Speaking of Telling Stories in the Executive Suite

I have been working with a client in our Executive Immersion program and am once again reminded of the critical role that stories play in executive effectiveness.  My client is working hard to develop a communication approach that balances IQ and EQ—that is, using intellectual, analytical, problem solving tactics combined with an ability to manage and integrate a range of emotions in all forms of communication. This balance seems especially important when an executive is communicating a new, expanded or revised vision to a less than eager workforce.

 

The business of the executive suite is to develop, articulate and marshal resources toward a goal and strategy—i.e. to create the big picture. And the business of most employees is to do their job and develop one important piece of the picture to contribute to the overall goal. Sometimes these roles are in conflict and the employee can feel the burden of the vision without having the authority to act. All too often the executive message is not inclusive enough to sanction the employee to do their job. The executive speaks in “I, me, mine” when the employee wants to hear “You, we, us.”

 

So how can the executive bridge this gap?

 

In my view the key to aligning vision is to articulate a clear picture of success and then involve others in the achievement of the outcome. One highly effective and low risk way to create alignment without overwhelming, confusing or de-motivating employees is through storytelling.

 

Here’s a great example of a story that balances vision and clarity with a direct emotional appeal:

 

The CEO of a small Silicon Valley start-up told this story at the annual kickoff meeting. The company had quickly risen to unparalleled success with one product and was facing its next R&D challenge.

 

A long time ago, there was a master archer who wanted to become the best in the land. He set out to find an archer of even greater talent so that he might improve his craft. After months of walking through forests, meadows, and towns, he came upon a tree with an arrow in the exact middle of a painted target. As he walked on he saw a second tree with another exact bulls-eye. Soon, he saw more and more trees with straight arrows placed within the targets. Perfect bulls-eyes covered the forest. Suddenly, he entered a clearing and looked up. He saw the side of a large barn with row after row of perfect bulls-eyes. In that moment he knew he had found his mentor.

 

He began asking everyone he saw, “Whose barn is it that displays so many perfect arrows?” The people told him how to find the man who owned the barn. When he found this man he was surprised to meet a simple man, slow of speech, and awkward in his movements, certainly not the master athlete he expected to find. Unperturbed, he asked the man to share his secret. “How do you do it?” he asked. “How do you hit so many perfect bulls-eyes?” The man quietly explained. “Oh, anyone can do it. After I shoot the arrow, I take paint and draw a target around the arrow. I can create a perfect bulls-eye every time.”

 

After telling this story, the executive made two important points. First he said “There are many ways to hit the target, so innovate, create, and think out of the box;” and then he added, “Trust your instincts, your expertise, and your creative talent, and  beware of looking for a hero or mentor to teach you how to do this. After all, you already know how to do this, and what’s more, I trust that you can do it.”

 

This is the kind of story that my client wants to tell—one that articulates a vision in a creative and inclusive way and gets to the heart of the matter with sincerity and good will. This is a story where IQ and EQ are well integrated and showcase executive excellence.