Category: Article

Leaders! Kill the conference, make a moment

If ever there was a month where business as usual seemed more doomed than ever, April 2019 was it. Extinction Rebellion campaigners turned London’s busiest street into a post-apocalyptic refuge and blockaded our financial centres. A mass-movement of truant British schoolchildren shamed political inaction with 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg at the helm, who reminded Parliament that the UK’s oft-cited 37% carbon emissions reduction is actual a paltry 10% when aviation and shipping are accurately accounted for. Needless flying or travel of all kinds – in the days of sophisticated technology and tight budgets – is an increasingly indefensible business cost. Time is being called on the once-yearly, high-cost, low yield leadership conferences of yore as the pivot is made toward more agile, low key models of commune. 

There’s little to mourn in this outdated model. But leaders everywhere should hesitate before abandoning collective experiences entirely. Here is the debate as perfectly laid out by two passionate climate activists on the weekend news. 

The first, a lifelong Greenpeace member, has not flown for 20 years. He sees no choice in the matter: the only solution is for individuals to be the change they seek in the world without compromise. The other is a UN climate change advocate. Her work, she argues, necessitates flight; she relies on moments of face-to-face exchange and human connection to push through the policies that would otherwise remain as lifeless as a Skype screen.  

Change makers of any kind know the power of face to face moments and harness them to great effect. For business leadership teams recalibrating to the pace of change and the pressures of the VUCA environment, these moments are arguably more essential than ever – and the time is ripe to abandon the status quo and yield dramatic new levels of ROI. 

So what are the benefits of real-world face time and how can we ensure we’re maximising its advantages? 

The big benefits 

 1. Contextualised understanding

We’re all familiar with optical illusions. The letter B suddenly looks like a 13 when surrounded by a 12 and 14; the vase that becomes two faces in profile. Strategy, much like optical illusions, looks very different without the right context. Shared context is the key to shared understanding. Shared understanding is the key to aligned and accelerated execution. In these disruptive times, some messages just need space to be shared, explored and absorbed. Exploring as a collective also allows leaders to broaden their own horizons and reframe the paradigm in which they operate, reinforcing their own connection to the strategy and to each other. Miscommunication and disengagement are hazards that can drastically slow down execution.

2. New mindsets

It takes a lot to break patterns of thought and see the world differently. But being plunged into a new environment, new ideas and new experiences is a surefire way to fast track the shift. Hearing real stories and having real exchanges in thoughtfully curated ways, with thoughtfully curated people, is another. The value of this sustained immersion is something no amount of high speed broadband can beat, and high impact events harness environment, storyline and activity to amplify this impact. 

3. Collaborative momentum

The manager of a major logistics business once proudly told me about his innovation plan: ‘Our team is going to spend the first four years evaluating where we need to innovate’. World champion sports teams know that off-site events are the best way to rapidly deconstruct tribes and build new ones, emphasising a common identity and agenda to break down silos and forge powerful new bonds. All team work is about trust and relationships; businesses looking to tap into the power of teams and global collaboration rely on these alliances just as much. Events also catalyse collaboration by tapping into the wisdom of the crowd to unearth barriers, solutions and opportunities in real time – giving leaders an unparalleled view of what can be done, and how best to organise to collectively achieve it, yielding value long after the event is done. 

The why

In their book The power of moments: why certain experiences have extraordinary impact, Chip and Dan Heath illuminate why certain events have such a disproportionate impact on the way we think, feel, act and behave, and how we can all harness these qualities to become authors of defining moments that create powerful shifts. 

The most powerful experiences leverage four key components. 

  1. Elevation: experiences that rise above the routine; that make us feel joyful, engaged surprised and motivated; that ‘break the script’, heighten the senses or raise the stakes.  Elevated experiences create an emotional peak that goes the distance – something organisations dramatically underinvest in, according to research. 
  2. Pride: experiences that commemorate people’s achievements by recognising others and celebrating meaningful milestones; that help us ‘practice courage’ by ‘preloading’ our responses to moments that require us to step up and meet a challenge. 
  3. Insight: experiences that deliver realisations and transformations – for example, by building in learning opportunities that help people ‘trip over the truth’ and experience revelation; activities that challenge us to stretch to new goals and get comfortable with the risk of failure. 
  4. Connection: experiences that bond us together by uniting us in the struggle towards a meaningful goal; create a synchronised moment of endeavour; and forge new relationships by responsiveness to each others’ needs. 

At The Storytellers, we use narrative structure and story-led design to leverage these components, creating meaningful experiences that help leaders all over the world kick-start movements of change in their business.

Leadership wisdom: becoming the mentor

The Hero’s journey is a well-trodden path when it comes to storytelling, and the world of business is no exception. Seeing your organisation through the lens of a journey that takes you through through a series of emotive and meaningful steps of change has proved to be a formula that truly helps businesses turn situations of despair into ones of resurrected promise.

So this is one great use for the Hero’s journey in business: the portrayal of who we are as an organisation in order to engender greater understanding of the journey that we are on and drive visible change in service of that same journey.

But there is another aspect to the Hero’s journey that is sometimes overlooked in how businesses apply storytelling as a vital internal capability. A way of seeing that considers the key characters in the Hero’s journey, as well as the journey itself – and in so doing, shines a light on the intergenerational and interpersonal challenge that we see dawning across the world.

Across the world, the faces of companies are changing – literally. Bosses are getting younger, people are retiring later in life, and less people than ever are electing to spend their careers climbing a single company ladder – succession planning in the midst of all of that is frankly a nightmare, and the statistics show it. According to Harvard Business Review, a 2010 study revealed that only 54% of boards were grooming a specific successor, and 39% had no viable internal candidates who could immediately replace the CEO if the need arose. It’s not an overstatement to say that this represents a global leadership crisis, and it’s one that we continually hear from our own clients too.

So how could looking at this global challenge through the lens of storytelling deliver fresh insight? If we look at the Hero’s journey in its classic, Joseph Campbell incarnation, we see that there is a key moment in the story that introduces us to an important archetype in the alchemy of the Hero’s journey. A figure who may not just play a key part in the overall arc of the journey, but also someone who plays a critical interpersonal role, and specifically in the growth and development of others.

Early on in the Hero’s journey, after our Hero has heard the ‘Call to Adventure’, we meet a character known sometimes as the ‘Mentor’, which we can take as a highly relevant term in this instance. Classic examples of this character include Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Obi Wan in Star Wars. (Unfortunately, as is so often the case, many of these classic archetypical characters are played by men – Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda is one of shamefully few examples in film and literature that show that women can be Mentors too.) 

To the Hero, the ‘Mentor’ is a friend, teacher, guide and role model all in one. Here are some of their key attributes:

  • They are entrusted with the care and education of their charge
  • They are equipped with the knowledge or expertise to nurture those who face the challenges ahead. 
  • They give what they know with no expectation of immediate reciprocation or remuneration, beyond striving for the greater good
  • Ultimately, in the context of the overarching journey, they come to represent accomplishment, knowledge, skill, and virtue.  

This is an immensely important and noble role that is played as the Hero’s journey unfolds. This person emerges very near the beginning of the story, guiding the Hero on the starting principles as they set about their challenge. Without the Mentor, the Hero’s journey is not remotely possible – meeting the Mentor is the first and most providential of many fateful sliding doors for the Hero.

So coming back to the shifting world of business in the 21st century, doesn’t that list of attributes sound like the kind of person businesses crave now, maybe more than ever? It seems that the present global crisis of succession planning could be improved if senior business leaders were able, at the right time, to see themselves more as the Mentor and less as the Hero… so how can businesses help their senior leaders to shoulder these responsibilities, and know when being the Hero of the journey actually means they need to be the Mentor?

The first step is to consciously understand that teams of leaders are also on evolving journeys of their own.

In life, we are all on a personal journey. We go through a series of changes, and change roles throughout this: daughter, friend, teenager, student, employee, partner, boss, grandmother – we continually redefine the terms we use to fundamentally describe ourselves… so why should the world of work be any different?

