Storytelling lessons from company front lines

December 3, 2010, 5:28 PM UTC

Storytelling in business can just as easily save the day as it can make a sticky situation even stickier. Here are a few lessons learned from people who have turned to stories in their work.

Context counts

Ed Fuller tells of a dinner he had with eight Japanese bankers in the 1990s.

“I am the only Gaijin at the table, meaning white devil,” he said with a small laugh. “About half of them are very comfortable in English and many seem quite introverted. Whenever I get stuck for a topic…. I always fall back on history,” he said.

So he starts a discussion of the two capitals of Japan, acknowledging that he cannot recall the second one. The Japanese bankers cannot come up with it either…

But the young woman serving the men pipes up, “It’s Nagaoka.” The bankers looked surprised to hear from her — a server and a woman.

“You know, Japanese men don’t think Japanese women know these things. Then I made the faux pas of the century. I said ‘I guess things are changing in Japan.’ They said: ‘Not for the best,'” Fuller recalled.

The dinner continued and Fuller noticed the young woman no longer was bringing out dishes. He realized she’d been punished for being so outspoken. So he sought her out and found her guarding the shoes, the lowliest job in the restaurant. Fuller spoke to her for a few minutes, feeling guilty. He learns she’s a second year law student — and realizes Japan really is evolving.

The result: He’s developed a greater sensitivity to the culture — not just of the country but of the group he’s with.

The lesson: As you move overseas or conduct business there, you cannot always use U.S. context to make sense of the experiences and changes in another country. Stories must have a purpose.

Make it real

Last September, just as Pepsi Bottling Group was about to be reacquired by PepsiCo. (PEP), John Berisford, senior vice president of human resources for the Pepsi Beverages Company, convinced the executives at Pepsi Bottling Group to abandon their “long history of rolling out numbers and bar charts” for the annual global managers meeting.

“The future, to be honest, wasn’t clear. We couldn’t say here’s what we expect to deliver,” Berisford recalled.

The executives couldn’t even say if they’d all have their jobs in six months. So he suggested they tell stories about other dicey moments or similar situations — part of his continued efforts to use storytelling to demonstrate values and build culture.

How storytelling spurs success

“We began to assemble the stories,” he said. “To get the CFO to stand up without bar charts and numbers and tell the stories of the last 15 years made him really nervous.”

Yet compared to previous management meetings, when a full third of the audience would bring out their Blackberries during the CFO’s talk, this time “there were 1,000 eyes on him. Everybody was connecting. People were engaged,” Berisford said.

The result: Everyone, Berisford said, felt “emotionally connected to the possibilities of the future.” The executive meeting got the highest ratings from participants.

The lesson: Storytelling can create pride, enthusiasm and hope when the scorecards of business aren’t yet filled out. People will remember the story and your character more than your deliverable.

One key message

Sonya Ware’s stories often revolve around people and relationships. She has worked in IT and human resources and until December, holds the title of global change and integration manager for Shell Oil Products Co. (RDSA) in Houston. She likes to tell how storytelling and truth telling helped her team through a very difficult time.

She was leading a Shell IT infrastructure team for several months when senior leaders decided they were about to send about 30% of her team’s jobs to Manila within a year or so.

“People were feeling down about going through the change and possibly losing their jobs,” she said.

So she knew she needed a story, a “core message” to keep them motivated and moving projects forward.

What she came up with — and sold to both the senior leaders who were her bosses’ bosses and her team — was this: “We won’t ever guarantee you a job. We can’t…..We’ll help you build your career with the training budget. We’ll help you work in ways you never worked before. Build your career now, here.”

The message was two-fold: “We have plenty of work now, and you can use it to advance your career. And we can collaborate on our work projects but also on our career development and transitions.”

People bought into it and completed a $25 million project, giving their talents and gaining some training and time to consider their Plan B’s.

The result: Staff worked hard on the Shell project and their own careers too. One person started a “What Color is Your Parachute” club; another moved into real estate; a few developed other successful career paths.

The lesson: Stories build trust among people. People want clear information.