The 7 Steps of Storytelling for Leaders

Dear Springboard:

Now that I’m in this bigger job, my boss is telling me to start talking up my team and shine the light on them and not on me.

It doesn’t feel right. I’m a hard driver and I’ve earned what I have every step of the way.  I’ve always made sure people know about my accomplishments. It’s gotten me noticed and visibility matters.  It’s what’s worked and gotten me this far.

Sure, I’m a little bit of a self-promoter. But, if I don’t do it for myself, who will?

Sign me,

Dubious

 

Dear Dubious:

Everyone is the hero in their own story.

The challenge for you is to shift your attention to your staff – the people who are critical to your success.

Your situation brings to mind the hero’s journey and the key role of the guide.  In his classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell lays out the story structure of the hero’s journey, the outline that nearly all our books and movies follow.  Campbell studied cultures around the world and found a commonality to the local lore.

Oversimplifying, there is a principal character, our hero, whose life is disrupted in such a way as to call the hero forth to conquer a new challenge beyond their current capability.

As our hero ventures forth, uncertain of his abilities and with shaky confidence, he encounters a guide who offers particularly effective advice.  Think Merlin to King Arthur and Yoda to Luke Skywalker.

The guide is an essential character because our hero would not succeed without the guide’s support.

As the story develops, our hero confronts the challenges that must be overcome to triumph.

There is a climactic scene and the hero succeeds (escaping dire consequences of failure), and then our hero returns where he began, transformed by the journey and his success.

Now, if you look for it, you will see this in the movies you watch and books you read.

What does this have to do with your situation?

At a conference last week, I heard Don Miller (author of Building a StoryBrand) give an inspiring talk about how to apply the elements of the hero’s journey story structure for more effective marketing.

Basically, his pitch is that we find a market/prospect (hero); identify a key problem that needs to be solved; be an empathetic and authoritative guide to help; offer a way for the prospect to engage and solve their problem; call the prospect forth to take action; gingerly mention the perils of not doing so; and, end with their problem solved and the hero enhanced as a result of the process.

Miller is quick to point out that for the guide to be successful, the focus stays on the hero. That means the guide should not be singing their own praises.  If that happens, the guide becomes a second hero in the story and is competing with our protagonist.

Miller focused on using the story structure for more effective sales and marketing for a business.

I am proposing that with a slight shift of this mindset, the use of story structure can be effective with employees at work, and people in their personal relationships.

So, here’s a way of looking at the process from a manager’s point of view with their staff in mind:

Locate your character

With what I’m calling the StoryBrand mindset, imagine each direct report as a hero in their own personal story.  

Identify their problem

Think of what they are facing on three levels. What business problem(s) do they need to solve, what emotional issue resolved (increased confidence, sense of accomplishment, honoring specific values) and why does it matter to them enough to persevere? They should know how their efforts fit in the big picture.

Meet them as their guide

Present yourself as a resource to help in whatever way it is needed.  While the focus is not to be on you and your ego, it is necessary to demonstrate empathy and authority for the sake of establishing emotional connection and competence.

Give them a plan

Make sure there is clarity and agreement on goals, roles and expectations.

Call them to action

Challenge them: to reach stretch goals, develop new skills, innovate, to bring out their best selves.

Help them avoid failure

Success matters for its own sake and also because it means your direct reports won’t face the consequences of falling short.

Support them to end in success

Success can take many shapes; whatever it looks like, it should be clear and celebrated when reached.

Dubious, your job description has changed since you were climbing the ladder at lower rungs.

Your job now is to champion your people.

As a leader, get buy in for a vision, point the way, offer guidance, and cheer them on.

Take that spotlight off of you. Ultimately, the light you shine on them will reflect on you.

 

From the Watercooler

The secret to a happy marriage is to wake up every day and think: ‘How can I make my spouse happy.’ ~ Wedding toast by the father of the bride

Your success now

Let Go to Gain Control

Dear Springboard:

I recently got a promotion. I was really excited at first – more money and a better title. It was great. In my old job, I had people reporting to me and now there are people reporting to them. 

It sounds goods but the problem is my workload has exploded. I’m working really late, plus weekends and still missing deadlines. AND, I’m more than a little peeved that when I’m burning the midnight oil, I’m the only one here. The rest of my “team” is long gone.

Sign me,

Overwhelmed

 

Dear Overwhelmed:

First, congratulations on the new job! I’m sure it’s well deserved.

It sounds like a familiar scenario. You’ve taken on more responsibility on top of what you were already handling.

One of the toughest challenges of taking on a bigger role and thriving is the importance of shifting gears.