There’s an evolving leadership story that organisations need to get better at telling here, in order to help individuals make the transition from Hero/Leader of the organisation to increasingly playing a Mentor role. It’s one that doesn’t supplant the need for an organisation-wide narrative, but rather expands and enhances the meaning of this for those playing a leading role within it. By understanding our role in an organisation story as a fluid and changing one, business leaders will be better placed to respond to the key drivers of that narrative, over time.

The second step is to recognise that the relationship between Mentor and Hero is in fact a symbiotic one – both parties can learn from each other.

Chip Conley, a well-known thought leader on the theme of intergenerational change in the world of work expands on this theme in one TED talk in particular. Conley vividly recounts his own experience of intergenerational relations at work, sharing a story of his time as a seasoned veteran in the world of hospitality entering the tech start-up world of Airbnb. 

Self-effacing and humorous, Conley acknowledges his own lack of expertise and knowledge of the tech world… but counters this with a sharp awareness of the ‘wisdom’ that he brought to the fledgling tech company, and the endorsement he received in this way from his younger, more tech-savvy colleagues.

Conley sees himself as a ‘Modern Elder’ in this regard, and this is effectively another way of describing the ‘Mentor’ role in the Hero’s journey. What is different about Conley’s perspective is that he wisely identifies that the learning curve is not just for the younger party – and this is something that ought to draw senior leaders closer to younger counterparts as they begin their journey to becoming the leaders of tomorrow. These interactions ought to be taken in the spirit of mutual benefit – the latest industry and technological understanding meeting with timeless business savvy.

By framing the topic of generational change in the world of work in a symbiotic manner, Conley shows one key factor in how businesses can find a way out of this challenge – to encourage both ends of the generational spectrum to value what the other can bring, and encourage a culture of mutual learning through dialogue.

The third step is to frame succession planning through the lens of legacy – a single, rich word that unlocks a new way of thinking.

Rather than focusing on the fact that senior leaders are effectively stepping down as the Hero of the journey, there is an opportunity here to reframe this. If we do see ourselves as on a personal journey, then we must accept that there comes a point where that journey comes to an end in the shape of retirement. Looking at this key milestone in a career gives senior leaders the opportunity to then consider what will remain – what legacy will be left when they depart the stage.

Not only does this give scope for leaders to begin to come to terms with their own retirement, it also frames this in a positive light. ‘What good can I do before I retire… how can I better prepare future leaders for my absence… can I be remembered as much for the foundations I laid for the next leadership team as for my own contributions as a leader…?’ All these are questions that can be asked and explored as a collective leadership team under that single, powerful word – legacy. 

So, the present challenges of succession planning demand a different approach, and there are three simple questions that draw on the power of storytelling to frame this:

  1. As a leadership team, what is the journey that we are on?
  2. Who can I reach out to and develop a mentor relationship of mutual benefit with?
  3. As a leader, what is the legacy that I want to leave?

Thinking of the evolution of an organisation through the lens of storytelling does not solely have to be a case of mapping progress according to the steps on the Hero’s journey. The Hero’s journey is more than this – it is the alchemic combination of different roles, different skillsets, different moments along the way that bring a series of revelations and illuminations that make overcoming the challenge possible. 

Recognising and celebrating that these different archetypes within our own organisations have different wisdoms and learnings to share along the way is vital. Helping senior business leaders recognise that their true value has imperceptibly evolved, and now lies in playing the role of the mentor, rather than that of the Hero, is a mindset shift that brings generations closer. And helping leaders to focus more on the legacy that they will leave as Mentors of the next generation may just start to address the current generational gap in the world of succession planning.

A system of stories: weaving stories into organisations

Have you ever wondered why it is that parents and caregivers spend so much time telling stories to children? They are teaching them values and morals but in a way that children can connect with: they feel the story and are able to internalise what they’re hearing rather than if they were simply told what to do and how to act.

To lead and influence people, you must have ethoslogos, and pathos. Ethos is character or credibility, which is necessary if you want people to believe what you say. Logos is about the logic or reason of your argument. Pathos is about emotion. A good story inherently has ethos, logos, and pathos. If one of those elements are missing, it either fails to take us along for the ride or leaves us feeling disengaged and unsatisfied. In our world today, we can observe the impact of populist narratives that are severed from ethos or logos, and instead fueled almost purely by pathos. Pathos is the engine room of action – but it must be values-based and checked by its cool headed counterparts to drive positive outcomes.

In the world of business, where logos has long reigned supreme, pathos and ethos are still under-utilised tools. It’s not uncommon in business, negotiations, law, and politics to hear the advice: “leave emotion out of it.”  Yet emotions can be leaders’ greatest asset. The range of human emotions is wide and deep, and effective leaders access emotion to connect with those they hope to inspire. They guide us in our decisions and choices; it’s through emotion that we learn what we care about– and through emotion that we are most often compelled to act. Consider that the root of the word emotionis the Latin mot, which means move. It’s no surprise that motivation shares this root. We are motivated by that which moves us to act. This is why, at The Storytellers, ‘move’ is an important word: core to both our purpose (to move people to do great things) and the value we bring to businesses in moving people to accelerate change and transform performance.

Pathos fosters motivation and builds connection between people and their leaders. But for what they say to mean anything at all, leaders must first establish their credibility through ethos. Positional power is no longer enough; we want leaders to show moral credibility and demonstrate their values through action. In this time of heated identity politics, the values we subscribe to as individuals and collectives is arguably more important for leaders to express than ever.

Ethos is also core to the way we engage with, and learn from, our leaders. Across cultures, children’s stories tend to culminate with a clearly articulated moral. As we get older, we outgrow the need for an explicit moral, yet we never stop drawing lessons and morals from the stories we hear. We gravitate towards characters who are complex and conflicted because we relate to them and learn from them: they feel human. It’s true that sometimes they make choices we wish they wouldn’t. But in a good story, we have a solid sense of who the person is, how they think, and what they feel. We can learn from both their successes and mistakes because we understand how they got there, what drove their choices, and how we might act in similar situations. Both “good” and “bad” choices teach us something – about the character and ourselves. We watch them wrestle with their values, and we learn about the type of people we could be and the choices we should make.

And expressing shared values is very good for business. Professor Paul Ingram’s work on values in business and leadership found that employees experience a huge motivational boost when their values are recognised – comparable to a 40% increase in salary. He also found that leaders who stay closely tied to their personal values seem more authentic and tend to make more ethical decisions.

As the way we work changes, values become more important than ever to sustain strong cultures. We’re witnessing the increasing gig economy, start-ups that grow from the ground up, open work spaces, remote teams and virtual environments. These days, organisations seem less like machines with a central control system, and more like organisms or ecosystems with interdependent parts working autonomously toward a common goal. Strong values and clear purpose give organisations the coherence and clarity to embrace decentralised working and flattening hierarchies without losing their collective identity. Finding a way to stay connected to this purpose and these values feels more important than ever before. And this is why stories are so important.

If we think of organisations as ecosystems, then storytelling should not only reside on the organisational level; it should permeate the whole system, from the level of the individual to the level of leadership. If people feed the story then the story feeds the people, and thus, a virtuous cycle is created. Inspiration both precedes action and comes from action. We often think of it preceding action: of course we must feel inspired before embarking on some new endeavor; interestingly though, the process continues feeding itself. Once we have taken action and seen results (whether successful or not), we are often re-inspired to continue on, to persevere, and to stay committed.

As a leader, it’s obvious that you need to know whether or not your people have done what they’re supposed to do; less obvious though, is that people also need to know whether or not things happened, as a way for them to mark the successes and failures of their teams and their work. Crafting an evolving organisational narrative is a way to continually maintain inspiration: incorporate stories of successes and challenges, and allow the story to be a living, breathing account of what is actually happening in the organisation.

For Individuals: When we take the time to connect with our own stories and understand our own why, we learn to identify and articulate the values that drive us. We constantly hear that the Millennial generation is one driven by purpose, but really, aren’t we all? To understand why we care about our work helps us make that emotional connection to it, which is both empowering and motivating. On the individual level, understanding our personal stories can lead to clarity of purpose and direction with an invigorated sense of passion for our work.

