How Storytelling Helps Leaders During a Crisis?

How storytelling helps leaders during a crisis?
Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash

Wells Fargo is still in business, but their reputation remains stigmatized! Why?

In 2016 Wells Fargo, a financial service company based in the US, faced a crisis. Their employees were forced to open fake accounts without the consent of customers to meet sales targets.

When the scandal came to the notice of authorities, the bank paid $185 million in fine.

They could have tried to reduce the damage had their leadership taken the responsibility and established open communication with all their stakeholders.

But, Wells Fargo’s leadership response potentially damaged the bank’s image as much as the scandal.

In times of crisis, employees, customers and partners get panicked. Sharing information alone doesn’t help. They are well within their rights to know what happened. And when you don’t tell them what happened, they start looking for information from other sources. Great leaders know how to use storytelling during a crisis. They use it to deliver key messages and demonstrate their leadership chops.

Storytelling helps to connect with stakeholders during a crisis in a manner they empathize with you. By being authentic in your communication, you make them realize they are important part of your business and you are taking necessary steps.

Storytelling during a crisis at play

In 2008, Maple Leaf Foods a food processing company based in Canada that supplies processed meat faced a crisis where their products were contaminated by listeria. Twelve people died, and many more fell ill.

When most people would try to suppress things, CEO Michael McCain took accountability. He didn’t try to blame employees, food safety standards, or equipment manufacturers.

Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf Foods, holds media briefing on new food safety protocols at its new packaging meat plant in Laval, Que., Friday, Dec. 12, 2008

Instead, he took responsibility & stayed transparent by telling people about the breach of safety standards. He led from front, if he had not told what Maple Leaf is doing, then someone would have driven the narrative putting him in a defensive position.

A company-specific crisis can give ammunition to competition & the media to paint a villain out of you. They are looking for an opportunity and are least bothered about the real issue.

In this case, Maple Leaf could have easily become a villain, but since McCain took charge of the narrative, he could tell the company’s side of the story. It helped them to fix the issue and move on.

Post the debacle, Maple Leaf deployed the best staff for their food processing units and ran several marketing campaigns to regain the market share. By the end of 2009, they returned to profit.

Usually, companies recruit an army of lawyers and accountants to reduce the damage and pin the blame on someone. But McCain understood the emotions of his customers and treated them like humans. He conveyed the truth & people understood.

Crisis communication is an integral part of crisis management. You may have already identified the problem and started working on it, but as long as you don’t communicate it with your customers, they won’t know.

You can’t work in silence, especially during a crisis. If Maple Leaf had stayed silent and not communicated, they would have lost their credibility for life and faced severe legal consequences.

Great companies demonstrate their values during crisis

With the COVID crisis, companies are struggling to adapt to the radical changes happening in the business environment. One of the major problems faced is employee productivity.

CodeScience, a Saas company based in Chattanooga, US, took this moment to comfort their employees, who were feeling overwhelmed.

Their team always worked remote, so adapting to the new norm of work from home was not a problem for them. But what was different this time was they had to do it alongside their kids & spouses at home.

In March, Brian Walsh, the CEO of the company, tweeted a list of things they are doing to make their employees feel relevant. One of the interesting ideas was to normalize the noise of kids in the background during a professional call.

He also invited the kids of their employees to join their company call, making it an event to share their self-isolation stories.

It made them feel that they are not the only ones losing track of work. It also acted as a team-building session for their employees who barely saw each other.

An employee posted a message on LinkedIn, in response to CodeScience’s note. “This is another reason why CodeScience is the BEST place to work. Beyond grateful for our leadership team, and I am so proud to be a part of this amazing company and family.”

What the company did through this was they expressed their value of transparency. They told their employees that we know it’s difficult for you & you don’t have to hide it from us. To know more on how to find and share stories read.

People are more likely to do what you say when you give them a reason for that action. CodeScience stayed true to their value of transparency, which encouraged their employees to remain transparent and show what their current work from home situation was like.

Lesson from crisis communication gone wrong

Stories help you give the right context to your message delivery. Lack of context may cause misleading message delivery, which can hurt your reputation. Recently, brands like McDonald’s, Audi, etc. supported social distancing by giving spaces between elements in their logo.

But was that message thoughtful? Certainly not, as people in Brazil felt that it was insensitive for McDonald’s to do that. They felt like the restaurants are still open and are being opportunistic.

The redesign lacked context, leading McDonald’s to issue a public apology. Even though the logo redesign was a creative move, it didn’t resonate with their patrons.

People criticized this move on all social channels as they expected the brand to be responsible & sympathetic towards people. They wanted to see McDonald’s care for their employees & distribute free meals to the marginalized.

Alternately, if McDonald’s had backed the redesign with stories of how they are helping people amidst social distancing norms, then the message might have been conceived in a positive light.

Crafting your narrative

To use storytelling during a crisis, create an engaging narrative for your story, discuss the tension, and tell people what you are doing to repair the damage. Taking ownership & telling the story gives you the power to direct the dialogue. It is not about what happened as things can go wrong. It is more important to communicate what you are doing to improve the situation.

