Why CEO Storytelling Matters Today More Than Ever

user Doug Randall
calendar

What connects the animal scenes painted on cave walls in France 30,000 years ago, the 4000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, or the fireside fables told by tribes in every human culture, to today’s tests of organizational leadership? We are a species that is wired to thrive on storytelling. 

We make sense of what we experience as reality through stories. Complete strangers can share emotional engagement from witnessing the same cinematic scene; we can be persuaded to act (or not) by powerful narratives. So how does an organizational leader explain Quiet Quitting? The Great Resignation? Rising inflation? Storm clouds gathering over the global economy? How many of today’s leaders see themselves as storytellers? In uncertain times, storytelling has a unique power to set a course forward, unite teams, and explain to others who we are and why that matters in the moment. 

And so storytelling, just may be the most powerful tool in a CEO’s tool chest. When most executives refer to their company’s narrative, they are talking about the well-rehearsed story that their marketing, PR, and communications teams tell daily. But that is just one narrative type. They are surprised to discover that there are multiple types of narratives within their organizations that are working simultaneously, either for or against them.  Great CEOs use narratives to their advantage – authentically amplifying, undermining, and reframing stories to move stakeholders. 

Types of Narratives

To better understand the full range of narratives impacting a business, it’s helpful to break them down into different categories: corporate, strategic, contextual, cultural, and personal leadership.

The Corporate Narrative

The corporate narrative is your official story.  It is the reason you are in business, and clearly articulates your “why”. This is the narrative owned by the CEO but often shared by corporate communications or marketing. It motivates customers to buy and partners to collaborate. It is the narrative you control most, because you define it, communicate it, and constantly reinforce it.

Getting the corporate narrative right requires purpose, discipline, thoughtfulness, and creativity…and sharing this narrative requires you to tell a story that is compelling, resonant, consistent and furthers your company’s interests. But most importantly, you need to keep demonstrating that the narrative is true – not only with words but also with actions. We all experience companies with strong macro narratives like Apple’s, who offers “the power of innovation.” A good macro narrative is timeless. When most people think of narratives in business, this is what they are referring to. Nevertheless, most companies have plenty of work to do in order to get this narrative to perform well. That’s often because they’re not paying attention to the other types of narratives.

The Strategic Narrative

A strategic narrative explains the past, present and future in a way that resonates with all of an organization’s stakeholders. A company’s strategic narrative takes a more global lens and ties it directly to its competitive strengths and weaknesses; it offers a compelling long-term vision, which in turn, drives the roadmap. In short, a strategic narrative explains what the organization aspires to be, and how it is going to get there.

The Contextual Narrative

Contextual narratives are the stories your constituents tell about you. They represent the deeply entrenched, and sometimes limiting, beliefs that customers, suppliers, and partners hold and that influence their behavior. You don’t get to define these, yet they are arguably the most critical driver in determining whether customers buy your macro narrative. Contextual narratives tend to live below the surface – that is, they are usually not explicitly stated, which makes them hard to identify, track, or measure. But they are powerful. For example, the narrative about the health risks of sugar work against Coca-Cola’s corporate narrative which calls for indulgence and joy. Contextual narratives about fairness, equality, and inclusion have trumped macro narratives at Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and Uber – and ultimately led to customer boycotts at all three companies. And, we have also seen how narratives about racial injustice created loyalty (or disloyalty) to Nike as a result of the Colin Kaepernick endorsement.

Contextual narratives are best understood through traditional market research, social listening, and narrative analytics focused not on a company’s messaging, but on an analysis of the target audience. Rather than A/B testing messages, find unprompted audience beliefs so you can understand what their core stories and limiting beliefs are.

The Cultural Narrative

A cultural narrative connects a company’s organizational values to the execution of the strategy – in essence, it defines “who” a company wants to be in the world. I work with a company whose cultural narrative could be summed up as “run fast, run hard, and we will win.” The leadership team is detail-oriented, results-driven, and crushing the competition. Talk to them about anything outside their current execution plan, and they are visibly shaken. Their orientation is toward operations, and that is what they reinforce. Now juxtapose that with a cultural narrative like, “building communities builds markets.” A cultural narrative provides context to the macro narrative, so the organization’s mission is more than just a tagline to the people who deliver it.

The Personal Leadership Narrative

Personal leadership narratives represent the core beliefs that the key leaders responsible for a company hold about themselves, the business, and how they operate. They connect their personal beliefs to the broader corporate strategy and are either enablers or limiters to growth and achieving goals. Personal leadership narratives live in the hearts and minds of your people and are difficult to uncover because they are rooted in individual psychology. These narratives are the least often discussed, and incidentally one of the most powerful sources of leverage in business. Their power comes from an ability to frame the actions and behaviors of the people driving your success. You will have as many personal leadership narratives as you have leaders, so those narratives can co-exist, even if they conflict. And, like all narratives, they can be explicit or (more often) implicit.

