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 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:
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.
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.
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