Need help in crafting narrative? Happy to help.

Conclusion

Storytelling can be a tremendous value-adding element to your communication. Not only it helps to create enticing marketing and promotional messages but can prove to be beneficial in crisis. Storytelling in crisis enables consumers to understand your situation better. Your stakeholders want you to be open & transparent about what you are doing to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Understanding the emotions of your customers, employees, and community by supporting your messaging with the right stories can help you make a way out of the crisis.

 

How Leaders Can Craft a Strategic Narrative?

Photo by Luan Cabral on Unsplash

I am listening to, “Originals: How non-conformists move the world” by Wharton School professor Adam Grant in Audible. In that book, he analyses some of the leaders who made a significant contribution to the world that we live in today. He had picked up anecdotes from different periods which makes it even more exciting.

He analyses Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I have a dream” speech. It is one of the path-breaking moments in American history. It is referenced in several leadership communication sessions for how to communicate a vision that has a clear call to action and galvanizes people.

But, Dr.King didn’t utter the “dream” word for the better part of his speech, and it was his friend Mahalia Jackson who shouted from behind, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”. And the rest, as we know, is history.

This speech is an example of how compelling a strategic narrative can be when it is specific it motivates, engages and connects people to a higher purpose. Great leaders use narratives during crisis communication to deliver key message. In business, it is about communicating a company’s strategy or vision in a way that employees can connect their jobs to the overall vision of their company.

Often, companies spend millions in coming up with a strategy once in a few years, and they spend an insane amount of effort to craft customer communications. But how often, the same importance is given to communicate the strategy to their employees?

A typical organization might do an offsite for senior management, few workshops for their top managers across regions. But beyond that?

And, then some bland internal communications emails would be sent to all employees about what is the new vision, which goes something like this.

To be the most efficient service provider on the earth or World-class customer service or To be the preferred partner to world’s leading blah blah blah

To a frontline employee or a mid-level manager, what does To be the most efficient service provider on the earth mean?

How Good is Your Strategy?

According to management thinkers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “A strategy is, at its core, a guide to behaviour. It comes to life through its ability to influence thousands of decisions, both big and small, made by employees throughout an organization.”

For employees of SouthWest airlines, it could mean deciding on what to be served to passengers on board – peanuts or a chicken salad. Their next question will be, will serving a chicken salad help us become the low-fare airline in this route? If not, then they are not serving that salad.

A good strategy delivers financial success and drives action that differentiates a company in that specific industry. But a bad strategy can result in less differentiation and drag the company down.

When sitting down to formulate a strategy, every leadership team aspires to come up with a great strategy that could deliver them differentiation in the market and inspire their employees to act. It doesn’t happen always.

Strategies may be powerful in a PowerPoint document or on the walls of the organization or in the leadership speeches. Still, if they do not manifest in action, they are inert and irrelevant.

What differentiates a vision statement from being just on the wall to something that inspires people to act is a compelling narrative. A narrative essentially inspires and moves people to act. It is more than off-the-cuff spontaneous storytelling, but a clear and consistent story in every discussion about vision and strategy be it with the leadership team or an employee town hall.

One of the main reason that strategies don’t stick with a broader audience is the way it is communicated, and the prime culprit for the same is leadership’s curse of knowledge.

Curse of Knowledge

Most of us might have experienced this at some point in time in our career. As people move up the ladder, the curse of knowledge afflicts leaders when they try to communicate a strategy to the rest of the organization. It leads executives to talk about strategy as though they were the audience.

When someone uses high-level and abstract matter, you can say that the curse of knowledge afflicts them. The bigger problem is that they are not even aware that they are speaking abstractly.

One can overcome the curse of knowledge by using stories, as it helps to demystify concrete language.

FedEx has an award called Purple Promise which honours employees for making sure FedEx’s delivery promise that packages will “absolutely and positively” arrive overnight.

When a delivery truck broke down in New York, and the replacement van was running late, the FedEx driver after having delivered few packages on foot realized that he might not deliver the other packages on time. But he managed to convince a driver from a competitor to take him on the last few deliveries.

Now this story can be used by a top sales executive to convey, “this is how FedEx employees take the delivery promise seriously”. A new delivery driver can use this story to guide her behaviour that it is not about working from 9 to 5, but it is about getting the packages delivered come what may. The same story could be used by a procurement person to negotiate better maintenance contracts such as the fastest possible maintenance/replacement vehicles for delivery trucks.

Communicating the Strategic Narrative

A strategic narrative is best represented by contrasting the current situation with the promised land. It is a structure that inspiring leaders have used in their speech to inspire, influence and act. This is what Martin Luther King Jr did in his speech as well as Steve Jobs used that in his iPhone launch in 2007.

It consists of four parts,

  1. In the past…..
  2. Then something happened….
  3. So now….. and
  4. In the future….

It addresses the, “Why.”

So, when a sales leader wants to pitch to VP-customer care on their solution, it could go like this.

