This archetypal CEO is becoming a thing of the past — he is not really the most successful CEO of today and he definitely isn’t going to be the most successful CEO of tomorrow. Business is changing fast, and one result of this change is that there is a new kind of company in the world today driven by a new kind of leader. These new leaders are storydoers and the companies they lead storydoing companies.
The right-brain leaders of the storydoing companies certainly have an appreciation for finance and operations (I’m not suggesting that these skills are unimportant, they remain vital) but the true superpower new leaders possess is appreciation for the power of story. These leaders don’t settle for telling their story so much as living it, and conveying it through every action their companies take – from the products they make to the customer service they provide to the way they incentivize and reward their people. As a result, storydoing companies are nimbler, more efficient and tougher competitors than traditional storytelling companies.
Steve Jobs Was a Storydoer
One of the most famous examples of a storydoing CEO is Steve Jobs. When Jobs launched Apple, he really launched a story-led jihad against big companies who made complicated and ugly products that real people found hard to use. Like any good story, it had an appealing protagonist with an inspiring quest, and a few clearly defined enemies: IBM and later Microsoft. The story of Apple has been told through every action the company takes, from the breakthrough products to the often groundbreaking advertising. Jobs famously spent two hours a week in a room with his marketing partners looking at the concepts in development. This isn’t because he was a particular fan of advertising. It was because he considered everything that Apple makes from iPhones to ads a vital part of conveying the Apple story and therefore worthy of his personal attention. Rare behavior for a CEO today, still.
Just Do It
Nike is another example. It isn’t really a shoe company but rather a movement to increase human, well, movement. Mark Parker, CEO and President, lavishes attention on design and product innovation, but is equally obsessed with every aspect of the Nike story. He doesn’t draw the distinction between products, experiences (retail and digital) and communication. All of them have to advance the Nike story coherently and globally.
These two examples are pretty well known. What has gotten less attention is a new generation of storydoing CEOs who are taking the power of story to new levels, and wringing even more value out of it. These leaders are building healthy and in some cases massive businesses using no paid media at all. They are almost all do and almost no tell. This saves a huge amount of money, making these companies particularly efficient. They are doing this by first understanding the core narrative of their business and then by creating products, services and experiences with that story built right into them — no need to tell your story when you are living it. In these companies story isn’t an afterthought. It is built into the very fabric of the business.
Red Bull and Zappos Represent a New Model
The best example of this new kind of leader is Dietrich Matechitz at Red Bull. He launched a story about living life to the extreme. He enacts that story by selling cans of energy drinks but also by creating a stunning array of experiences and content that advance that story. These Red Bull funded events, ranging from air shows to snowboarding movies to sports teams allow for the Red Bull faithful to be immersed in its story as well.
Tony Hsieh founded Zappos on a story about making shopping for shoes easy and fun on the internet. Tony realized that the key to his success wasn’t advertising; it was amazing customer service, which was where he focused most of his attention and resources. Tony built an 850-million-dollar business pursuing this strategy and then sold it to another storydoing CEO: Jeff Bezos at Amazon. Jeff is famously quoted as saying that at Amazon, they believe that advertising is just a tax you pay for lack of innovation – more pure storydoing thinking.
Some lesser known, but ultra-hip storydoing CEOs, including Eric Ryan at Method, Tory Burch, CEO of the fastest-growing fashion brand, and Kara Goldin of Hint Water, all understand the key tenet of storydoing: their companies are living their story.
At the recent Wired Conference in New York City, Neil Blumenthal, of storydoing eyeglass company Warby Parker, revealed the four criteria for how his company determines action:
- Will it add to the Warby Parker story?
- Is it surprising?
- Will people want to share it with others?
- Will the world be a better place as a result of it?
And the list goes on. Today there are hundreds of these storydoing companies. If you are running a traditional storytelling company, these leaders should have your full attention, because there is emerging statistical evidence that storydoing companies are, in fact, more efficient.
The CEO as Writer and Director
In future, the primary responsibility of a CEO is to be the person most conversant in the overall story of the company. It is a story that has to be conveyed effectively and compellingly in different ways and actions to different constituencies, not solely through marketing. The future belongs to these storydoers. If you are a CEO today or if you aspire to be one, you need to begin to balance your well-developed left-brain skills with some story training for your right-brain. The great leaders of tomorrow will make understanding and telling the story of their company both a shared responsibility across the whole organization and a core value of the company. If you do this, you (and more importantly, your shareholders, employees and customers) will reap big rewards.