I recently witnessed the retirement of a Fortune 100 Senior Executive. In his farewell speech, he described the wealth of life experiences he gained during his years with the company. The next day when he gathered his final things from this office it was a sad day for those of us who witnessed his departure. As we watched him through the corporate lobby for the last time, his broad shoulders seemed to slump a bit with every step. It is not where he is going that we should be considering; where are we going without him?
What he worriedly confided during a brief meeting to prepare for his retirement dinner is his concern that the many efforts he championed were now in jeopardy. Who would pick up the baton, view issues with a broad and experienced vision to provide continuity as the business culture continues on its evolutionary path?
As Susan Scott states in her book FIERCE CONVERSATIONS1 “When you leave a room, your image remains…”
Have you thought about what you leave behind when you end a phone call, leave a meeting, or retire after investing your life in your company? No doubt that your actions contributed to the current company culture, the traditions, and the foundation on which the future will be built. How wise it would be for you to take the time to consider what you will leave behind when you are ready to retire.
A popular television show has the villain cutting open the heads of those with skills he admires to draw their essence and assume their knowledge. How can we effectively “pick the brains” of today’s business leaders short of medically cloning our senior managers? How do we tap, retain, and deploy the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of those who currently lead our organization?
There are two ways to share your wisdom. One is to look forward by planning, teaching and engaging others: contribute to the development of staff on all levels. Another way to continue to impact the future of the company is to look back: preserve the history and traditions as a reliable and ethical foundation upon which agile change and new achievements can be made.
Delegate & Involve
The opportunity for a leader to share knowledge begins by delegating: training and mentoring younger staff. Of course, delegating does not remove the responsibility from you as those in the learning stages are bound to make mistakes you will have to correct. Inherent in this process is a remarkable learning opportunity to model how to handle frustration, possibly anger, the pressure of deadlines and the difficulty of moving past mishaps.
A leader is a role model. The way you respond, plan, and act is observed by those below you, and often quickly emulated. Much as parents influence their children—just as you most likely have shocked yourself by saying something using the words and inflection you witnessed one of your parents using—you will hear others repeat your statements. Because you are aware that your actions influence how current young employees will act when they are in your role, you have the opportunity to consciously choose how you respond, to model a professional and ethical approach to the situation. This might mean dropping a few old habits you picked up on the way into a leadership position and maintaining an awareness of your impact on others.
You can maximize the learning process by providing opportunities for the less experienced to observe you. Take them along with you to meetings with clients as well as others in your field. Give them some small role in the meeting, a short contribution to the discussion as they watch you to see firsthand how you work through complex business situations.
Tell Your Story
Stories and analogies can create a deep understanding of a situation or event, just as a picture tells a full story on one page. Whether it is a story told about you or a repeat of a story your shared with your team, stories live beyond the moment of telling.
One of my favorite clients is a constant story teller. When we first met it was because there were complaints from his staff that his stories often meandered, taking up unnecessary time and often lacking relevance to the topic he was attempting to address. Stories and analogies, like all good habits that get abused form overuse, can become a derailer for you. Be certain you have something short and to the point to offer by using these tips:
- Ask for feedback. Be open and vulnerable by seeking comments from those you work with. Try to get their view of how often you hit the mark with a story or analogy.
- Monitor yourself. Set a time limit for how long it takes you to tell a story or offer an analogy. If you are not confident that you can express your concept quickly and be understood immediately, don’t do it. You do not need to continually provide information with the flourish of a story or analogy.
As we worked on my client’s story telling abilities, he developed three guidelines to stay on track as he endeavored to connect with his staff and effectively explain his purpose:
- State why you want to offer the story or analogy –its relevant goal
- Present the story/analogy in two minutes or less –just the facts without sidebars
- Sum-up the story – restate the learning moment in a short sentence
Or as my acting friends say: Tell them what you are going to do; Do it; Tell them what you did. The key is to be certain you are connected with those you are speaking with by telling them a story they want to hear because it has value to them.
If you are not confident in your story telling abilities, or wonder when an analogy would be more effective than attempting to explain a complex concept, there are several excellent experts in the field you can turn to for help.
Story telling will enable you to connect with others, preserve tradition and maintain the fluid culture of your organization.
The DNA of the Human Psyche
The tales of merger, acquisition, conquest, or convergence are timeless case studies for those seeking advancement, knowledge, success. Of course, not every senior leader is an orator, writer, or scholar. Peter Drucker and Jack Welch, for example, were not described as ‘polished’ speakers.