Within Teams: Storytelling within a team helps build solid relationships and creates a positive team culture. It may feel like a luxury (or a farce) to build in “story time” for teams, but it is definitely time well spent. The most effective teams I’ve worked on have been led by bosses who created conditions for us to connect not only as colleagues but as people. We scheduled 1:1 meetings in the beginning to share our stories, we had regular check-ins with the team, we celebrated challenges and victories together, and over time, our connection to ourselves, to each other, and to our work continued to develop. Real relationships help people invest in each other, creating the space for trust and healthy conflict, which ultimately leads to better, more creative ideas.

Crafting a shared narrative also allows teams to identify clear roles for working together; when you can see how your role fits with the roles of others within the bigger story, it creates a team culture of interdependence and accountability. Stories situate us between the past and the future: knowing who our teammates are and what they care about helps us see where we’ve come from as a group, and where we’re heading. When a collective narrative is built on the values and experiences of its members, it’s much easier for people to connect to it and feel a sense of ownership. You can respond and adapt more quickly to change because you don’t need to stop and ask about everything; you feel confident making autonomous decisions knowing they’re well aligned with the goals and mission of the organisation.

Across Teams: Between teams, storytelling can establish common ground and a shared language for effective collaboration. Stories promote understanding across difference; when cross-functional teams work together, articulating what they are doing and why through stories fosters clear communication and understanding. As teams continue working together, they are ultimately weaving together a larger, macro-level narrative, which is beneficial for the teams themselves, and also for the development of the organisation.

There is so much data being collected everywhere today, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Unfortunately, this data, which could be incredibly valuable for people all throughout organisations, isn’t shared as widely as it could be. It can be challenging to communicate the data in a way that feels meaningful and relatable to people who are not close to the research. So, tell a story. Stories are a great vehicle of data translation. The process of crafting a compelling story requires synthesis and understanding, and hearing the story then allows people to absorb and process the data more experientially. If they can feelthe impact of the data and care about it in some way, then the information is all the more useful.

Communicating high-level ideas in an accessible way shouldn’t be considered dumbing down, but rather meeting people where they are. And isn’t that really the point of collecting the data in the first place – to share it as widely as possible?

In his book “The Sense of Style,” Steven Pinker says academics tend to write in complex ways to maintain a level of status, when they could (and arguably should) be sharing their valuable research in a simpler, more accessible way. Stories communicate complex ideas in simple terms – a single moment in a story can offer deep lessons, identify clear tensions, carry subtle nuance, and teach a moral all at once. A cohesive narrative helps everyone stay on the same page, moving in the same direction.

In Leadership: Leadership is a capability not a position and it can be developed on any level. That said, however, there still exist certain positions that carry a certain level of power and influence, and leaders in these roles can benefit tremendously from the power of storytelling. When a leader seeks out the stories of those around them, it not only makes them more accessible, it also enhances their ability to strategize.

Growing up across continents, I’ve spent most of my life moving in and out of new cultural environments. In each new place, survival meant adaptation, and I learned firsthand the value of understanding context as a first priority. It’s impossible to know how something should be changed before you know what it’s about, who it affects, the context that shaped it, and how it plays out in practice. While this may seem intuitive, haven’t we all dealt with the outsider who comes in claiming they know what’s best for us?

When leaders listen to personal stories of the organisation, it serves two important functions. Leaders can see the larger macro-narrative of the organisation as a whole, and people feel that their voices are being heard and that they matter. The pulse of an organisation is in its stories. Leaders should look to stories as a source of strategic planning: What stories are you hearing? Which ones are most frequently repeated? By whom? What stories aren’tyou hearing that you would like to be hearing?

Stories and strategy are linked. A leader who really listens, noticing both what is present and absent in the stories they hear, has a better sense of the reality on the ground, and can identify the gaps of where and how they should strategize.

Leaders who share their own stories have the power to build more trusting, authentic relationships.Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, who researches warmth and trust in leadership, says these two traits are incredibly valuable in good leadership. In the Harvard Business Review article “Connect, Then Lead,” Cuddy and her colleagues share that “…research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.” They explain that building trust in organisations also “increases information sharing, openness, fluidity, and cooperation… and facilitates the exchange and acceptance of ideas.”

Though we often hear about the power of vulnerability, leaders still hesitate to show too much, fearing they may be seen as incompetent. But admitting that you see gaps and don’t yet know the answers is not a sign of weakness; rather, it shows trust and humility. It’s an invitation for others with expertise and knowledge to step forth and add to the existing narrative, serving to empower more people and gaining buy-in along the way.

When Jim Ryan, the former Dean of the Graduate School of Education, began his tenure at Harvard, he started out with a listening tour: for six months, he led with curiosity. He took time to listen and learn from people throughout the organisation and across various functions as to how things worked, who people were, and how he could best serve the organisation. He also opened up himself, honestly sharing parts of his own story, and offering open office hours for students, staff, and faculty to come meet him, ask questions, and share their own stories. It’s no surprise that Dean Ryan created huge and lasting impact during his tenure.

Storytelling of this kind also fuels innovation. Several years ago, Amy Edmundson, of Harvard Business School, coined the term psychological safety. “In psychologically safe environments”, she writes, “people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalize or think less of them for it… will not resent or penalize them for asking for help, information or feedback.”

In a world that prizes continuous discovery, this kind of environment is essential; if people don’t feel a sense of psychological safety, they’re much less likely to take risks, make mistakes, or learn, and ultimately, the organisation suffers. If storytelling is a valued mechanism in an organisation, it can establish channels of knowledge-sharing where people can learn from the successes and failures of leaders and peers alike.

An organisational story locates the organisation on a trajectory, so it is always in motion, from somewhere to somewhere – it does not stay still: it’s not stagnant or in a vacuum. People can rally around a good story! And as organisations learn and grow, they must constantly evolve; if storytelling is woven throughout various levels of an organisation, it fosters engagement, consistency, and plasticity.

Storytelling also brings humor and lightness to serious work, which can enhance organisational culture and prevent burn-out. As humans, we depend on humor, creativity, and joy to keep us buoyant in challenging and uncertain times. Organisations are no different.



Cuddy, Amy, J.C., Kohut, Matthew, & Neffinger, J. (July-August, 2013). Connect, Then Lead. Harvard Business Review.

Edmundson, A. (2002). Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams.In West, M. (Ed.). International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork, London: Blackwell.

Columbia Business School Executive Education, Ideas at Work. (October 4, 2018). Putting a Price on Principles.

3 steps to a healthy post-merger culture

Mergers and acquisitions are a science unto themselves: from defining an acquisition strategy, to negotiation, due diligence and implementation, the steps are many and each merit their own definition and exploration. But in the midst of all this complexity, how can one take control of the emerging culture, that elusive element that so frequently decides the success of these endeavours?

The story of how Quaker Oats flunked the acquisition of Snapple is a well-thumbed reference point in the world of M&As. In the spirit of brevity, and for those of you unfamiliar with the tale, here’s what happened:

  1. 1993: Quaker paid $1.7 billion for Snapple
  2. 1997: Quaker sold Snapple to Triarc Beverages for $300 million ($1.4 billion loss)
  3. 2000: Triarc sold Snapple to Cadbury Schweppes for around $1 billion ($700k gain)

It’s the very definition of a cautionary tale. In the space of a mere four years, Quaker managed to knock an eye-watering $1.4 billion off the value of a well-loved and well-performing brand… and in the space of just three years, Triarc managed to revive what was seemingly a dead duck into a sellable, respectable proposition once more.

So the question is: how did Quaker get it so wrong… and Triarc so right? As is so often the case, the answer is widely regarded to be down to a single element: the cultural dimension of how each acquiring company went about their business. 

As John Deighton of Harvard Business Review writes in his illuminating account of the fiasco: 

“There is a vital interplay between the challenge a brand faces and the culture of the corporation that owns it. When brand and culture fall out of alignment, both brand and corporate owner are likely to suffer.” 

At The Storytellers, our key focus and belief is that it is only by working to engage the entire employee base of a company in a shared culture that true, lasting change is possible. Our experience of working with companies going through M&As has shown us that there are three key emotional aspects to how employees can be engaged at the very beginning of life together, in order to lay the foundations for a healthy post-merger culture:

1: Celebration

One of the hallmarks of our narrative methodology is how we start our stories. Our experience overwhelmingly tells us that there is rarely a better substitute for a resoundingly positive start to the stories our clients tell – and this is arguably never more important than in the case of a merger and acquisition.