There are a few dynamics here. First, to keep all your current duties and add new ones is not sustainable.  There is only so much time (and energy) available. Keep in mind that every time we add something new to our plate, we must let go of something else.

Second, what made you successful in your previous job will not work in your new job in the same way. If you stay involved in the day to day operations of your direct reports or their staff, you can’t be available to do what is expected of you in your new role.

Let’s say in your old job you were very hands on; you worked alongside your staff, you checked details and ensured that deadlines were met. Now that you have broader responsibility, you cannot be in the weeds like you were before and still be available for your new duties.

What this comes down to is that you need to let go of your old role. Many people find that challenging.

One issue is that some of their identity is enmeshed in the old role.

Another issue is the skills they developed and came to rely on. They say, “You’re telling me to stop doing the things that worked so well and got me this far and start operating in a way that is new and, to me, untested? Do I have that right?” Well, yes.

As an example, now that you have both direct and indirect reports, you need to get out of the weeds (read: out of the way) and let your direct reports manage their staff.

First, by doing this, you will have the bandwidth to start leading: see the bigger picture, communicate a vision and set goals, engage key players (in multiple directions) for buy-in, and set the pace and direction for executing.

How to accomplish all this? The answer is delegation.

This means that instead of having the comfort and control of being hands on, you empower and trust others to do the work. It can be hard to let go when we think we could do it faster or better — OR, faster and better. But, if you hang on, you can’t be available for the requirements of the new role.

I would recommend that you start small and hand over some tasks that are lower risk. You might also target tasks that take a lot of time and don’t require much skill. Repetitive items are also a good choice.

You’ll need to hand over bigger projects, and soon, to get real impact.

You can make a list of activities and score them on a scale of 1 to 5: noting the time alleviated from your schedule; the time involved in training; and whatever specific competencies are needed such as being good with spreadsheets or strong interpersonal skills.

To delegate effectively, we can’t tell just anyone what to do, walk away and expect it to be accomplished as we wish.

It’s important to know the strengths of individual staff members and assign accordingly; give clear instructions and deadlines; provide the necessary tools and resources. It’s a plus to provide context for how the task fits into the bigger picture; it can make something mundane feel less so.

I’m a big believer in checking in along the way to inquire on progress, answer questions and offer encouragement.

Here’s a tip: delegate the outcome you want but not exactly how they need to get there. This is important because the other person might have a better way to accomplish the task. They will feel better about the task being their project and you can sidestep micromanaging.

It helps to anticipate that someone doing a task for the first time or two will take longer. So, prepare to be patient. When they’re finished, thank them and show appreciation. And, if the work is noticed by others, don’t claim credit for yourself, instead recognize the efforts of the people who actually did it.

So, the bottom line: take action and loosen your grip.

That means delegate and let your staff own the work. You’ll have less control over the details and how exactly things get done, and gain control over the bigger picture and setting the agenda — what your new job is really about.

Success is yours if you delegate.

Death By Meeting, Nevermore!

Harry looked at his watch under the table.

10:27

Only three minutes since he last looked.  Ugh.

Tom droned on.  Kathy interrupted, again.  Jim nodded agreement to. . .what?  We started late.  No one introduced Mary who joined the company only two days ago.

No agenda.  Finance wasn’t there even though the meeting was supposed to be about how finance wanted to change the budget process.  Unprepared, Sally had no new information and that meant no decisions could be made. This meeting was a giant waste of time!

With a flimsy process and little follow through, we would likely be covering the same ground two weeks from now.

Business meetings are notorious, and for many good reasons.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Bain & Co estimates that 15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings.  Other sources estimate time in meetings at 25% to 30%.  Bain’s research says that senior executives spend about two days a week (40%) of their time in meetings with three or more coworkers.  So, as executives rise in the ranks and their time becomes more valuable, they spend more time in meetings.

Meetings represent a sizable chunk of an office worker’s time, no matter what measurements are used.

The reality is that individuals are limited in how much they can cut back on meeting attendance given the very real risk of alienating their colleagues, and especially their boss.

So, how can we improve the meetings that we do have?

At a recent gathering for organizational development professionals, I had the good fortune to hear Dick and Emily Axelrod (luminaries in the OD field) present on a system they have developed to lead meetings that are productive and participants actually find useful and want to attend.

They outlined the merits of their Meeting Canoe, a six-step process that consistently creates good outcomes.

A look at the process and we see why it works:  it’s welcoming, inclusive and connecting, reality-based, rooted in the present with an aspirational eye on an ideal outcome, decisive, and has accountability built in.

