller helps you visualize the journey, stirs emotions using metaphor, and identifies the enemy, before taking you to the grand ending and helping you to visualize the success. There is a sense of togetherness and the thrill of a future accomplishment. It leaves you thinking about what you can do to contribute to the success.
And that is what I was lacking when I tried to cajole some of the teams to get on board years ago. This expression probably describes what is happening at many companies -
“People will tolerate the conclusion of their leaders but act on their own.” … Jim Haudan
Instead of presenting the market share objectives and innovative strategies, I could have shared the vision in a way that helped them envision a coup to regain market leadership after years of mounting sales return, a coup that will surprise the market while pre-empting Proctor & Gamble’s dominance by toppling the conventional thinking. Like many managers, I highlighted the technical skill to identify opportunities and under-estimated the power of inspiration and emotional engagement.
Shawn Anchor said, “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization we can.” Employee engagement contributes greatly to employee happiness which has been proven to drive productivity. Helping people to believe that greatness is possible and that they can be part of it is perhaps the biggest impact of a great story or an inspiring vision.
Recently I was reminded again of the power of story-telling. I interviewed a number of executives and wrote a motivational speech based on the interviews. It was particularly interesting speaking to people who took the time to help fellow workers and colleagues. I wanted to know how their supportive attitude affected their career. I found that being helpful to others often created a greater sense of the impact they made and satisfaction in their work. This energized the executives who had been supportive of others and helped them succeed in their own careers.
One of the senior executives shared his wisdom with me, which I included in my speech.
“When I was young, my dad went to the toy closet and got out the “Barrel of Monkeys”, those little plastic monkeys with one arm that turned up and one arm that turned down. He told me most of what I needed to know to be a good human being as well as a good leader could be found in that bucket. You should hook one arm to someone you could learn from and your other arm to someone you could help. Always keep both arms as full as possible.”
A story can be far more powerful than a list of bullet points when it creates images in our mind and helps us visualize the path to our success. It engages us to see the mission of the initiative in a mesmerizing way. It can rally the troops to take action and effect change.
Many in the audience commented on the story after the speech so I sent a copy of the speech to the executive in a thank-you email. He wrote back,
“Your speech was very inspiring. I caught myself reflecting on my past gifts and how before “I got too busy” I too used to be the mentor and gift-giver in my career. Somewhere along the way I got caught up in the madness and forgot one of the things that bring me joy. Now, not to say I became a tyrant, but certainly the amount of time I spend managing has surpassed the time I used to spend encouraging and teaching. So today I put a stake in the ground and commit to return to my passion of helping others reach their true professional and personal potential. Thank you for YOUR gift back to me. “
A month later the change started to take place -
“For Christmas this year I bought my daughter, who just turned 11 at the beginning of January, a green barrel of monkeys. I wondered if she’d really play with them at all or perhaps just pitch them in the toy closet and focus on the more “exciting” things she received. I was very pleasantly surprised that she wanted to play with them that afternoon. We played them together for a long time and many times over the next several days.
Later in the week when we were playing with them I asked her if she would humor me and explain to me what she thought was the purpose of the game. She initially looked at me a little funny but then set about telling me how to play……pick one and then try to connect as many more as you can without letting any of them fall……the more you have the better you did. Perfect. Then I proceeded to pass on my father’s story to her. She really loves her grandpa a lot so I know she won’t soon forget what we talked about. It’s probably time I asked her if she’s grabbed any monkeys lately!
I am working to find a date to schedule a face-to-face meeting with my entire team as I’ve recently been given the added responsibility of leading another team as well as my current one. I’m planning to get everyone three monkeys and talk to them about how we can help each other in addition to our internal business partners. It’s amazing how much wisdom can come from 25 cents worth of plastic.”
Many folktales have been passed on from one generation to the next, outlasting wars and the original story tellers. In the corporate world, we call that a legacy. What has staying power is what touches your heart, not just your mind. When you change the way people think, you have the potential to make sustainable change in the action they take and create a lasting impact in the world.
Are you contagious?
Some people are charismatic by nature. Can charisma be taught? Employees appreciated be valued more than their pay checks.