Use Storytelling to Explain Your Company’s Purpose

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

The idea of “purpose” has swept the corporate world. Encouraged by evangelists like Simon Sinek, myriad firms like Nike, Adidas, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola are devoting real time and attention to explaining why they do. The idea of purpose was central to a book I co-authored.

But activating purpose is impossible without storytelling, at both the corporate and individual levels. As I’ve written previously, while purpose is essential to a strong corporate culture, it is often activated and reinforced through narrative. Individuals must learn to connect their drives to the organization’s purpose and to articulate their story to others.

This is hard for most business leaders. Great leaders are often humble and reticent to speak about themselves. This impulse is admirable, but it falls short of what’s needed to inspire people to join in the purpose of an organization. And many businesspeople feel more comfortable with waterfall charts and P&Ls than with telling their own stories. Only narrative can do that. Storytelling is a skill that leaders can — and should — hone.

I learned this lesson, most acutely, from Marshall Ganz, who teaches what he calls “public narrative” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Ganz argues that for people to inspire others with the mission of their organization or cause, they must first link that mission to their own motivations, and then connect it through story to those of the people they are hoping to persuade. Ganz has developed a simple framework for those hoping to develop a narrative approach to their purpose-driven organizations: “Self, Us, Now.”

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Create a Conversation, Not a Presentation

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

When I worked as a consultant, I was perennially guilty of “the great unveil” in presentations—that tendency to want to save key findings for the last moment and then reveal them, expecting a satisfying moment of awe. My team and I would work tirelessly to drive to the right answer to an organization’s problem. We’d craft an intricate presentation, perfecting it right up until minutes or hours before a client meeting, and then we’d triumphantly enter the room with a thick stack of hard copy PowerPoint slides, often still warm from the printer.

But no matter how perfect our presentation looked on the surface, we regularly came across major issues when we were in the room. These one-sided expositions frequently led to anemic conversations. And this hurt our effectiveness as a team and as colleagues and advisers to our clients.

The last-minute nature of the unveiling meant that our clients (or internal teammates to whom we were presenting) did not have time to fully understand the information and were not prepared to participate in discussion. This made our problem-solving, and consequently, our solutions worse. Group intelligence typically trumps individual intelligence, and the insights our clients and teammates could have added with further reflection would have improved our results tremendously.

The great unveil—particularly when unaccompanied by careful pre-discussions with the members of the client team—would also lead us to make interpersonal and organizational mistakes. Team members, seeing a controversial solution for the first time, would become defensive. We’d miss problems, or solutions that had already been tried and failed, and if someone brought these up in the middle of our presentation, we’d end up distracted and confused.

When we created a perfect solution in isolation and made it “ours” to present, we ignored the fact that each individual needed to arrive at the conclusions independently to really understand it, to believe in it, and to be willing to work hard to execute it.

And frankly, relying entirely on the presentation made for boring meetings. No one wants to sit and listen to another person present for hours on end. People want to ask questions and to provide their own insights. They want to problem-solve and debate.

We’re all familiar with these issues, and yet the tendency toward “the great unveil” presentation style persists. If we want to foster conversations rather than presentations, what are some effective ways to do so?

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Increase the Odds of Achieving Your Goals by Setting Them with Your Spouse

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

With Jackie Coleman

Do a quick Google search of “work-life balance” and over 260 million results will flood your screen. But the current conversation often treats “work” and “life” as separate and, all too often, in tension. We make annual resolutions, detailed daily plans, and to-do lists, but we do so as individuals — generally not sharing those plans or planning jointly with those closest to us. And we often think of our personal and professional goals as occupying distinct and separate spheres. But what if the work and home “spheres” could merge and actually improve the odds that we’ll achieve our goals?

Research shows that it’s easier to achieve our goals when we’re not trying to go it alone. One recent research paper found a positive correlation between participation in digital communities and reaching fitness goals. Similarly, a study of rowers found that their working together in training heightened their threshold for pain.

For many of us, our closest and most trusted companion is a spouse. Couples in committed, long-term relationships often see each other every day, but rarely plan or set resolutions together. By not doing so, couples may actually be making it harder to achieve their goals. This January, we fully integrated our personal planning for the year for the first time. We’ve always informally mentioned our goals to each other, but this time around, we talked with intentionality about why we were chasing those goals, and how we planned to get there. By including each other in the process, we invited the other to not only be aware of what we plan to accomplish this year, but also to hold us accountable as we strive to reach these goals. And our experience combined with research we’ve evaluated and other couples we’ve consulted with have led us to a few tips for effective planning as a couple.

