The art of storytelling for business leaders


Leadership change expert Tracey Swanepoel explains how storytelling can influence culture and implement strategy.

Companies should not underestimate the powerful role organisational culture plays in implementing a business strategy. Since time immemorial, culture has been expressed through stories, and it’s been proven in organisations that storytelling is an effective way for leaders to connect with their employees, get their message across and concretise what are often abstract concepts such as values, honesty and integrity.

The power of stories, whether told orally or visually, is that they make messages and ideas memorable while engaging employees in a way that a Powerpoint presentation can never do. 

A healthy organisational culture is one where employees feel emotionally safe enough to bring their whole selves to work. They feel able to express themselves and their ideas without fear, can show their vulnerability and make mistakes in their quest for innovation.

"A company can have the greatest strategy, but if the organisational culture is not conducive to delivering that strategy, success will never be achieved."

Strategy relies on culture 

Leaders whose strategies fail often don’t realise that its not the strategy at fault but rather, the corporate culture. They don’t understand that culture is about what happens between people, and about leaders connecting with people. 

As Daniel Coyle writes in his excellent book, The Culture Code, culture is about the signals that are sent between people, and the signals that leaders send to their employees, which need to be intentional and deliberate.

"To achieve this kind of environment and culture, leaders need to show trust in their employees rather than enforcing compliance. There are numerous ways leaders can send trust signals to their employees. The can have their ear to the ground, take time to listen to employees ideas, and acknowledge and encourage their employees’ contributions."

Research has shown that a healthy organisational culture opens the way for employees to grow into their best selves, motivates them to do their best for the company, and has a significant positive impact on the bottom line. Leaders also need to be prepared to show their human side, their vulnerability, and that they too make mistakes. They need a willingness to adopt ideas that may not be theirs but that is good for the company. 
It’s this kind of engagement with employees that create a healthy culture and leads to the successful implementation of company strategy.

Six key characteristics

In my book, The Leadership Riptide and How to Escape, I highlight six characteristics of a healthy workplace environment that leaders can implement to bring out the best in their people, namely: play, trust, love, strengths, progress and time. 

Encouraging play creates a space that is conducive to possibility thinking and innovation. It's been proven that greater trust achieves greater results on every level including profits, while love is about intrinsic motivation, doing what one loves with purpose. Without a sense of purpose, employees will never perform at their best.

Leaders also need to know their strengths and the strengths of their employees so that they can allocate resources more efficiently and get the best out of their teams. Tracking progress is another big motivator. Not the big steps forward but the little steps that leaders should be encouraging their employees to make every day. Leaders also need to make time to lead, instead of constantly being locked in meetings and tied down by other commitments. 

To help leaders create the right workplace culture and environment and help employees easily understand a company’s strategy, I have developed the 'From Strategy to Story’ methodology, which uses visual storytelling and analogy to give employees a big picture view of the company, its vision and mission and their role in it.  It has proved highly successful in the transformation of organisations. 

Visual strategy Map

Using a 'Visual Strategy Map', leaders can create a graphic representation of the company, which could be represented as football team about to play an important match, or as members of the Starship Enterprise who are on an intergalactic mission.

"Through this visual strategy map, channels of communication between leaders and their teams open up, and employees begin to understand their role and the contribution that they make. This significantly increases their engagement. They get a realistic view of the company’s successes and challenges and by gaining a clear grasp, take ownership of the company’s strategy."

What’s really important is for the leader to paint a clear and compelling vision of the future by telling a story that employees want to be part of. But if leaders want their employees to embrace the transformation wholeheartedly, they need to deeply understand their employees’ challenges and stresses and connect with them at their level, otherwise, employees will not feel valued, nor feel engaged enough to want to participate.

Tracey Swanepoel is a leadership change expert, author, and MD of specialist consultancy THINKspiration. 

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