At the most basic level, there are fears that need to be dispelled. One company has ceded power and autonomy to another, one leadership team bows to the other. In these circumstances, it is so important to simply start by pointing out that not only is everything going to be just fine – it’s actually about refocusing everyone’s emotions on the huge opportunity to be part of something bigger and better, in scale, shared expertise and potential.

In the case of Quaker and Snapple, it seems that the circumstances got the better of Quaker. The acquisition of Snapple was largely a defensive one. With only one other brand in its beverage portfolio (Gatorade), Quaker was threatened by larger players with greater powers of economy of scale – as Leighton puts it, for Quaker the acquisition was a matter of ‘corporate survival’.

So it’s easy to imagine a distinctly un-celebratory beginning to the Quaker era at Snapple. Far from being framed as an opportunity for everyone to be part of something bigger and better, the feeling was one of Snapple being subsumed into a wider tactical battle, and one that they had little personal ownership of.

So start the journey on a positive note and show that everyone can take part in this shared success – by starting with a tone that speaks of immense potential, you at least make it possible for those heights to be reached.

Step 2: Recognition

It is particularly crucial to ensure that the leadership group of both companies (particularly those who have been acquired) are clear that just that they are valued, but to qualify why they are valued. Not only does this explain the reasons for the acquisition in the first place – it also establishes a positive, accepting culture that shows a desire to create a new culture that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In the case of Quaker and Snapple, it seems the case that this kind of approach and attitude was sorely lacking. Quaker already had a great success story in Gatorade: a company whose sales they had taken from $100 million to $1 billion over ten years through a textbook marketing approach. However, Snapple were a far different proposition, a different brand, and a different culture entirely. Far from recognising the culture and assets that the acquired Snapple had to offer, the leadership team at Quaker set about implementing much the same approach that had previously paid dividends at Gatorade with little regard to the differences in the two companies. 

By going through the initial step of visibly recognising what is worthy and valuable from both the acquired and acquiring company, it is possible to begin to glimpse a new, shared world together. 

Without recognising the values and culture of the acquired company, not only do host companies risk missing out on taking the best parts of the acquired company along with them, they also risk alienating the employees of that company. So often we speak with clients whose M&As of the past continue to haunt their corporate culture. Moving forward together and responding to new challenges, even years after the acquisition has happened, can become almost irrevocably bogged down in grudges quietly held for years. 

Get it right first time – reassure everyone that they are a key piece of the puzzle, and that their expertise and knowledge are valued. You won’t regret it!

Step 3: Expectation

The final part of this emotional curve marks the end of the beginning. Having firstly celebrated the merging of two great cultures, and recognised the value, expertise and capabilities that each company will bring to the table, it is now important to set a tone of expectation – as well as to clarify what the specific expectations are, for each half of the new entity.

Again, any M&A is likely to be fraught with apprehension around the process of fully integrating. By firstly celebrating the possibilities, recognising the worth that everyone is bringing to the equation, it is possible to speak frankly and confidently about the shared expectations that set the tone for how everyone now moves forward.

Positioning the expectations at this point in the newly acquired company’s emotional journey is far more likely to elicit positive reactions. It sets a tone of open and honest communication, and when open and honest conversations can be facilitated to deepen understanding about the detail of these expectations, so much the better.

In the case of Snapple, it is interesting to note how Triarc took a very sensitive approach to setting expectations of the new regime. Where Quaker came in with a prefab solution to problems that weren’t Snapple’s to begin with, Triarc immediately set a very different tone, bringing back a beloved character from previous marketing campaigns and moving with a speed and freshness that resonated with Snapple’s founding spirit. As Triarc CEO Mike Weinstein put it: “If we’d had a very structured process, forms to fill out, analyses to do, we’d have seen the risks, and we’d never have moved. Instead, we were able to move quickly, capture an early success, get the distribution channel excited again, and get the retailers back to believing in the brand.” The response was a huge turnaround in sales fortunes, and a renewed sense of belief in what Snapple stood for

Clearly not every post M&A situation will require such a response, but there is a clear lesson – when setting new expectations in the post M&A world, be sure to consider the prevailing brand culture that you are setting those expectations within. 

Every merger and acquisition will be different; have its own dynamic, its own challenges and opportunities. There is a clear lesson from case studies such as the Snapple-Quaker one: estimate the importance of culture at your peril. But behind this, we know that there is a simple, effective way to ensure that at least everyone is engaged in the new, shared journey that is beginning. By celebrating the opportunity, recognising all parties, and setting clear expectations, you give your M&A the best possible chance to move in a positive, fruitful direction.

Searching for service excellence at Ikea

A wonderful case study of how to improve customer experience and reinforce brand culture, Ikea USA’s recent organisational changes have had a profound impact on employee engagement – for the worse. A recent Business Insider article paints a picture of employees left confused, disillusioned and demotivated by the changes that have been rung in. 

The statistics are damning: Glassdoor reviews have dropped from 4.5-4.7 in 2015 to 4.1 in 2017, positive reviews have dropped from around 90% to less than 70% – but it’s the employee quotes that really tell the tale:

  • “I get yelled at at least once a day because a customer couldn’t find an employee and I’m the only person in that department. It’s like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m with 12 other customers.”
  • “We were their biggest cheerleader. Now we’re kind of hesitant to answer questions from customers.”
  • “I’m this new employee taking this test and they’re asking me questions and it’s like — I don’t even know what this question means. I don’t even know what this role does.”

While this is undoubtedly wince-inducing reading for Ikea leaders, the direct commentary from current Ikea USA employees makes an absorbing case study for those investigating the dos and don’ts of handling organisational change on a nationwide scale. And this is the first thing to note from this cautionary tale – while the statistics frame the problem, it’s the verbatim feedback that really hits the hardest. The salient words spoken by those who are customer-facing represent Ikea’s biggest problem and, interestingly, they also point towards the solution.

Essentially, Ikea moved to effect two key areas: customer experience and reinforcing its brand culture. The introduction of the ‘O4G’ policy was intended to meet both these needs by redefining worker roles. According to Ikea, the objective was to “empower our co-workers to meet customers’ expectations in today’s multi-channel environment, and strengthen our position in the fast-changing US retail environment”, which all sounds sensible enough.

The challenge for Ikea therefore was to simultaneously create a radically customer-focused culture, whilst simultaneously retaining the internal and external culture that had made them one of the strongest brands worldwide. On paper, the customer-centric approach was simple: at a high level, employees previously specialised by department were now distinguished according to how customer-facing they were. Of the new roles, ’active sellers’ were carefully selected from existing ‘sales employees’ as the most customer-facing, sales-oriented team members. The other major structural change came from merging employees from restaurant, returns and cashier departments into a single ‘customer services’ function.

So what did employees take from these changes? The comments and anecdotes available to us are strikingly focused on certain topics, and those topics are predominantly negative in nature: pay disparities, lack of understanding of the new roles, lack of clarity from managers, and perhaps most importantly, a lack of understanding of the purpose of the new roles. 

It is this final topic that is worth most investigation. Purpose is perhaps never more important than when experiencing change, and this is surely one of the reasons why in the 21st century more than ever businesses are telling themselves to start with ‘why’. Starting with the ‘why’ would have been highly recommendable for Ikea in this instance. When restructuring roles, and changing well-grooved, intuitive understandings of team dynamics, it is essential to go back to the simple idea of ‘why’ we act and behave in certain ways at all. To underestimate the importance of this while roles were being combined represents a major oversight on Ikea’s part.

Moreover, it seems in this case that employees were largely left to create a new sense of purpose for themselves – it should be highly worrying for the senior leadership in the business that managers are mentioned by employees as being equally confused about the purpose and meaning of the new roles too. Engaging this key layer of the organisation is a critical factor in how the rest of the employees find a sense of purpose in their designated roles. It’s quite shocking that any manager leading a team through change would be so spectacularly unequipped to give context to team members as to what those changes meant, and how the team should respond – and yet this is exactly the story that is emerging from inside Ikea USA.