First, start with an annual board meeting. Several years ago, we attended a seminar where speakers Rick and Jill Woolworth introduced the idea of an “annual meeting” for families — taking time at the end of each year to evaluate that year and plan for the next. Establishing this as a family norm assures that goal-setting happens on a set schedule rather than haphazardly or in isolation. For us, this happened over the holidays between Christmas and the new year, and included a discussion of the past year, how we performed against our goals, and how we felt about life as a couple and individuals. We wrote out our specific goals for the year and the habits we hoped to develop. Then we discussed them and how each of us could help the other achieve each goal. These annual meetings provide accountability, but more importantly, lay a vision for the year ahead. Then, as so many have advised, break these annual goals intohabits, monthly and weekly goals, and daily to-dos.

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A Speech Is Not an Essay

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

Reading an essay to an audience can bore them to tears. I recently attended a conference where a brilliant man was speaking on a topic about which he was one of the world’s experts. Unfortunately, what he delivered was not a speech but an essay. This renowned academic had mastered the written form but mistakenly presumed that the same style could be used at a podium in the context of an hour-long public address. He treated the audience to exceptional content that was almost impossible to follow — monotone, flat, read from a script, and delivered from behind a tall podium.

He would have done well to heed the words of communication professor Bob Frank: “A speech is not an essay on its hind legs.” There is a huge difference between crafting a speech and writing an essay. And for those new to public speaking, the tendency to mimic the forms of writing we already know can be crippling.

Speeches require you to simplify. The average adult reads 300 words per minute, but people can only follow speech closely at around 150-160 words per minute. Similarly,studies have shown auditory memory is typically inferior to visual memory, and while most of us can read for hours, our ability to focus on a speech is more constrained. It’s important, then, to write brief and clear speeches. Ten minutes of speaking is only about 1,300 words (you can use this calculator), and while written texts — which can be reviewed, reread, and reexamined — can be subtle and nuanced, spoken word must be followed in the moment and must be appropriately short, sweet, and to the point.

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5 Tips for Off-the-Cuff Speaking

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

If it’s true that many people fear public speaking more than death, it’s equally true that businesspeople are condemned to a thousand small deaths in client pitches, in boardrooms, and on stage. And that death can turn slow and torturous when you are asked to speak unexpectedly with little or no time to prepare. One of the key demands of business is the ability to speak extemporaneously. Whether giving an unexpected “elevator pitch” to a potential investor or being asked at the last minute to offer remarks to a sales team over dinner, the demands for a business person to speak with limited preparation are diverse, endless, and — to many — terrifying.

I became more comfortable with these situations through one of my primary activities in college, competitive public speaking called “forensics” (from the Latin “forensis,”which means “in an open court, public”). In forensics, one of my favorite categories was “limited preparation” in which we were given between 1 and 30 minutes to prepare a 5–7 minute speech. The lessons learned in those limited preparation events have paid huge dividends to my work in business. They carried me through my first consulting case interviews right out of college. They’ve helped me address complex questions from bosses and board members. And they’ve helped me when I’ve been put on the spot to address college classes and new analyst training sessions.

No matter your position, they can also be useful to you. Here are a few of the tips I picked up along the way:

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3 Priorities for Leaders Who Want to Go Beyond Command-and-Control

July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

With Jim Whitehurst

It’s cliché to say that “command and control” leadership is no longer relevant in most organizational contexts. But — especially in large, global, diverse organizations — what should it be replaced with? Leaders increasingly need to model traits that reflect the values and culture of the organization in which they operate. It’s nearly impossible to capture all those traits — every organization will have a different set of norms and customs. But there are at least a few essential leadership traits that we find common in many firms today.

First, in a world in which labor markets are fluid, leaders must inspire and impart purpose.When one of us interviewed young leaders for a book, two of the top three reasons they sought particular jobs were “intellectual challenge” and “opportunity to impact the world;” and other studieshave consistently highlighted the increasing focus younger workers in particular place on purpose in the workplace. Anecdotally, that emphasis on finding purpose in our workplaces and in the companies we patronize — or as Simon Sinek might phrase it, starting with “why” — is redefining the way innovative companies like TOMSZapposWhole Foods, and Google attract and retain talent. And at Red Hat, where one of us is CEO, the organization’s mission is a powerful catalyst in communities of customers, contributors, and partners for creating technology the open source way. The people who succeed in that context are those who are most inspired by that mission and are able to pass that inspiration to others and impart purpose in everything they do.

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Find Quiet (and Maybe Even Peace) at Work

July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

My uncle has a farm in Meriwether County, Georgia. When I was a kid, I spent weekends there camping, fishing, and spending time with family and friends. It was my place to wonder and wander. In a time before mobile devices, I could lie in the grass looking up at the stars and experience real solitude and silence. There were no car engines or text message alerts. The silence created space for reflection and imagination.

On a recent workday, in contrast, a venue near my office held an all-day rock concert that shook the windows in my office with sound checks and live music from 9 a.m. until I went home. The previous day I’d made a day trip to New York — a 16-hour cacophony of jet engines, pilot announcements, car horns, and strangers talking loudly into mobile phones. My experiences are not unique. Most of us now live and work in noisy environments. The ubiquity of electronic devices and the density of the cities in which we live mean that few of us regularly experience silence.

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