Purposeful storytelling leaves a long-lasting impression

Carel Nolte and Christelle Colman share two stories with impactful HR lessons.

“People sit at the heart of HR and there is no better way to engage people than through stories,” said Carel Nolte, founder of CN&CO at the HR Indaba on 16 October.  Carel sat with Elite Risk Acceptances MD Christelle Colman in a session about storytelling and they each told stories that had HR lessons within them.

Carel spoke about Burning Man, an annual event that takes place in a city that is temporarily erected on the outskirts of the Nevada desert in a display of radical inclusion, communal effort, civic responsibility and teamwork.

“I went to my first Burning Man in 2005, which was difficult for me because I don’t like camping. But that, in itself, was a big lesson because I was able to take the principles I learned there and apply them in my role at Etana Insurance as head of People, Brand and Procurement. The lesson from that is you need to get out of your comfort zone because that’s how you learn,” said Carel.

The most important principle that he applied from the experience was that he learned to trust people to make a valuable contribution irrespective of their level of experience or seniority. Carel explained that, at Burning Man, there was no hierarchy. But, despite the absence of a clear leader, Black Rock City’s infrastructure is built ‘in the middle of nowhere’ to accommodate 100 000 people and, at the end of the festival, is demolished and removed with the whole city essentially disappearing without a trace.

Said Carel: “It’s a well regulated environment, not because there are hundreds of rules, but because the organisers trust their people to get the job done…. We all talk about having open-plan offices and having open-door policies but how much are we actually living those values, trusting people who are different from us to add value in their own way”

Perpetuating gender roles

Christelle shared a story that was much closer to home. As an advocate of gender equity in the workplace, she encouraged employees to be vocal about pay disparity instead of pointing the figures. She encouraged attendees at the indaba to be aware of their own biases, which may be perpetuating gender roles in society.  Christelle told the story of how, in their home, both her son and daughter take turns to do the dishes because she makes a concerted effort to vanquish stereotypical gender roles. But even in those efforts, some of her subconscious biases came to light.

“At the beginning of this year, I was covering my son’s textbooks and his sister asked me why. I said, ‘because he doesn’t know how to do it, to which she replied ‘then why don’t you show him to do it himself just like you showed me?’ It was at that moment that my daughter showed me that I was not practising what I preached.”

A good story puts your whole brain to work – especially stories about events and moments in life that have changed or shaped someone’s way of thinking. Through these two stories, both Carel and Christelle showed how personal professional experiences can be a gold mine of wisdom, ideas, and insights.