Author: Joe Mackay

‘Showing we care’: creating employee empathy through stories

Inspiring a culture of caring 

For any company whose mission involves the provision of personal services, employee-customer connections are essential to success. For one global hotel brand seeking to become best-in-business, evoking employee empathy for those that they were serving was a key strategic priority. At one leadership conference, delegates used the power of storytelling to demonstrate what that priority looked like in practice, and inspire a culture of caring.

Showing staff solidarity

At one branch of this global hotel chain, two regular residents checked in. One: a father, seeking proximity to the local medical centre. The other: his son, checking in for his cancer-combatting chemotherapy treatment.

Speaking with the hotel’s staff the night before his son’s daunting treatment began, the father explained that his son had been feeling anxious about removing his hair. Not only, said the father, did it signal just how close he was to an incredibly challenging, unsettling period – but the prospect of being bald – conspicuously so – was an unhappy one. 

Solemn but stoic, and seeking to show solidarity – as any father would – with his sick son, he had also chosen to shave his head. Though he himself felt no distress, he was conscious that his son wanted to be spared the embarrassment he felt any time that he received a comment on his new appearance, and so asked the Head Waiter to pretend as though his son’s appearance hadn’t changed. 

Empathising entirely with this very reasonable request, the Head Waiter smiled and assured the father that no comment would be passed by any of his staff. With thanks, the father retired to his room. After he’d left and the restaurant staff were expressing their sympathies, one voice asked if they could do anything more. Could they show the same solidarity as the father had done? Could they make it clear that the son really wasn’t alone? Could they show, together, just how much they cared?

The next morning, as the father and his shaved son made their way to the breakfast table, promises were kept. No comment was passed, no telling look found its way onto any face – at least on the part of that hotel’s staff. 

But there were comments – comments of surprise and thanks and heartfelt gratitude, from both father and son. For four of the waiting staff had, overnight, clipped their curls and lost their locks: a gesture that was, though wordless, understood and appreciated more than its recipients could express. 

Becoming best-in-business

When this story was recounted by the hotel branch’s leader at that leadership conference, its emotional impact was understandably immediate: applause, smiles, even a tear or two. But its cultural impact throughout the company was more enduring. The example offered by that branch’s staff was shared across countries and over the years to inspire employees to create a best-in-business culture: a perfect example of personal, empathetic service, and a standard to be followed. 

To discover how storytelling can transform your business, download our: e-book, Storytelling: how to reset an organisation’s narrative to inspire change

The story of innovation

Lockdown has accelerated business trends by two decades in two months, with great gains in agility, remote collaboration and work-life integration. But as we emerge from crisis into prolonged reality, what are the costs to long-term creativity – and how do we overcome them? 

The 2010s was a decade which catapulted innovation from baggy noun into spatial and cultural blueprint. Offices became labs in which open space, hot-desks and even wayfinding was orchestrated to help the spark of inspiration tear through employee populations like, well, a virus. So essential was this spontaneous physicality considered that the Francis Crick Institute – a project of ground-breaking scientific collaboration and a steady stream of discovery – designed its cutting-edge facility specifically to ensure different ‘tribes’ could bump into each other and cross-pollinate their research. Such careful curation, engineered by the world’s most pioneering technologists, is a tribute to the distinctly low-fi stakes at play in the business of newness. 

Because the truth is this: world changing ideas have always been an informal affair; a product of time and place verses system of production. We think of the Viennese coffee houses of Freud, pre-revolutionary Paris, and studio 54 New York. We think of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, side by side, day after day, year after year, bouncing around the stories of war that would become behavioural economics. 

As we crash out of the 2010s into a pandemic reality which sees us bunker down and keep our distance, we have lost the opportunity of chance encounters and unstructured exchange that has always been the fuel of invention. As the inevitable economic pain sets in, and business across the board is forced to focus on efficiencies, concern is mounting over the loss of innovation in a time that will need its leaps of progress more than ever.  

A culture of storytelling  

Lockdown may limit chance encounters, but it doesn’t have to limit spontaneity. The question, for leaders, is not how to innovate, but how to orchestrate. The unit of innovation is storytelling; diversity is its fuel; unstructured exchange is its playground. To ensure story can collide with story,  and space has been made to catch its spark, a storytelling culture must be nurtured that may feel distinctly at odds with the tightly-knit, outcomes-focused blocks of time that many have adopted as a matter of survival during the last weeks. The informal innovation economy needs dialogue, observation, and trust; a willingness to share personal experience and insight that may not be a straight line to productive output. 

Leaders at every level have an essential role to play in building these relationships, role modelling this practice and sanctioning this time as a critical business activity. 

In hitting the reset button, organisations may find lockdown actually unlocks many old innovation blockers. Freed of old habits and assumptions, teams may break free of creative cliques and creative ruts. Curating new moments for conversation and collaboration, innovation – often owned by a handful of individuals – can be decentralised, giving individuals new licence to deploy their experience in new and inspiring ways. 