So the fact that the majority of the organisation was seemingly left to its own devices to understand the purpose of their newly-formed roles is undoubtedly a root cause and contributor to the other issues Ikea face. But the wider issue is the impact that all of this has had on Ikea USA’s brand culture. Here again, we hear more stories and quotes that underline the sense of rot that has set in. While Ikea has maintained a consistent brand voice externally, the different employee accounts suggest that internally, the tone has changed: “they’re doing all of these tiny things that are all adding up to us not being a good company to work for anymore” said one. So the external voice is maintained, but the employees feel forgotten and marginalised. If the idea is that the same demoralised employees are the ones expected to go out and deliver the bold new vision of customer centricity, it’s hard to see this playing out well for Ikea in the long run.

The notion that the internal and external brand of a company are two sides of the same coin is not a new one, and clearly there is room for difference between the two – but it is apparent that Ikea is not getting this balance right. Room must be found for customer-centric organisational change to accommodate employees and the idea of ‘what’s in it for me’, and it’s clear that Ikea did not sufficiently speak to this. Whilst one could attribute this to oversight, or analyse the quality of the company-wide discourse that ensued following the introduction of the O4G initiative, the critical factor is this: were managers equipped with a framework for the conversations that would inevitably take place through the changes?

The sense is that the leadership contingent of Ikea USA was simply not given the preparation, tools or training to properly guide their teams through the restructuring. ‘A framework for conversation’ was lacking – a roadmap to guide employees through the journey that lay ahead, and to enable dialogue that simultaneously crystallised the new sense of purpose that the changes entailed, the new behaviours that were required, and a sense of what new benefits employees could look forward to. It’s not enough to just define those aspects and communicate them over time – it’s the synthesis of these different elements into one idea that enables leaders to clearly and consistently make sense of the everyday for those around them. If you want to improve an area of your business like customer experience whilst consolidating and reinforcing brand culture, you need this framework for your leaders. It’s fundamental.

The feedback and thoughts from the actual employees on the shop floor at Ikea attest to an internal concept of customer experience that is at best delivering incremental improvements, and at worst, is the early warning signs of a crumbling brand culture. So while the stories are undoubtedly worrying for the leadership, the good news for Ikea is that the employee comments give an honest account of the problem, and this is where the manifestation of the problem can become the solution.

Illustrative stories of this nature are vital to an organisation. When times are bad, they illuminate problems and make strategy very real. When times are good, they serve to show why the changes are to be believed in, and indicate to those who are not quite there yet that there is a place for everyone. So one key approach for Ikea would be to focus on identifying stories that validate the structural changes, present the case for why everyone can feel a new sense of purpose in their new capacities, and also ensure that the picture is a holistic one. Embedding a storytelling faculty of this sort becomes both a barometer and a loudspeaker for company culture.

It’s the synthesis of the illustrative stories with respect to a single, dominant, strategic narrative that gives managers the chance to maintain clarity for their team during times of change. Time and time again, we have seen that an integrated programme that puts these two key storytelling pillars at the heart measurably delivers for our clients, and creates a long-term internal capability to manage future change too.

At The Storytellers, we know that listening to employees, ensuring that everyone has a voice and is recognised, and celebrating the everyday stories that inspire and give meaning through times of change are the key factors in how structural change can deliver on the lofty promises of new strategies.

Ikea would be well advised to keep the conversation going – and make their next goal to create and celebrate new stories that truly show the benefits of change for all.

The mnemonics of progress

Here at The Storytellers, we like to visualise our stories. A narrative with a beginning, middle and end that has been visually represented, bringing words and images together in a synthesised manner, exerts so much more power than words alone. By showing the emotional trajectory of a story as an image that connects the key moments of that journey, the art and science of storytelling comes to life.

Which brings us to the seemingly bland looking image above: a simple stock price chart. This chart was not written by any one person, and it’s not particularly aesthetically pleasing. But as a story, it is utterly absorbing. It viscerally tells the tale of leadership gone wrong, sacrificed values, disastrous decision-making – and above all, a faulty, incomplete concept of progress that brought Volkswagen, one of the world’s biggest companies, to its knees. 

Much has been said on the VW emissions scandal regarding the idea of bringing values to life, that values cannot simply be words on a piece of paper. But I think it’s more than this. The challenge that Volkswagen failed to live up to is one that we continually see our clients wrestle with: how do we move forward without losing sight and sense who we are?

Fundamentally, it’s a question that leads to a deeper, even more slippery question: what does ‘progress’ really mean?

As you can imagine, there are countless ways to answer this: for you, maybe it’s technological – digital transformation is clearly changing the world we live in, and for the most part, for the better. How technology is changing our lives is one of the defining features of our era, and we can visibly see advancement in this respect. It’s obviously progress.

It may be scientific – indeed, our entire academic system is built on the notion that by pooling our efforts and resources, as a world we will be able to comprehend the systems and rules that underpin our entire existence. Our discoveries in the various scientific disciplines arguably inform every single other area of human thought, and this is a tradition that goes back for centuries – for some, the idea of progress is indelibly connected with scientific thought and exploration.

It could also be social – #metoo, black lives matter, transgender rights… arguably the story of the 21st century so far is of different sets of people rising up around the world to claim their place as equals. The liberation of all peoples has never been far from the broader idea of what human progress really constitutes, and this trend has shown no signs of slowing down in our era either.

Whatever your personal passions and inclinations, behind these different themes of progress that inform and shape the society in which we live and work, there is a more fundamental distinction to draw. 

Most prevailing ideas of progress are fundamentally forward or cumulative in nature. So for example, ‘technological progress’ presupposes that we will know more, be more capable, have greater resources tomorrow than we do today. Technological progress, as we tacitly understand it, probably would not involve replacing cloud storage with floppy disks or Uber with horse-drawn carriages.

However, it is clear that there is a growing sense in society that progress does not always entail a never-ending drive into the new and unknown. Indeed, when one considers the idea of environmental progress, it is evident that this kind of progress has many conservative aspects. Establishing colonies on Mars excepted, environmental progress is largely concerned with protecting the balance of our ecosystem; a balance that is threatened by other areas of human progress. Not losing the rainforests, ice caps and millions of threatened species would surely represent ‘progress’ in the environmental sense.

In the political sense of progress too, it’s striking to note that the two great shockwaves of our time, Brexit and Donald Trump, were both predicated and sold on the notion and appeal of in fact going back to another time when things were better. When it comes to the idea of political progress, we are seeing striking similarities across the Western world of people wanting to return to a better time, to a status quo that is already known and that people are familiar with. Even supporters of these movements would find it a stretch to classify this kind of progress as cumulative in the way that scientific or technological progress are.

In this sense then, there are two fundamental types of progress: one which is concerned with reaching ever greater heights, of voyaging bravely into the unknown – and one that is concerned with not losing what we already have, of retaining things that we have determined to be worthy. 

It’s not so much that one is right and one is wrong – it’s that in order to truly succeed and respond well to change, one must be prepared to synthesise these two concepts of progress. And it is here where we find the crux of the Volkswagen tragedy. To put it simply, the leadership of Volkswagen prized financial progress and growth above retaining the values that had made them one of the most loved and respected brands in the world. The result, a modern tragedy, is that Volkswagen’s executive team have spectacularly failed in the very thing that they set out to achieve.

So as a business, how does one go about finding this delicate balance between forging into the new and unknown, while retaining the values and identity that made a brand successful and respected by customers in the first place?

It is here where a strategic narrative is uniquely well-placed to dialectically fuse the old and the new, the future that we want sewn together with the past that we wish to retain. A strategic narrative necessarily incorporates the past, the present and the future. By agreeing the right elements for each of these parts, we take control over what we need to retain, and what we need to boldly build towards. It’s a behavioural contract and compass.

In this way, strategic narratives are a kind of mnemonic that we can all be held accountable to – by squaring the past with the future, we should find that there is nothing in our actions and behaviours today that are somehow outside of what we are saying is the way forward.

The illustrative stories that colour, enrich and bring true meaning to these strategic narratives are the lifeblood of a strategic narrative. Did any of the Volkswagen executives ever share anecdotes and stories that brought to life their value statement at the time – “Sustainable, collaborative, and responsible thinking underlies everything that we do”? It’s hard to imagine that any major, sincere efforts were made in this area. Conversely, it’s easy to imagine meetings and conversations that centred on how financial gains could be made, at any cost.