Getting Narratives to Work

All of these narratives – regardless of who controls them – work together to drive a business forward…or not. To get them to work for you, consider these three concepts:

Awareness

For each narrative category, you need to assess what the full range of stories, or limiting beliefs, are, how strongly they are held, and how they impact your business goals. Treat the narratives not as stories that need to be verified as true or false, but as analytic units that should be measured and managed.

Alignment

Once you have awareness of all of the narratives in their corresponding categories, you can align them. Your corporate narrative should be inspiring, timeless, and supported by the strategic narrative. Because you control these two, you have a lot of choice in how they are expressed. These narratives need to reflect and reinforce the dominant positive cultural and personal leadership narratives, as well as your stakeholder’s implicit contextual narratives, which represent the stories the marketplace holds about your organization. When all of these narrative types are aligned, your communications will be authentic, resonant, and therefore move your business goals forward.

Action

The best way to get a narrative to stick is by modeling it. The famous Chinese proverb gets it right, “Talk doesn’t cook rice.” Once you establish your narratives, find as many ways as you can to reinforce them and prove to the world that they are true. Patagonia’s strategic narrative is rooted in delivering high-quality products, supporting environmental advocacy, and not causing harm. And they live the narrative not only through their communications, but by supporting over 1,000 grassroots environmental organizations, awarding over $90 million to those causes, rejecting mass consumerism (for example, by standing against Black Friday), and supporting fair trade and transparent supply chains.

In today’s “instant access to information” environment, your stakeholders are bombarded with stories that shape their behavior. Some of these are communicated directly by your organization – others are not in your immediate control. By understanding the full range of narratives in each of these categories, you can develop a comprehensive narrative strategy to get this incredibly powerful force to work for you. Even narratives that seem out of your control can be influenced with greater understanding, alignment, and action.

Back to TriumIQ

Let’s Talk

Contact Us

Trium IQ

It’s Your Weaknesses, Not Strengths, That Make You A Good Coach And Leader

One of the core adages in any coaching or advisory work is simply that “no one will…

Read

A Time to Serve

To serve when you yourself are in need is the ultimate act of leadership. The new year…

Read

VIDEO | UiPath CFO Ashim Gupta Reflects on Trium Coaching Sessions

UiPath CFO Ashim Gupta shares how Trium’s personalized coaching taught him to better connect with himself, connect with others, and meet challenges in a more mature and measured way.

Watch

The Reset Moment: How Downturns Create the Dynamics for Innovation and Transformation

We tend to think of economic cycles as peaks and troughs of good times and bad —…

Read

Why CEO Storytelling Matters Today More Than Ever

What connects the animal scenes painted on cave walls in France 30,000 years ago, the 4000-year-old Epic…

Read

Perspective and Choice

From the stillness of perspective, you get to choose the quality of your experience. It is the…

Read

Three Ways to Embrace Team Appreciation

For leaders who want to make appreciation a year-round habit, this season of gratitude offers us a…

Read

What Story Are You Telling?

Leaders who choose to see uncertainty as an opportunity will be leaders who preside over businesses that…

Read

The Power of Proximity: Why “Up Close and Personal” is The Best Leadership Strategy In Complicated Times

The Power of Proximity is not about whether we’re in the office. It has nothing to do…

Read

Five Tips to Foster a Culture of Appreciation

When’s the last time you openly celebrated the achievements of a team member? A week ago? A…

Read

Be a Step-Down Leader: A Radical, New Paradigm for Leading in Anxious Times

Your primary job as a leader – in your family, community, or career – is to lower…

Read

VIDEO | Lightspeed Venture Partners Partner, Arif Janmohamed: Trium’s Expertise Applied to Venture Capital Firms

Lightspeed Venture Partners Partner Arif Janmohamed shares how Trium applies its unique expertise to Venture Capital firms.

Watch

VIDEO | MX Interim CEO & President, Shane Evans: Coaching through a Leadership Transition

MX Interim Chief Executive Officer and President Shane Evans shares the impact of Trium’s coaching through his transition to CEO of the company.

Watch

VIDEO | Zoom COO, Aparna Bawa: Advice to Leaders Considering Engaging a Coach

Zoom Chief Operating Officer Aparna Bawa shares her advice for leaders considering engaging a coach to support their development.

Watch

If You Want to Survive a Downturn, Invest in Leadership

We are all starting to feel the effects of the downturn and I’ve seen a lot of…

Read