Build human connection 

Organisations that achieve this will be keeping good company. Unreasonable Fund, one of the world’s most innovative organisations, has built their globally-dispersed but tightly-knit culture on such ritualised story-exchanges in order to spark sustainable pipelines of new thinking and the productivity gains of deeply bonded team-mates. While lockdown will be taxing for everyone, businesses built on agile models of distinctly human connection will fare far better. 

This last point should not be under-estimated. In an age where lockdown is forcing us to rely on tools of artificial connection, we are collectively longing for moments of authenticity. Story has always been the original technology of human connection. As a world, as businesses, as humans, we need it more than ever.  

Cultivating customer connections: delivering meaningful change through stories

The customer retention challenge

The best businesses know that their success is – in large part – based on the willingness of their customers and clients to keep returning. The best businesses endure over time because they’re able to offer exceptional, personal customer experiences that show the world that they care. How? Through the power of stories to spearhead meaningful change.

Demanding margins

Companies everywhere want to showcase the interpersonal connections behind their day-to-day work, but few will ever be given as virally sharable a story as a leading car rental company were by Hayley Clark and the Mouriks. In a world of intensifying competition, skyrocketing customer expectations, and a need to meet demanding new performance standards – it was clear that offering standout experiences was the way to foster outstanding business performance.

Imagine, then: an elderly Australian couple on a sweltering summer night, having recently returned their car rental to Hayley and ventured out to seek accommodation ahead of their morning flight to Dublin. Imagine: Hayley, glancing out from her rental office four hours later to see that same elderly couple sitting outside the airport, looking weary and discomfited.

Imagine: your employee, Hayley, establishing that the Open Golf Championship has seen all of the hotels within Prestwick Airport’s environs fully booked, leaving no room for that elderly couple. Imagine your employee, Hayley, without hesitation, driving the Mouriks back to her house, feeding and watering them with a hasty-but-hearty fish-and-chip dinner, setting them up for the night – and then waking up to drive them back to Prestwick Airport in time to make their 5AM flight.

Spearheading success through storytelling

Most car rental experiences don’t end with the renters inviting the car rental clerk to visit them in Australia as a token of gratitude, but most car rental experiences don’t involve a customer service story as filled with generosity, selflessness, and a willingness to go the extra mile as that of the Mouriks and Hayley Clark.

When the Mouriks’ experience emerged, the company knew that it was an opportunity to share a story that encapsulated their values with the world. For their customer-facing employees, Hayley’s exceptional efforts offered an emotive exemplar of how they should engage. The bar had been set in spectacular fashion.

The results? Not only did the power of storytelling work internally to inspire the car rental company’s employees to improve customer service – and, consequently, retention – it was also seen in the widespread word-of-mouth marketing the company enjoyed across Australia – and beyond.

To discover how storytelling can transform your business, download our e-book, Storytelling: how to reset an organisation’s narrative to inspire change

Visions of the Future: VHack

When the Vatican announces a hackathon, you know there’s something up.

The ‘VHack’, held in March this year, called the world’s brightest students – from all ethnic, social and religious backgrounds ­– to ‘harness technological innovation to overcome social barriers and embrace common values’. Its 36-hour event would emphasise social inclusion and ‘human-centric values’ in an increasingly isolated, tech-driven world; interfaith dialogue, in the face of increasingly sectarian global narratives; and migrants and refugees, whose continued need for relocation and effective integration is ever more threatened by Europe’s populist moment.

Unsurprisingly, it was not a typical event. Yes, there were students, coding furiously through the night on a high of pastry and espresso. But there the similarity ends – and not simply because they hacked in rooms usually reserved for choosing Jesuit generals, or Cardinals dropped in to play with the VR headsets. In every walk of life, diversity is sorely lacking. And it is in our most celebrated hubs of mind-bending innovation that this issue becomes most acute – and the implications, for the solutions on which we are increasingly dependent, most profound. Hackathons tend to replicate this imbalance. Yet the Vatican, wielding a pretty hefty moral mandate – and, presumably, a healthy measure of self-irony – chose more inclusively. As a result, the final cohort of students represented over 30 countries. They came from every faith. And they were a 50:50 gender split. This, in the quest for effective new-age problem solving, is a big deal.

The results present us with a future world that uses technology to bridge divides, not widen them: from Credit/Ability: a ‘credibility’ scoring application that gives refugees a way to collate their history and build the trust they need to gain easier access to services like housing – to Vinculum­: an app that leverages machine learning to reunite families lost in relocation through the upload of a single photo and advanced face-recognition technology, or Faithstrings: a VR journey into different religions to create space for meaningful inter-faith dialogue.

This is empathy in design. It’s also a model for the VUCA world we’re in: nebulous, ambiguous, accelerating. A place where to succeed means to design at pace and think as a collective mind, across systems and disciplines and world views. Where to tolerate hierarchies, to divide generations, is to waste potential; where to dig your heels into your own assumptions, to privilege one perspective, just won’t cut it.

In a world where true diversity remains a box ticking exercise, and strong, speedy decision making is still the way we’re taught to gauge and demonstrate value experience, this can feel an awkward state of affairs. But at The Storytellers it’s one we’ve built into the core of our business: creating connection points to exploit the difference in skills, backgrounds, expertise and perspectives, and helping our clients to do the same. Like every muscle, collaboration needs work. But it’s worth remembering that our brains have evolved to think this way.