It sounds simple (and most likely a tad optimistic in terms of the intentions of the Volkswagen executive team), but I suspect the main problem at the heart of the emissions scandal was a lack of ability to see the whole picture at once. When we consider Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”), and what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’, we see that the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century continue to teach the same lesson: that until humans are given shorthand systems for behavioural judgment that simultaneously incorporate the past, an envisioned future, and a code for acting in the present, it is highly likely that how we choose to behave on a day to day basis will be desperately at odds with the desired destinations that, surprisingly often, we all share.

Strategic narratives and how we consciously connect the living, illustrative stories that happen around us are the solution to this problem. They comprise what can be called ‘mnemonics of progress’ – shortcut ways to hold in our hands the parts of our past that are worth bringing into the future, together with the bright new tomorrow that we bravely aspire to. It’s a heuristic that enables all of us, as individuals, as communities, as companies, to make sure that as we move into an ever more exciting, challenging and dynamic future, that we prevent what we have learned along the way, as a species, from being lost.

6 lessons from Apple Events

What is there to say about Apple that hasn’t already been said? As a brand, as an organisation, as a lifestyle… for so long now, it has been held up as the quintessential example of how a business can not only succeed, but thrive in the most demanding of eras. Search any airport bookshop, and you are bound to find a book or two claiming to share the secrets of its alchemic approach.

But while so much of Apple’s success is routinely ascribed to supreme technology, innovation and leadership, this week the world witnessed another vital element in how Apple achieves such phenomenal, enduring success: the enduring power of the live launch event.

Apple’s product launch events have become the stuff of legend, commanding the attention of a global audience and defining an entire industry. Here at The Storytellers, we believe it is no exaggeration to say that these events are an essential part of Apple’s success. As experienced producers of story-driven events ourselves, we know that there are certain key critical success factors to how Apple makes each year’s event a resounding success. Here are six of the most important:

1. Create a sense of intrigue – the global interest that Apple generates for its annual event is phenomenal. Of course, some of this can be put down to to the sheer industry-leading quality of their products. But get past the hype and there’s a fundamental learning here. As humans, we enjoy suspense, but we also crave resolution. Before the event has even started, Apple expertly keeps the sense of mystery as high as possible, taking its global audience from total secrecy… to revealing key details one-by-one, week by week… to sneak peeks on the latest products… all the way to the big reveal at the event itself, where expectations are both met and confounded. Effectively, the launch event becomes the next chapter in an ongoing narrative about the new Apple product, and about Apple as a whole – and it makes for an incredibly engaging, satisfying experience.

Working with each client ahead of their own Story launch, we know that it is so important to create the same sense of anticipation, to engage the same sense of innate curiosity in our clients’ audiences. A teaser campaign, securely anchored to the big messages and goals of the overall programme and which makes sure everyone is intrigued and involved before the big day, is truly the foundation of a stunning event.

2. Reflect the brand – when you picture an Apple launch event, what do you see? Most likely it’s something like a sparse stage, carefully lit, with a huge image of the new product fronted by a casually dressed presenter, and probably little else! It may look simple, but in fact this entire look is carefully manicured to precisely amplify and echo Apple’s brand values. Whilst the products themselves are the ultimate brand experience, Apple knows that it is vital to ensure that whenever it is in the public eye, in whatever way, the experience reflects everything that Apple stands for.

When it comes to our clients’ own events, we know that by gaining a deeper understanding of our clients (not least through the process of identifying their strategic narrative), we put ourselves in a position as event producers to holistically create an experience that truly reflects not only what an organisation stands for today, but where they need to be tomorrow. And although Apple’s events are predominantly externally focused, it’s just as important to get this right for internal events – especially when you are hoping for a community to take a new change journey to heart. This underlying confidence in the brand, and the fact what is being witnessed visibly reflects who we are, is so key to ensuring that we create the conditions necessary for real change.

3. Serve up a feast for the senses – Apple’s events are distinctly and memorably flavoured by the sensory experience they deliver for its audience. Minutes before the event gets underway, all Apple employees remain tight-lipped, taking the sense of anticipation to fever pitch. Only visual cues direct attendees to where they need to be. Then, as the show begins music, carefully chosen for maximum emotional impact, starts to play. Discussions and on-stage demonstrations follow, all linked together as a cohesive narrative. Finally, rooms are provided for people to get their hands on the latest models and have a play for themselves. As an example, see this wonderful video from the opening of the Steve Jobs theatre in 2017: words of wisdom from beyond the grave, the simple Helvetica font, the emotion of the piano in the background, the screens glowing like candles… Apple knows that to get everyone’s complete attention it is so crucial to engage the heart and the mind.

Without senses, we would have no experiences. Without experiences, we would not have memories. In order to create the most memorable occasion possible, we seek to engage as many senses as possible in the events that we create. In this way, the key messages of our clients’ stories have as many chances as possible to be crystallised as enduring memories that last way beyond the event itself. A stunning opening film that tells the story of the strategic narrative, the perfect lighting for all situations, creating opportunities for rich conversation, getting people on their feet and moving at the right time… choosing the right pieces of music to open and close the event… they’re all vital to ensuring that our events go down as wonderful, rich learning experiences for every single audience member.

4. Create a liminal space – ‘liminality’ is an anthropological term that, simply put, means the quality of being ‘at the threshold’. It’s a term often used in reference to rites… and when you consider the zeal and enthusiasm that Apple generates in its acolytes, it’s not a stretch to see their launch events as religious ceremonies of a very modern kind. 

The key to this idea, and where Apple again shows its mastery, is how the familiar and the unfamiliar are blended. So on the one hand, so much of what Apple does at its yearly launch events is repetitive – across most categories, Apple essentially repeats what it did the year before. The theatre-style seating, the look and feel of the staging, going through the product’s key features before giving the audience a demonstration of how it works… the consistency of certain elements brings a satisfaction, and reinforces trust in the brand.

But by varying the location, speakers and the products themselves, the familiar and unfamiliar are blended in such a way that creates a space in which heightened emotional responses are provoked, feelings of creativity and innovation are stoked, and the right setting for people to better absorb and reflect what they are hearing is created. 

At The Storytellers, we achieve liminal space in two key ways – firstly, the act of consistently sharing an evolving story in itself creates a sense of the familiar and the unfamiliar. In this way, consistency of form shifts the focus from less important elements back onto the key messages of the strategic narrative itself: much how Apple achieves maximum focus on its products. Secondly, we work with our clients to find the most impactful venue for their story launch events. Just as Apple may host its events at their headquarters, or at another venue in San Francisco, so we recommend venues that are not just practical, but also meaningful according to the particular client Story that needs to be told. 

Fundamentally, liminal space is all about creating an environment in which learning and development are stimulated, and it’s a critical factor in how we ensure that our clients’ stories are truly embedded in an organisation through powerful live experiences.

5. Get the running order right – in many ways, one of the great marks of success of the Apple launch event has been how it has survived the loss of Steve Jobs. Whereas Jobs would dominate the stage, sometimes taking up the entirety of a keynote speech, we now see Tim Cook adopting more of an MC approach, introducing different speakers, sharing the limelight and on average using up less than 20 minutes of the keynote presentation. Being malleable enough to respond to these challenges and maintain the same strong brand impression, given the vast differences in leadership, is a great achievement. Not only this, but Apple has also evolved to respond to wider social shifts – more women than ever share the stage with what once would be almost entirely men. One has to look no further than the recent recruitment of Angela Ahrendts, previously CEO of Burberry, to see that Apple takes every opportunity and angle to visibly demonstrate to the world that it’s moving with the times.

In another sense, each year’s agenda design also subtly reflects the key messages that are being shared and the focus that Apple wants people to understand. By choosing a certain order for the different agenda items, Apple sends a myriad of messages about how it is evolving, and how it now ought to be perceived. Getting the balance right for the shifting leadership team, and at the same time ensuring that a story is told through the way in which the audience are taken through each year’s new products, is surely one of the more unsung elements in how Apple consistently delivers incredible launch events.

