Early 2009, Sonia Aplin was facing a challenge. As the Internal Communications Manager for Ericsson Australia and New Zealand Sonia was tasked with advising the senior leadership team on how best to communicate the new corporate strategy.
The challenge for Sonia and Ericsson was two-fold. She knew that for the strategy to be successful, employees needed more than to be able to just recite the new strategy – they needed to really believe in it and understand how their work contributed to the organisation’s success.
The other challenge was that the latest Employee Engagement Survey showed two concerning facts. The Leadership Communication index was at 57 points (compared with the Ericsson Group total of 73) while Strategy Awareness was at a moderate 66 points. A critical success factor for the Ericsson strategy depended on improvement in both these areas. Sonia and her HR colleagues had a goal to increase both those measures by 3 points….and anyone who works closely with employee opinion surveys will know that this is easier said than done.
During this time, Barack Obama was the hot topic. Being a communications specialist, Sonia was more interested in the way he communicated as opposed to his politics. What she noticed, as well as other commentators, was Obama’s effective use of story. So that triggered Sonia’s research into storytelling. What started with a Google search, ended with a tender process and working relationship with us to deliver organisational storytelling workshops to their top 80 leaders.
Sonia along with the Leadership & Culture Manager went to the executive team with their recommendation. To take the leaders through a 2-day program. The first day was designed to ensure understanding of the new strategy and the desired behaviours associated with that.
The second day was our organisational storytelling workshops, which would give them the practical business skills of storytelling to engage their employees and clients in the strategy.
They were tentative at first…..we are talking about taking storytelling into a male-dominated, engineering firm, but their courage was rewarded. The executive team supported the approach and every single member of the team, including the CEO, attended the training and continue to encourage and role model the use of organisational storytelling throughout Ericsson. 97% of the participants agreed it was relevant to their role with 91% saying it improved their effectiveness as an influencer and leader.
Leadership Communication Capability, increased by a staggering 18 points.
So did it work? Sonia states “Anecdotally, yes. The use of stories in team meetings, presentations and formal and informal communications is obvious and is having a real impact. Another measure of the success is that the Australian and New Zealand Communications team won the Ericsson Global Award for Best Strategy Communications, with storytelling being cited as the point-of-difference. So that was something we were all very proud of and we are now working with our global colleagues to bring storytelling to their organisations.”
But what about the tangibles…the key measures of success? Increasing both Leadership Communication and Strategy Awareness by 3 points. The subsequent Employee Opinion Survey showed that Strategy Awareness increased by 11 points and Leadership Communication Capability, increased by a staggering 18 points. That is what we call a success story.
As you might be aware we define Business Storytelling as ‘storytelling with a business purpose and for business results’. So what results can a purposeful business story deliver?
Take for example a client of ours, Michael Brandt, who is a Regional Branch Manager at a bank. Michael was responsible for 20 branches and at every branch, he had the same problem. His staff never seemed to meet their weekly targets of referring quality sales leads to the sales department.
He continuously talked to his team, and every time, they told him they knew what their targets were, and the importance of referring leads to the sales department. In fact, their targets were even linked to their annual performance bonus!
His staff told him that it was the one task they hated doing. For two years, Michael had this problem, and by his own admission, had tried everything. His frustration was tangible and you can imagine how frustrating it must have been for his staff as well.
During one of our workshops, Michael constructed the following story:
‘When I was a kid, I hated Brussels sprouts. Every time Brussels sprouts was served at dinner, I always left the Brussels sprouts till the end (of course I always hoped I could get away without eating them). My mother would never let me leave the table until I ate them.
One day, when Brussels sprouts was on the menu (yet again), I decided to eat them straight away so I could sit back and enjoy the rest of my meal. Do you think we could approach our quality sales leads targets like Brussels sprouts? We all know we can’t leave the table without eating them. Do you think we could get them out of the way early in the week and then sit back and enjoy the rest of our week?’
Two weeks later, we saw Michael at a follow up session where he told us he had been to 11 of his 20 Branches, and narrated his Brussels sprouts story. Michael advised us that in all 11 Branches, for the first time in two years, they had achieved their quality sales leads targets. We asked Michael if he had done anything different in those 11 branches (apart from telling the story) to which he replied ‘No, the story was the only thing I did differently’. He then told us that the term ‘Brussels sprouts’ had also become short-hand within the team for their sales leads: ‘How many Brussels sprouts have you eaten?’ ‘I have already eaten 3 today and it’s not even lunch time!’
Being consultants we took full credit of course for Michael’s success! His story worked because everyone can relate to it, it taps into a universal human experience of being forced to eat your vegetables by your mother. At a subtler level Michaels’ story carries a layer of empathy in it. Through the story he is saying it is OK to hate stuff in life but that doesn’t mean you can get out of doing it.
Michael used ‘Brussels sprouts’ for 6 months as every time he did it gave him powerful results. This is an example of how storytelling can work for you, if done purposefully. Here is another case study across an organisation of the results purposeful storytelling achieved.
This would have to be the number one question leaders ask when they use a story. “Did it work? How do I know it worked?’ We all want to know what success looks like with storytelling.
I love the elegance and simplicity of Noel Turnbull’s measure of success with storytelling. ‘Success looks likes two things – when other people start to repeat the stories and when people smile sincerely. That’s why you tell a story’.
Of course people won’t repeat every story you tell – only the memorable sticky ones get this extended lease of life. That is in storytelling the gold standard! So it still comes to you in a room with your audience wondering…did it bomb? In that common scenario building on what Noel says trust your intuition. Look around the room when you are narrating your story. You can always sense the level of engagement in the room. One of our leaders described it as ‘It felt like there was a spotlight suddenly shinning on me and and for that minute I had every one’s rapt attention’.
But this is harder said than done – we are often our own harshest critics. Another option is to ask someone you trust. Prep them for it and say ‘I am going to be using a couple of stories can you please look around the room and help me gauge the response to see if they worked’. This person might also pick up the informal chatter after when people talk about your stories and give you the feedback you crave. They can also help to validate your expereince or provide another perspective or some fresh insights.
Good stories also have a long tail. We have some clients who thought their stories didn’t work and 6 months later someone told them very casually “I still remember the story you told us about customer service ‘. Or they get a repeat request out of the blue when someone says “John I really think you should share that story on innovation you told us in last year’s forum!” And poor John had been wondering all that time if his story had worked.
Of course if you were hoping we would give you some hard measures of success and are disappointed please feel free to check out our Ericsson success story, which does just that.