We are The Storytellers. We exist to move more people to do great things through the power and influence of storytelling.

What story will move you and the people around you to do great things in 2018? Share your story with us.

Moving more people to do great things

I visited a client last week and on discussing outcomes for the meeting, two key questions came up: “how can we motivate our people to do more extraordinary things? How can we get more of our people to believe that what seems impossible today, could just be a conversation or an action plan away?”

Their view was that their company’s legacy (as well as their own as board members) would be defined by the number of good ideas (great and small) that they were able to turn into action in the next few years. As with most companies, pace was a key theme – how quickly could they turn passive understanding into action? Could they inspire people to act now before the opportunities were seized by more agile competitors?

It is a conversation we have had with many boards over the past 15 years. Most have asked similar questions which can be summarised as, “how can we move more of our people to do great things?” It’s a question that lays the foundations for the most remarkable business journeys.

The Storytellers exist to move more people to do great things. It is a purpose that enables us to work with leaders all around the world to inspire change, transform their organisations and accelerate the journey their business is on.

In defining the story of an organisation we often come across ‘moonshot’ goals – now described in the dictionary as ‘an extremely ambitious and innovative project.’

There has been plenty written about moonshots over the last few years – articles harking back to Kennedy’s “landing a man on the moon” speech, ambitious scientific collaborations to cure cancer and tech organisations planning to disrupt long-standing industries. These are the headline-grabbing examples, but the truth is while most organisations have ambitious visions, few are able to spark a movement to realise them.

Many of these organisations fail to create a wider context, a rational and emotional understanding of the journey a business is on, a belief in the ability to change and the inspiration and commitment to contribute. This sense of personal and collective connection to a business journey provides leaders with fertile ground to empower teams to define the goals that will enable them to play their part.

One of our key learnings has been that authentic leaders, equipped with the capability and tools to inspire action, have a huge impact.

We’ve seen organisations rally behind seemingly impossible journeys. We’ve seen teams achieve goals that only months before would have been discounted. Most importantly we’ve seen leaders embrace change and inspire truly remarkable stories.

Of course, these stories are now helping to breed new cultures, reinforce a unique mindset and encourage behaviours that enable these organisations to rally again, to embark on their next journey to the moon…

Robert Tennant

Visions of the Future: James Webb

November 21st, 1962. James Webb – the man who will lead NASA to put man on the moon –– sits with JFK in the Cabinet Room of the White House and tells him to go to hell.

Ignore the race with the Russians, he urges the President.

The race is not the priority. See the opportunity.

We can crack the universe wide open if only we take the time to really look.

We can hold the laws of nature in our hands by looking backwards into the galaxies.

We can know infinity. We can know ourselves.

James Webb – a man, not of science, but of law and government – is a man of rare vision. In his tenure, he will invest in robotics that will pave the way for human space travel; he will give us the first strange glimpse of Mars, and in 1965 he will begin his fight for a NASA-funded telescope so large it will pierce the unknown with the light of human will. His inspiration will accelerate the innovation that has transformed our world. It will move generations to do great things in the name of exploration.

And what a world it is. What an age of impossible realities we inhabit. We stand daily on the shoulders of giants, rewriting the boundaries of our own potential at such a pace that we’ve become immune to wonder.

We forget that there are still new things and new ways to see, or think, or know.

But when the James Webb Telescope launches next year – travelling one million miles in thirty days, until it reaches deepest space – we’ll see the vision of its namesake made real and his story told in the fabric of infinity. We’ll witness the birth of our galaxy 13.5 billion years ago, preserved in waves of light that have faded into infra-red. We’ll see the embers of the burning fires where our atoms came into being. We may find new life. We may rewrite the rulebook of the universe. When we ask why, the cosmos might just speak back to us. And the deeper we look, the further back we’ll see; the bigger we’ll think; the more we’ll dare to seek.

That’s worthy of a little wonder.

We are The Storytellers. We exist to move more people to do great things through the power and influence of storytelling.

What story will move you and the people around you to do great things in 2018? Share your story with us.

Cake Matters

At The Storytellers, we are passionate about moving more people to do great things. Recently we teamed up with Macmillan Cancer Support to take part in the ‘World’s Biggest Coffee Morning’, a campaign to raise money to help nurses provide medical, practical and emotional support to people living with cancer.

For the event, we transformed our weekly team meeting as we swapped notepads and business reports for carrot cake and coffee in a bid to raise £100 for the charity. The team were inspired as we surpassed this target by some margin, raising an impressive £245.07 for the cause.

The coffee morning is a small example of how we at The Storytellers are united in our belief that through engagement we can enrich people’s lives for the better. Our core values do not just apply to business – they apply to everything that we do. A testament to the power of engagement lies in the Macmillan campaign’s success. By uniting people behind one common purpose, Macmillan Cancer Support have raised over £9,500,000 globally, helping to change the lives of some of the 2.5 million people living with cancer in the UK.