Storytelling: A Tool to Engage and Align Employees
June 30 2011 by Bill Baker
Corporate vision, brand positioning and employee engagement are standard objectives of any company undertaking a large-scale strategic planning effort. Too often, however, the bulk of energy is spent on the vision and brand positioning, with employee engagement as an afterthought. But employee engagement is critical to strategic planning’s ultimate success as they are the ones who will ultimately bring that vision and brand positioning to life.
Storytelling, when used strategically, can focus, align and inspire the human energy needed to realize the vision you have for your company and the positioning you want to create for your brand. It infuses your strategic planning work with meaning, making real for your employees the ideas and principles that emerged from your efforts. Stories help others see what you see, connecting people to ideas and each other while unifying their thoughts, aspirations and actions. Ultimately, storytelling can help you develop more focused and united employees who see themselves in your vision and brand positioning and understand their role in moving both forward.
Though storytelling is part of our everyday lives, there are ways you can use it strategically to engage and align your workforce. The following are four guidelines for using storytelling to ensure your employees fully embrace the corporate vision and brand positioning put forth by your strategic planning efforts.
- Present your strategic planning work in the memorable language of stories — not in corporate speak. A lot of strategic planning language is written more for a plaque or annual report than it is for real people, riddled with over-used words like ”optimize”, “integrity” or “innovation.” While these are all noble thoughts, they aren’t distinguishing, provocative or memorable. If employees aren’t thinking about or remembering the language of your strategic planning efforts, chances are they aren’t talking about it or, for that matter, acting on it.When the international association of fine hotels and restaurants, Relais & Châteaux, set out to define its brand positioning and share it with its members, it found new ways to talk about practices and perspectives that had been part of its organization for decades. They dug deep to unearth the evocative language they’d heard through the countless stories of their guests and members. They then used that language to convey the ideals that bind these 500 members together, as well as the unique experiences they create for guests around the world: concepts like “the soul of the innkeeper,” “a taste of the land” or “awakening to art de vivre.”
- Invite employees to contribute stories to your planning efforts while they’re still being crafted. People are much more willing to support something if they’ve had a hand in creating it. As such, look for ways to pull your employees into the refinement of your brand positioning and company vision while both are still under development. This is an effective way to create not only anticipation and excitement for the outcomes that emerge from a broader strategic planning project, but also early buy-in and commitment to those outcomes. This act also builds morale, as employees genuinely appreciate the chance to contribute to something so important.LifeScan Canada, makers of OneTouch and part of Johnson & Johnson’s Diabetes Care Franchise, enhanced the impact of its brand positioning by asking its employees to contribute to it before it was set in stone. Through an online StorySharing session that all employees were invited to participate in, they presented the core concepts emerging from their brand planning efforts and asked participants to identify ways these concepts were currently coming to life and ways they could come to life in the future. The result was not only a deeper understanding of these concepts (because employees could connect them to the current realities of day-to-day business), but also a wealth of innovative ideas for the future.
- Give your employees the means to share stories consistent with your strategic vision and brand positioning. Employee stories can breathe life into the concepts that come out of your strategic planning efforts, saving them from becoming “corporate rhetoric.” Stories keep your strategic vision and brand positioning current and tangible by reinforcing how both are coming to life every day—in the field, at corporate headquarters and everywhere in between. What’s more, as more employees share their stories, they take on greater philosophical ownership of the strategic vision and brand positioning those stories exemplify.PSAV Presentation Services, of Long Beach, California, has created a culture of corporate storytelling among its employees. They celebrate stories of people living their “Where technology meets inspiration” brand positioning, using management rewards, their intranet and social media to do so. Initial strategic concepts that were created over five years ago still live strong today through the stories employees hear and pass along to others; and PSAV credits those stories with helping maintain morale and focus during the difficult times surrounding the recession.
- Live by example by becoming your company’s “Storyteller-in-Chief.” When corporate leaders ask for new ways of thinking, talking and acting, employees will always look up the ladder to see if you are practicing what you preach. Do so by sharing relevant stories of your strategic vision and brand positioning coming to life. GE’s Jeff Immelt is a great example of a top executive who understands the power of storytelling to pull people into ideas and rally employees, partners and executives around them. So too is Zappos’ Tony Hsieh, who has a mental pantry of stories at his ready, which he pulls from regularly to illustrate a point, as he does here in this clip when he talks about his company’s commitment to extraordinary customer service.It’s possible for a leader to have a grand vision, but it’s not possible to turn that vision into reality unless countless others adopt it as their own and work tirelessly in concert to achieve it. For thousands of years, storytelling has been the way leaders share their vision and get others to embrace and act on it. As you embark on your next strategic planning project, consider using storytelling to more effectively connect what you’re trying to achieve with the employees you need to achieve it. You already know it deeply, though your company might not—at least, not yet.