In the same way at The Storytellers, we know that it is imperative to choreograph our different speakers according to the particular leadership style of the team that we’re working with, and to the key messages that are being shared. The time that a leadership team shares with its teams around the business is so precious; carefully co-creating our event agendas with our clients is a vital element in making sure that this is time well-spent.

6. Value solid technical production – so often, the technical production of an event is only newsworthy when it goes wrong: and Apple is no exception. At the 2014 Launch Event, viewers from around the world watching on Apple TV and online were stuck on a blank screen for the first 30 minutes of the event – a PR disaster. More recently, when introducing the iPhone 10 and trying to show off its new facial recognition software, the phone failed to recognise SVP Craig Federighi … and he was embarrassingly asked for a passcode instead. Such events not only impaired the audience’s chance to hear the key messages and understand what the new products were all about, but also came to overshadow the entire event itself. These were of course blips in what is generally seamless, top-drawer event production, but unfortunately it is so often the mistakes that people remember, and for Apple, these moments will go down in history.

Every year, we run many events for our clients – whether taking full responsibility for our clients’ story launch events or working with other production companies, our technical directors work tirelessly to ensure that our clients’ story events are remembered for the key messages and rich conversations that ensued with their colleagues; not that moment when the power failed or the screen went down. The value of an event that runs without a hitch truly cannot be underestimated. One wonders what Tim Cook would pay now to go back in time and avoid the calamities Apple endured in 2014 and 2017. When it comes to technical production, it truly is the case that a stitch in time is worth nine.

In conclusion: it is so telling that the most innovative, inventive, technologically sophisticated company that the world has ever seen continues to use the live event as the central moment in each year in which to share key messages and reinforce the journey it’s on. Despite losing the most iconic business leader that we have seen so far in the 21st century, Apple has unwaveringly persevered with its live events. Each September’s launch event is the focal point for so much of what it does… and there are no signs that this is about to change.

As experienced event producers ourselves at The Storytellers, we know from running countless shows that there are certain factors that will determine the success or failure of a live event. But if there is anything at all to be learned from Apple’s reliance on the live event, that most preternatural format for sharing information, it is simply this: that the impact of a well-produced, story-driven event reinforcing the trajectory of a business is truly limitless.

Narrative and resilience in the age of acceleration

When Mayor de Blasio issued a cap to licenced drivers in New York city in August 2018, his language was definitive. Uber and Lyft, and any other ride hailing app that could appear in the future, are congesting our streets and hurting our taxi-cab drivers.  Every month, for six months, a taxi-cab driver had taken their own life; reportedly driven to the edge by the plummeting value of their trade in a brave new world of algorithmic transport. These symbols of Silicon success – so lauded for the ‘gig economy’ they unleashed and the job creation they spared cash-strapped governments – were, in fact, destructive. Their free market momentum – on which this heartland, in this nation, had been built – was in need of a leash.

The message was clear. We can no longer afford to be laissez-faire about the pace of change. It’s time to take a hammer to progress; to buy back some time; and hope that, in the interim, we can recalibrate – as governments, businesses, and individuals – to a world now reinventing itself at an exponential rate.

For Thomas L. Friedman, whose Pulitzer-prize winning ‘Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations‘ offers a masterclass in our new global rules of play, none of this will be surprising. “So many people today,” he wrote in 2016, “seem to be looking for someone to be put on the brakes… or just give them a simple answer to make their anxiety go away”.

Today, in 2018, Moore’s Law shows no sign of slowing. The compounding forces of exponential technology, globalisation and climate change continue to accelerate change in almost every facet of society, for every nation on earth. The collision continues to feel, as Friedman observed in 2016, like the gut-wrench we experience in an accelerating car: the dislocation as we hurtle through one set of natural laws into another.

Because while humans are adaptive, we adapt slowly. On a societal level, our ‘social technologies’ – the ways that we structure ourselves to ‘capture the benefits of co-operation’ – are now so far behind the pace of change in our physical technologies that they’re increasingly obsolete. It takes roughly 15 years for society to play catch up. But our technology platforms are transforming every five to seven. This is producing fundamental ruptures in everything from ‘nuclear proliferation, bio-terrorism, cybercrime’, to the quiet but stark inequalities produced in societies no longer able to catch or equally share the benefits of advancement. Add to this the deep damage done globally to our social technologies by the years of recession and cuts, and that rupture becomes even greater.

We’re racing to catch up even as we’re begging to slow down.

This is also profoundly true on an individual level. Not too long ago, it didn’t take much to be middle class in the western world. We lived in world of defined benefits. Today, the collision of globalisation and technology has dramatically raised the stakes for all of us. The hustle is now a world of defined contributions. The fixed point of the American Dream – a job for life, the security of home, a clear path to tread – is now, Friedman observes, more like a never-ending climb up a downward-moving escalator. ‘You need to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, make sure you’re engaged in lifelong learning and by play by the rules – while also reinventing some of them. Then you can be middle class.’

And this pressure cooker has barely warmed up. Human skills continue to evolve at breakneck speed. Many are hurtling towards complete obsolescence; the most recent modelling suggests around 800 million jobs are at risk[1]. Simultaneously, we are confronting a global talent pool expanding at precisely the rate of digital connection. The ‘digital divide’ that has for so long limited ‘what you could learn, where you could do business and with whom you could collaborate’ will largely disappear within the decade. And this new talent pool is hungrier, more motivated, more adept at self-education; tapping in, for the first time, to the global flows of knowledge that leapfrog outdated educational systems.

This is an extraordinary shift. And in it lies, for all of us, nothing less than our future prosperity. Because when the digital divide disappears, there will only be one thing left: the motivational divide. ‘The future’, Friedman notes, ‘will belong to those who have the self-motivation to take advantage of all the free and cheap tools and flows coming out of the supernova’ – to those, in other words, who can embrace a state of continuous adaptation that optimises the right skills for our future world.

Because in the face of automation that will replace both repetitive and cognitive tasks, resilience lies in distinctly human capital: in communication, creativity, and collaboration; in the ability not simply to compute, but to empathise, to connect, to influence and persuade. These, Friedman argues, are ‘the massive, undervalued human assets to unlock – and our educational institutions and labour markets need to adapt to that’. They’re also assets that emphasise, more than ever, the power and necessity of narrative and storytelling as a primary skill and tool for every leader – regardless of seniority, industry or community – in a world that can no longer rely on old forms of power, or certainty, or security.

This is not an easy or natural transition. The chasms opened up by these accelerating forces continue to leave millions of people ‘desperate for navigational help and sense-making’ as they try to construct a new narrative that will help them recalibrate in this moment of great change.

And when this phenomenon occurs on a mass scale, a few big things happen. At a national level, democracies – dependent on the decision-making of an informed populace – cease to function. Populism rises as voters seek out the reassurance of simplistic world views and clear solutions. At an industry-wide level, organisations must contend with great swathes of apathy, disengagement and low productivity as people grapple to find their place in the new reality.

The emotional impulse, for all of us, is to simply stop; to dig our heels into our fear. And increasingly, we may see more and more governments constructing, as in New York, these moments of artificial relief. But the pace of change will not slow down. We must now accept that there are no more placid lakes. There are only rapids. And in the rapids, ‘every time you rudder or drag your paddle to steer you lose momentum – and that makes you more vulnerable to flipping over’. For businesses, for individuals as economic contributors, for problem solvers of any kind, the only solution is to throw ourselves into the currents: ‘to move as fast or faster’ and achieve a state of dynamic stability: a state of agility that no longer expects change to end at point B.

This is the challenge of our time: to build systems of true resilience into our communities. To win, we must reimagine the social contract between workers and employees, students and educational establishments, governments and citizens. It’s a tall order, and one that few of our leaders – of government and industry – have the stomach for in these post-recession days.

And yet there are shining examples of success littered throughout Friedman’s book. All of them share the pre-requisites for long-term behaviour change: a clear mechanism to motivate people, the provision of means in skills and tools, and the momentum to sustain the virtuous cycle. The most effective harness narrative as the mechanism to underpin, connect and amplify all three components.