Whether you are drawing from natural talent or skill developed by necessity and passion, you must be ready to articulate your personal sense of values and life wisdom. Expressing your sense, your perspective, identifies your harmony with the latest business, social and cultural trends, guiding those who observe you to develop deeper respect and trust.
One of today’s leading researchers on storytelling, David Thornburg, Ph.D, states:
A key aspect of archetypal learning environments can be found in a tale….
One day someone sat at a computer keyboard and entered the following question: “Do you suppose that computers will one day think like humans?” After processing this request for some time, the computer displayed the following response: “That reminds me of a story…,”
…with the possible exception of certain marine mammals, we may be the only storytelling species in existence. This capacity of humans is so important that Jean Houston referred to myth as the DNA of the human psyche.
The roots of storytelling are in our elemental being, providing an essential channel to connect with others. How do you recognize events worthy to be preserved?
2 Two often referenced sources: Susan Scott. FIERCE LEADERSHIP, Berkeley Publishers, 2011 and Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS, McGraw Hill, 2011.
Examples of Campfire Tales
Whether the newer members of your company are quoting Machiavelli or the former CFO, what is important is that they have they are making a connection between an event and an outcome, between someone’s thoughts and their present: connecting now and then. According to Thornburg:
“The often tangential nature of storytelling, its use of metaphor, its indirect attack on a topic all combine to make storytelling an effective way to address topics that might be too confrontational to address head on. Story crafts its own helix around a topic. As Robert Frost said, “We sit in the circle and suppose, while the truth sits in the center and knows.”
Just as we are attracted to the campfire, we intuitively recognize the truth of a tale shared in that golden circle. Stories that resonate with your personal experiences cast new light on previous encounters and as the tale emerges, we empathize with either the speaker or the story characters.
Thornburg describes ‘campfire’ storytelling as an information-based tale relayed by the expert to the novice.
…the wisdom of elders passed to the next generation. Good stories have always embodied a blend of the cognitive and affective domains – in fact, in story, there is no separation between the two.
This quality of nuance and multiple interpretations is common to storytelling. It is one reason that adults and children can enjoy the same story together – each age takes from the story the elements that are appropriate.
The power of storytelling is so great that even in more recent times (c. 250 BC,) we find Socrates responding to his students on occasion with the Greek equivalent of “That reminds me of a story.”
It is critical for all leaders to accept their role and impact in the organization. Kris Finnin states:
“Your legacy will be defined by the passion and impact of the people you influence.
What do you want your legacy to be?”
To achieve your legacy a leader must invest in the development and growth of individuals on all levels. Share your power and passion to develop their skills, understand their role in the organization and prepare a talented bench of future leaders to call upon.
Stories can bridge gaps and form bonds – even between people who never meet or speak face-to-face – as well as between those of different levels in a corporation.
Larry Prusak of IBM’s Institute of Knowledge Management, identified ten categories of stories in organizations and offered the following perspective:
I’d say the most important thing you can do is to deal with the issue of connectivity….
If you can improve sense-making in any organization, by one percent, you’ve earned your salary for life. Sense-making is really more than information-seeking. It’s more than knowledge-seeking. It’s helping people make sense of their own organization for action.
Preserving the Legacy
Preserving the stories of your business’ founders and leaders is developing a warehouse of knowledge. You will be capturing the wisdom and insight of those whose decisions forged the environment you now occupy: Each story saved is one more connection between past and present, contributing to future decisions by sustaining awareness of the foundation for today’s beliefs, motivations, and commitments.
As you consider potential contributors to your new stock-pile of corporate stories, keep your goal clearly in mind. Your task is to gather and share existing wisdom: truth and experience serving as a catalyst to future action.
References and Additional Reading
- Betof, Edward Betof. T&D Magazine. “Teachable Points of View for Leadership”. March 2007 ’Becton, Dickinson and Company’s Advanced Leadership Development Program acknowledges the role of story telling in leadership training.
- Finnin, Kris. “Live Forever? How Ethical Leadership and A Legacy Definition Makes You Timeless. https://www.intelivate.com/team-strategy/define-leadership-legacy. 2017
- Mount, Ian. “America’s 25 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs” Inc. Magazine , 2004.
- Prusak, Larry. Executive Director, IBM Institute of Knowledge Management. Presentation at the Smithsonian, 2001.
- Thornburg, David, Ph.D, “Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphor’s for Learning in the 21st Century” in the October 2004 issue of Instruction Technology & Distance Learning.