As the Axelrods discussed that night and also in their book Let’s Stop Meeting Like This, they recommend the following process:

Welcome people to create an atmosphere conducive to doing the desired work.  We want to create a sense of safety and, with it, openness to sharing and receiving ideas.

Connect people to each other and the task.  This step has two levels.  Building relationships among the participants and, second, connecting the participants to the issue at hand.  Building on the safety, we want to engender trust, the most basic building block of effective teams.

Discover the way things are.  We create a shared view of our current reality. This requires being open to a broad spectrum of input, including divergent views and hearing from the quiet minority.  We want to enable the participants to share their own perspectives and create a common ground of understanding. Next, we help the group resist the temptation to jump to a fix.

Elicit people’s dreams.  Mining the group for ideal outcomes is the yin to the current reality’s yang.  This is a time to loosen our grasp on exacting practicality and have participants imagine possibilities.

Decide on next steps.  Participants make their choices clear, while taking into account the way things are and the articulated ideal outcomes.  Note that the process for how to arrive at decisions should be understood beforehand.  It is particularly toxic for participants who thought they had a vote to be disenfranchised because it emerges they are not aligned with what the meeting leader wants.

Attend to the end.  Bring the meeting to a close by reviewing decisions made, next steps, and who is going to do what by when.

I have adopted this process for meetings myself and recommended it to coaching clients. I am happy to report that it works extremely well for all types ranging from brief interactions to group meetings to longer planning sessions.

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From the Water Cooler . . .

You can’t complain about it if you’re not willing to do something about it.

Success is at hand 

A Win-Win for New Employees, and You  

Sam’s performance was disappointing and, honestly, he was teetering into trouble.   His boss was puzzled.  The recruiting process had been smooth and Sam seemed so promising in his interviews.

Now, three months into his new job, Sam’s boss felt Sam didn’t have a clear focus on his role or what was expected of him.  He hadn’t connected with many of the key people whose support he needed, and worst of all, this company had certain ways of doing things and Sam “just didn’t get it.”

How did this happen?

Sam got the same orientation that all employees got.

That was a big part of the problem.

Like so many people facing new situations, especially when the outcome really matters, Sam had difficulty navigating his new circumstances.  He would have benefitted from a structured process to help him integrate into the firm.

The company’s orientation process handled the mandatory paperwork, basic company policies and included a few introductions to random colleagues. This company’s orientation process was like that at many firms: very short in duration, available to all employees, with low engagement potential and low-to-no strategic value.

Of leaders who join companies from the outside, an alarming 40% fail in their first 18 months, according to Fortune magazine.  What’s more, a full third of external hires are no longer with an organization after two years, say Stein & Christiansen in their book, Successful Onboarding.  They say further that less than a third of executives are positive about their onboarding experience.  So, Sam’s experience was not so unusual.

So, what is onboarding?

It is a program a company designs to reduce the time it takes for a new employee to get up to speed and become productive and to align with the firm’s culture and objectives.

Plus, a well-thought-out program can help a new employee:

  • Assimilate into a firm’s culture
  • Create and develop relationships key to their effectiveness,
  • Offer clarity on roles and expectations
  • Provide guidance on how work gets done

Onboarding often starts early.  A 2011 SHRM study reported that 60% of companies said they began their onboarding efforts before the employee’s first day, some during the recruiting process.  Another 32% started on the first day.

While some companies have programs lasting up to a year or more, they are a tiny minority.  The SHRM research showed 66% completed at 60 days and 91% at 90 days.

   

A good program is strategic and intentional.  This kind of help translates into employees getting further faster and results in higher productivity, retention, profitability and employee engagement.

We believe that the development of the onboarding initiative is best as a multi-departmental effort representing the commitment of top management, the soft skills of HR and talent management, and the perspective of recent hires.

It is usually up to the employee’s manager to oversee the program for their direct report.  To encourage compliance, some companies include the manager’s onboarding supervision as part of the annual review.

Separate from the employee’s manager, mentors (or buddies) can answer the many normal questions that can feel embarrassing and vulnerable to ask. This is especially true with cultural assimilation, the most frequent cause of new employees’ derailment.  Mentors can demystify social norms that seem invisible until they are stepped on.

The mentoring relationship is most effective when it is somewhat informal.  Good candidates for mentoring are employees who are not too much more senior in rank (conducive for candid discussion), have good people skills, are actively engaged and who are willing to be available.

Other elements of a good onboarding program include lots of two-way communication, check points at designated intervals to ensure accountability, clear direction, clarity on expectations, coaching, peer group discussions and metrics to measure progress.