In AT&T, the world’s telecoms giant, the advent of the iPhone and its role as network provider triggered an overnight transformation. To keep pace with the most innovative business on the planet, it would need to become a data business. To become a data business, it would need to rapidly reskill its 300,000 (mostly blue collar) workers. In doing so, it created a solution that today AT&T’s leaders call the ‘intelligent assistance approach’: a process which, at every stage, provides the blueprint for a mass-agile organisation of the future by ‘providing the scaffolding and incentives that make a new learning journey for so many people sustainable’.

The leadership team begin with a narrative that creates clarity and motivation. Every September, the leaders lay out a high-level narrative of journey the business will take in the next five to ten years, underpinned by the specific objectives of the next 12 to 14 months. ‘The idea’, says AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, ‘is to be totally transparent about where the business is heading and what the challenges will be.’ This is filtered consistently through the organisation so that, ‘by July, everyone has the message.’ By offering people an ever-evolving narrative to help them navigate shifting sands and re-connect to the purpose of change, Stephenson notes, ‘people say I get, I want to be part of it.’ The next question is ‘how can I be part of it? Those who decide they’re not up for the ride can leave’. This clarity of messaging means they lose 10% of their work force every year – but the space is filled by those who are willing to play a part and feel connected to clear sense of purpose.

Once they’ve created the motivation, Stephenson continues, it’s about ‘giving people the opportunity to pivot’: providing the means to upgrade their skills in an accessible, personalised format. Every employee is connected to an internal LinkedIn equivalent, where they can promote their growing range of skills and pitch for new roles. They’re provided with a personal learning budget, bespoke world-class courses designed with world-leading establishments – increasingly also designed to harness the cognitive impact of narrative and storytelling as a learning tool – and a suite of cutting-edge digital learning platforms. They’re given the freedom to pursue new skills and request new courses. In this way, each employee is empowered to play their part in the bigger story of change. ‘If you want to learn,’ according to Stephenson, ‘we’re all in because it leads to more engaged employees; that equals better customer service, more loyal customers, higher shareholder value.’ But the emphasis on self-motivation and autonomy is key.  ‘You can pick a different future and how to get there. But you have to optin.’

And embracing this continuous learning is designed to build a clear sense of momentum. Every person’s commitment is tracked through big data; those who learn more and better are put forward internally for promotions faster. As these stories of success are shared around the business, the desire to upskill increases. Stephenson is absolute in this intention: ‘people need to know that if I am clearly motivated to learn, I am going to get rewarded.’

The new social contract, in a company like AT&T, is this: ‘you can be a lifelong employee if you are ready to be a lifelong learner’.

The benefits are undoubtedly two-way. AT&T’s leaders are certain that this social contract is raising both the company’s average skill level and its morale. ‘We’ve taken our best and made it our average.’ Absenteeism down 30%, ideas are actioned faster and scaled through the company from any origin. ‘People feel more empowered, more connected, more engaged’. And it’s in these three words – if we can get the transition right – that we find the true promise of this accelerated age.

[1]McKinsey, 2017

Orchestrating with stories

Stories are a way to capture the relationships between things.” – Gregory Bateson

We live in complex times: organisations are constantly changing, teams are more diverse by the minute. And in our global world, people work across languages, cultures, and time zones on a daily basis. While this complexity certainly keeps things interesting, it can also be quite challenging.

In March, Deloitte released its report on Global Human Capital Trends[1], which surveyed over 11,000 business and HR leaders across the world. They found the “most pressing human capital issue” facing organisations today is the need for the C-Suite to break down their own siloes and collaborate. “To navigate today’s constantly changing business environment and address cross-disciplinary challenges, a company’s top leaders must act as one.”

Deloitte calls this model “the symphonic C-Suite”: the members work together as “a symphony of specialized experts playing in harmony— instead of a cacophony of experts who sound great alone, but not together.” There is a shift towards teams leading teams, and the goals of this symphonic C-Suite are: tapping opportunities, managing risks, and building relationships with stakeholders, ultimately leading to growth for organisations.

Storytelling is particularly valuable in these dynamic environments where many factors are constantly in flux. When dealing with complexity and many moving parts, it is important to see things in context rather than isolation. Stories capture the interconnected nature of things, allowing us to hold certain things constant as others are changing.

Returning to Deloitte’s model of the symphonic C-Suite, storytelling can be a key tool for leaders to communicate their own context and values to connect with their team, both in terms of who they are what they do. The goal of the symphonic C-Suite is to foster a collaborative team of cross-functional experts. Building effective cross-functional teams can be difficult: when we come from completely different areas, it can sometimes feel like we’re speaking entirely different languages.

Stories help bridge this divide by establishing a common language, helping us see that the different fields are not actually disparate languages, but rather different dialects of the same language. When we tell stories, we offer the listener space to process our experience through their own lens. We build connections and see overlaps that may otherwise have been missed.

If we hope to decentralise power structures, we need trust, a clear understanding of vision and purpose, and a combination of macro and micro views. With shared narratives, people can weave in and out of various roles, so long as the vision is always clear.

A professor of mine at university told me that years after taking her class, students wouldn’t remember much but they always remembered her stories.

And it’s true. We remember examples and stories because we connect with them emotionally. As an educator, I have seen how you can explain something to students for 30 minutes with no success, but give them one example and they’ve suddenly got it.

Stories give us something to latch on to and can be very effective teaching tools: they tell us what happened, how leaders acted, how people responded, and what the outcome was – in a clear and engaging way. They are examples of demonstrated action (or perhaps, inaction) that give us a chance to consider how we might behave if faced with a similar context or situation.

In an article in Harvard Business Review[2], Maura Thomas talks about the difference between intention and action. She quotes the famous psychologist William James, who said “your experience is what you attend to. And your experiences become your life.” Consider the shift several years ago to behavioral interviews over the old standard interview. Why do employers care about “a time when…” something actually happened rather than a hypothetical example of what someone might do in the future? Because we learn a lot from stories and behaviour: it’s demonstrated action in context.

They say it can get lonely at the top. Senior leaders can use storytelling to identify shared challenges and successes amongst themselves, helping to build genuine relationships and modeling for others to follow suit.

At The Storytellers, we view leadership as a capability rather than a position. So the question is: how can leaders empower others to actually take the reins and to develop their own leadership capabilities?

Most leaders are familiar with the case of the timid intern: the one who can’t make a decision on his own, can’t generate new tasks independently, and is constantly asking you what to do. Understandably, it’s hard to take the reins if you are not quite sure where to go.

Consider a jigsaw puzzle. People first identify task preferences, potentially based on their strengths (e.g., I’ll take the corners, you collect all the blue pieces). They can then work independently but must also keep an eye on what others are doing to identify points of overlap or connection. For any of this to work, however, the first and most crucial step is that everyone understands the goal: the picture on the puzzle box.

In organisations, the “picture on the box” is a shared narrative. It allows cross-functional teams to collaborate effectively; when teams and organisations craft a shared narrative, people feel a sense of belonging and ownership, and can see their own evolving role in the greater story. They can feel more comfortable taking on leadership if they know that they’re moving in the right direction and have a sense of the interrelatedness of the team and their work.

Stories also help us connect to our team members: understanding who they are and what they care about. As teams become more interdependent, they build trust and begin to feel accountable to one another. Strengths and weaknesses come to light and each person’s growth and development becomes a success for the team.

As a graduate student at Harvard, I worked with some colleagues to investigate the team dynamics of a high performing a cappella group. We observed weekly rehearsals and interviewed several members about what they felt made them so successful. The one thing we heard time and again was: we are all friendswe love hanging out with each other. It seemed their close relationships were not so much a by-product of being in the group, but rather, a pre-requisite to join; friendship was central to the group’s ongoing narrative and an integral part of how they on-boarded new members. The group agreed that the depth of their relationships was largely connected to the high quality of their musical performance.

The phrase “team-building” is thrown around so often these days that it has lost some of its meaning; it often ends up as a box to check or another PD exercise to endure. But the value of actually taking time to build relationships cannot be understated. It’s important to remember: strong relationships are the foundation of strong teams. And stories are the foundation of relationships. While data can give us information about things, stories also communicate the relationships between them. In fact, I like to think that if humanity could be measured, stories would be the unit.

Anita Krishnan
Associate of The Storytellers.


[1]Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends (2018).

[2]Thomas, Maura. (March 15, 2018). To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To. Harvard Business Review.