Human beings are meaning-making machines. We can’t help it; it’s in our DNA. Consciously or not, we ascribe meaning and value to everything we see, touch, and otherwise experience. That person is smart; that one isn’t. He doesn’t understand the strategy; our targets are unrealistic. Each one of these judgments is shaped by an underlying narrative that determines how we interpret the data we receive. Some of these narratives are conscious, and many are unconscious. But when people have diverse or opposing narratives, they will interpret the same data in radically different ways.
Narratives are also deeply relevant to business leaders and organizations. I have never met a CEO who wasn’t frustrated to some degree about how to get his or her company aligned behind a vision or strategy. Common practices to create alignment are to clarify, add detail, explain more ardently, or communicate more frequently. These are good options, but they will ultimately be ineffective unless the leaders and the organization are operating out of a shared view of reality. In essence, the key to a powerful strategy isn’t just about getting the strategy clear, it’s about getting the underlying narratives behind the strategy aligned as well.
We are now in the era of “purpose-driven” mission and strategy. Organizations are asking the question, “Why?” as a starting point. Strategies can’t merely be communicated, they have to be understood in a broader landscape of competitors, trends, and political and social dynamics. Cultures and values aren’t just shaped by intent; they’re shaped ultimately by a story about who we need to be to succeed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, careers aren’t shaped by tactical choices which optimize in the short term, they’re ideally shaped by an aspirational narrative that helps us tell a future-based story of who we want to become.
These narratives are foundational, and there are four of them. Like the legs of table, each one is required to support an even platform that allows us to work effectively and with coherence. Each narrative is integral, and together they create a holistic story of why the company exists, how we plan to win, who we need to be to execute our strategy, and why I as a leader am choosing this path. They also correlate with the commonly described elements of mission, vision and strategy, culture, and career journey. Every company usually has some version of a mission, vision and set of values. The problem is that often, each sits in isolation and is ultimately disconnected from the others and the reality of organizational execution. The value of the four narratives is that they serve as a shared context into which each piece nests, and it is this shared context that makes each piece fully come alive. If your intent is to build a coherent, purpose-driven strategy that yields alignment, stay with me.
Narrative #1: The Macro Narrative
I call the first narrative the Macro Narrative because it must encompass a company’s world view. This narrative gives meaning and context to the mission of the organization, or what Simon Sinek calls its “Why.” The Macro Narrative is not centered on the company, its competitors, or its customers. Instead, it provides a context and a shared worldview for the organization at large. It identifies how the current social, economic, political, and technological trends are evolving in such a way as to make their role in the world essential. Once a company has found its Macro Narrative, its mission can emerge as an organic response.
For example, Trium’s Macro Narrative is based on a simple but powerful observation that over the last hundred years, the responsibility for society has shifted from government and church to business. As an economic force on the planet, a shaper of values, and caretaker of citizens, businesses today have much more influence over our daily lives than governments or religious institutions. The problem is, while government and religious institutions acknowledge and own that responsibility (even if they’ve occasionally forgotten it), business leaders haven’t yet realized this ownership and integrated it into their way of thinking. The result is the wreckage and dysfunction caused by organizations who believe their sole responsibility is the creation of shareholder value as measured almost entirely by quarterly increases in stock price.
In light of that Marco Narrative, Trium’s mission has far greater meaning – “to change the world by changing the way business leaders think.” We want to help these leaders and their organizations come to view their employees not as “human capital,” but as entities who need to be developed, nurtured, and cared for. Within the context of our Macro Narrative, Trium’s mission has power and resonance – without it, it risks becoming a tagline.
A generally familiar example is Google’s mission – “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This speaks to an underlying but not always visible Macro Narrative that access to information is democracy, and a stable world requires a balanced distribution of power. I suspect that if you were to talk to an original Google founder about what problem they were solving, they would have said that information is power, and that much of the world doesn’t have access to information because of the way it’s distributed. Google’s mission is to democratize that. This mission is truly macro-driven because it isn’t grounded in competition or strategic advantage, but in the broader global context.
Narrative #2: The Strategic Narrative
The second narrative asks leaders to narrow their gaze from the world at large to their more immediate vicinity, specifically their strategic landscape. What needs do they detect? Which needs are being met? And which ones are as yet unmet? This Strategic Narrative has to explain where a company’s sources of advantage and disadvantage lie, and identify its customers’ needs and how they’re evolving. By doing so in a way that is concise, compelling, and accessible to the broader team, the “What” and the “How” for an organization are created – WHAT the organization is aspiring to be, and HOW to get there – which produces the organization’s vision and long-term strategy.
For example, over the past twenty years, big banks have evolved from highly-siloed institutions – characterized by large branches designed to give people a sense of confidence that their money was going to a safe place – into integrated service networks, most of which provide a broad set of services to their clients based on a life-stage model. It’s easy to see the Strategic Narrative behind this model – people want more control and more flexibility over their financial futures, the competitive landscape is fragmented, and so it’s essential that banks be able to bring integrated solutions to their customers. This is why many of us have our car loans, mortgages, credit cards and investments all managed by the same institution.
Narrative #3: The Cultural Narrative
The third narrative follows organically from the first two narratives. Having defined our perspective on world dynamics and our role in those dynamics (Macro Narrative), and then defined the competitive landscapes (Strategic Narrative), we now have much greater conviction about WHY we exist and HOW we need to act in the world. As we continue narrowing our focus – from the world, to the competitive landscape, to our own organization – we are now ready to define WHO our company will be in that world.
The Cultural Narrative enables and connects our values, beliefs, and behaviors to the execution of a broader strategy. Nearly all organizations have some combinations of words like integrity, innovative, customer-focused …and lately we see fun a lot. These are fine values, but a strong Cultural Narrative gives unique meaning to values so that they become more than merely generic words that can be interpreted any number of ways.
For example, StubHub’s mission and strategy both center on creating simple access to live event attendance. Their fundamental Macro Narrative is built from the idea that live events create excitement and connection in ways that are difficult to replicate in other mediums. To execute on that strategy, their Cultural Narrative focuses on their own ability to compete and perform at the highest level – while maintaining an energizing, team-based mentality. The Cultural Narrative explains, in short, who we need to be to execute on our strategy. It gives context and meaning to what may be otherwise generic values.
Narrative #4: The Personal Leadership Narrative
The fourth narrative may be the most overlooked, partly because many of us take it for granted, and partly because it’s hard to look closely and unflinchingly at ourselves. The Personal Leadership Narrative must contain all the elements from the other narratives: the Why, the What, the How, and the Who. But this one must focus on the individual leader. Without forming a strong and unwavering Personal Leadership Narrative, how can each of us possibly hope to communicate a larger mission and expect others to follow it? After all, we can’t transmit what we haven’t got.
My own Personal Leadership Narrative has evolved from my belief that authentic leadership can only come when my career and my life goals are aligned – when my leadership is an expression of who I am. My mission is to bring peace, clarity, possibility, and purpose to visionary leaders. My work is a way that I contribute to the world and also influences large systems for the better. When leaders know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, there’s coherence between the narratives that drives behavior at all organizational levels, and that’s when purpose-driven strategy can really come to life.
Coming full circle: Human beings – and companies – are wired to be meaning-making machines. Just as we tell our children bedtime stories to help them make sense of the laws of cause and effect, my aspiration with these four narratives is to facilitate the conscious making of meaning within organizations. In so doing, we connect leaders to their organizations in a very personal and powerful way that enables better performance. When leaders know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, their personal journey aligns with that of the company.
And doesn’t that sound like a pretty worthwhile narrative?
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