The Story Whisperer

Stories have enormous power in organizations, but storytelling doesn’t come naturally to executives.

It was an off-site training program for the new hires of a major software firm. The young employees were in their seats early — they were excited to hear from the opening speaker, an executive who held a position of astonishing power. But that wasn’t why the audience was excited. They were excited because he was young — mid-30s, not too much older than them.

Everyone knew the man’s career trajectory, which was characterized by short stints and cross-organizational zigzags, as if he’d taken a Southwest flight to the corner office. Needless to say, they all wanted to live that flight plan.

But the excitement in the room quickly fizzled. The young exec spoke as if he were being paid by the cliche. He urged the employees to “work hard” and to “pursue their passion.” (Presumably this was intended for employees who were chasing work that didn’t interest them — and doing so lazily.) It was frankly a miracle that he didn’t challenge the crowd to “give 110 percent.”

There are two lessons here for CLOs. First, stories have enormous power in organizations. Every young employee at the software company knew this executive’s tale. It inspired them because it seemed to say, “In this company, youth is no barrier to success.”

The second lesson is that, while stories have great power, storytelling doesn’t come naturally to executives. Executives are taught to be concise, to get to the point, to summarize. But stories thrive on detail and depth.

That’s where you come in. A CLO must also be a CSO: chief storytelling officer. To see how, consider the work of the psychologist Gary Klein, who writes, in his insightful book Sources of Power, “If you ask experts what makes them so good, they are likely to give general answers that do not reveal much. But if you can get them to tell you about tough cases, nonroutine events where their skills made the difference, then you have a pathway into their perspective, into the way they are seeing the world.”

In other words, to reap the benefits of stories, first you have to coax them out of executives. You must be the Story Whisperer. Imagine that you’d scheduled a mandatory prep session with the cliche-spouting software executive in advance of his speech. You could have interviewed him and coached him to tell the right story: How did he deal with different bosses? How did he know when it was time to shift roles? What mistakes did he make? How did he make sure his work got recognized? By the time he took the stage, he’d know to tell the epic version of his story, not the headline-only version.

As a CSO, you also need to be a Story Spotter. For every major strategic objective of your organization, there’s a story to match. After all, if the strategy doesn’t manifest itself in behavior, it’s not accomplishing anything.

At FedEx, for instance, stories circulate about employees who’ve gone the extra mile for customers. One story concerns a driver in Manhattan whose truck broke down in the middle of her route. She called for a replacement van, but it was running late, so she started jogging around the city, trying to deliver the remaining packages on foot. Her progress was too slow, though — she wasn’t going to get her packages delivered on time. So she improvised. She flagged down a competitive firm’s delivery van and managed to persuade the driver to take her on her last few deliveries.

This story is entertaining, but it’s also a workhorse. It does two jobs for you as a CLO: It educates and it inspires. The tale helps employees see how seriously FedEx takes its promise of reliability, and it shows them that if they do extraordinary work, their work will be recognized and appreciated.

The FedEx story is a sticky idea that serves as a teacher, sharing a lesson in strategy. Even better, given our times, it’s a teacher that works cheap. It’s free no matter how widely it circulates. But stories don’t spread themselves; someone has to be the first to spot them and share them. Unfortunately, there’s no one in your organization who has that responsibility in their job description. What if you seized it?

The right stories can carry the weight of organizational learning, so it’s worth your time to excavate them, spot them and spread them. As a matter of fact, you should make it your passion — and give it 110 percent.