Ultimately, a good onboarding program can deliver a win-win.

First, there is the solid ROI as measured in productivity, retention and engagement.  Second, there is a notable competitive advantage to your firm as most companies do not expend an effort robust and sustained enough for real impact.

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From the Water Cooler . . . 

I can control only two things:  my attitude and my actions.  For everything else, I have to let go.

 Success for you

Is Your Career Path Right For You?

Fred was a natural at sales.

His performance was so outstanding he was promoted to VP Regional Sales.

Sales and the sales team suffered.

Fred’s team admired him for his sales abilities but silently wished he had even the most basic management skills.  His predecessor Jack liked to analyze data, set an agenda and create alignment for common goals. The team got better results under Jack.

Fred just liked to sell.

This kind of transition to a changed role but with a less favorable outcome happens frequently.  Imagine a spirited entrepreneur whose venture grows big enough that her role evolves to managing the day-to-day routine.

Or, consider a passionate subject expert who is promoted to having responsibility for a diversified portfolio of projects.

It is the classic tale of moving a high performer out of their core competency and into one for which they are not well suited and in which they do not excel.

It’s usually clear to a neutral observer why the new job didn’t work out.  They were good in a sales role but did not have the desire, temperament and behavior style for the manager’s role.

How can managers making staffing decisions and individuals making career decisions avoid this common pitfall?

  

I recently had the great pleasure of being at an all-day seminar with Ed Schein, the legendary organizational development expert.

Schein developed a model to gain insight into someone’s self-concept as defined by what they’re good at, what they value, and what motivates them.  This self-concept is their “career anchor,” and insight about one’s career anchor can keep them on a path that’s right for them.

From decades of working with clients and supplemented by extensive research, Schein has come up with eight career anchors.  To determine someone’s anchor, you can conduct a short interview focused on asking why they made the career choices they did.  Discover the considerations that tipped the scale in past decisions.

Knowing someone’s career anchor can help a manager make better staffing decisions.  Plus, as professionals change jobs more frequently and have to be more self reliant in managing their career, this kind of personal insight will help maintain focus for the right kind of roles.

In determining which career anchor is the best fit, sometimes the most telling factor is not what someone wants but what they are not willing to give up.  That element is included in each of the descriptions below.

1.  Technical/Functional Competence – Focus and identity is on a specialty and specific skills with a primary desire to build their expertise.  Not give up: the opportunity to develop those skills to an ever-higher level.  Avoid:  general managerial role.

2.  General Managerial – Want leadership, management and to move to different areas of work.  Not give up:  the opportunity to rise to a level high enough for cross-functional leadership and responsibility for results.   Avoid: narrow focus of specialization.

3.  Autonomy/Independence  – Want the freedom of freelance consultants, professors or field sales people. Not give up:  opportunity to define their own work in their own way.  Avoid: advancement if it means losing autonomy.

4.  Security/Stability – Want security and a predictable future, a feeling of safety.  Not give up: employment security or tenure.  Avoid:  risk and highly changeable environments.

5.  Entrepreneurial Creativity – Want to show world they can create something that is result of their own effort. Not give up: opportunity to create that organization, product, or service that’s theirs and built on their abilities.  Avoid:  constraints on ability to define self through creating.

6.  Service/Dedication to a Cause – Want work that is aligned with personal values.  Not give up: opportunity to achieve something of value such as helping people, improving the environment. Avoid: commerce for the sake of commerce.

7.  Pure Challenge – Want the process of succeeding over others or personal best, especially over significant obstacles.  Not give up: opportunity to win out over seemingly impossible circumstances.  Avoid: easy tasks or routines and hence boredom.

8.  Lifestyle – Want work that will endorse and support work/life balance.  Priorities linked to life as a whole.  Not give up:  opportunity to balance and integrate needs of family, work and self.   Avoid: circumstances of restricted flexibility and an inability to respond and restore balance.

Characteristically humble, Schein is open to a ninth anchor if someone identifies one and makes a case for it.

If someone seems to not have a clear choice, he contends that person may not have been faced with the clarifying process of choosing one over the other. Through choosing, the person learns what they won’t give up and what their primary anchor is.

Also, if someone says they really don’t fit just one, Schein offers that the point is not to insist on overlaying theory on reality, but that we gain some insight into ourselves.

The discovery process is straight forward.

We just have to get curious and ask Why.

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From the Water Cooler 

CEO:  What if we train them and they leave? 
CFO:  What if we don’t train them and they stay?
Strategy, 
leadership