With one of our clients, their prepaid telecom customers had to wait for 12 minutes before they could speak to the call centre executives, this resulted in bad customer experience, and customers started dropping off their network. Then the client implemented a customer agent intelligence solution that predicts the call volumes of a day and assigns call centre agents by which the customer’s waiting time is reduced to under 1 minute. Now customers are happy, which is resulting in more referral business.

Stories that speak to an organization’s strategy have two parts. The story itself and the moral of the story. It is nice to have both, but if one must choose between the two, choose the story. Because the moral is implicit in the story, but the story is not implied in the moral. And the story with its concrete language, specific protagonists and the real-world setting is more likely to guide behavior.

By using a clever mix of stories and concrete language, leaders can overcome the curse of knowledge and everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a shared understanding of the strategy.   

Crisis Communication Powered by Storytelling

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

I will remember the last few weeks as one of the longest, hardest and most turbulent of my career. Even though I had experienced the 2008 financial crisis when I was in my mid-20s, what as a world we are undergoing now is beyond comparison. But this situation also offers an unparalleled opportunity to showcase leadership capabilities, to put all their professional experience and training gained over the years to test. Every day, we have a choice – either hide and not be heard or be at the forefront and battle it out to live another day. Leaders belong to the second category.

Leadership Communication to Focus on the WHY

Viktor Frankl’s, “Man’s search for meaning” is a brilliant classic that talks about his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Throughout the book, he emphasizes on the most crucial attribute that offered him hope. It was about looking forward to the greater meaning and purpose of his life.

There is a reason why some organizations have survived 100 years and are leaders in their field. And the reason is simple. They were able to stay true to their purpose and communicate it over the years to their employees, customers and partners.

Leaders who can march their troops towards the greater meaning the organization stands for will emerge less scathed after this pandemic. One great way is to pick stories either from the organization’s past or the one that the leader has undergone herself. The founding story or the challenge plot could be best suited for this situation.

Choosing the Right Narrative

Remember the David and Goliath story, it is a challenge plot where the protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge and succeeds. This plot addresses the triumph of sheer willpower by overcoming adversity. The current context also provides an opportunity to redefine the purpose for a greater deed.

When the Iraq war started, Floyd Lee was a retired marine corps and army cook after a twenty-five-year career. He came out of retirement to serve the army one more time. He was in charge of the Pegasus Chow hall outside the Baghdad airport. The usual army food is just about what one would expect, bland, overcooked with less focus on quality and taste but massive on quantity.

But Lee wanted to make a difference to the soldiers’ world when they enter into the Pegasus hall. He made his mission and that of Pegasus team’s mission as, “I am not just in charge of food service; I am in charge of morale”. This vision manifested in hundreds of small actions taken by the staff of Pegasus hall on a daily basis.

Inspite of the same raw material that every army mess received, at Pegasus, the food was prepared with so much care. The prime rib was perfectly prepared; the fruit platter had a beautiful assortment of watermelon, kiwi and grapes, the desert serving included a strawberry cake. “The time you are in here, you forget you’re in Iraq”, said a soldier after a Sunday dinner.

By redefining the mission of the Pegasus mess hall, Floyd Lee inspired his team to create an oasis in the desert. This is a more opportune time to redefine the narrative within the organisation to look at the bigger picture, to share with the team how their work is making impact-it could mean sharing your client feedback or how competition is failing but your organisation is continuing to support and that is all making a huge difference.  

As a leader or manager, pick up the right story, the one that includes a challenge plot, overcoming the monster/adversity type, wrap that in the current context and be sure to deliver it with emotion. Challenge plots are inspiring; they appeal to our perseverance and courage. They make us want to work harder, take on new challenges and overcome obstacles. Challenge plots inspire us to act.

Three Steps to Power Your Communication with Storytelling

Leaders are known to use narratives to inspire, influence and engage. By following these three steps, one can improve their storytelling powered communication

  1. Start collecting stories – Personal anecdotes, reading books, story listening
  2. Stories need to be simple & credible
  3. Practice and seek feedback

Collecting Stories

To be good at stories, one needs to start collecting them. Stories can be from your personal experience; books are another source where one can find a wealth of stories; the other way is by listening to business leaders talks and interviews or from peer groups. From all these sources, one can find a good collection of stories that would apply to different contexts. The next step is to organize by categorizing them for different situations and topics. It helps in picking the right story for a specific context and topic.

Keeping it Simple and Credible

In a business context, telling a fictional story may not work as it lacks credibility and for lack of context. And stories are to be kept simple as you don’t want ambiguity or people taking different connotations. For example, Southwest airlines core principle is “We are the low fare airline”. This simple message guides their staffs in making everyday decisions. By latching on to authorities in the subject or by using compelling details/statistics (without losing the simplicity aspect), one can establish credibility.

Practice and Feedback

Before communicating to a broader audience, it is always good to share the story with a test audience to observe their reactions and asking them what they remembered, what questions they have for you. If they ask the right questions and share the takeaways that you had intended, that’s a good sign that the message is working.

Leadership in hard times means focusing on the most critical problems we face; it is also about making sense of the big picture. By aligning purpose, performance and organizational principles, business leaders can lead their organizations through this crisis with less damage. This could be achieved by reminding us about the shared purpose, which is why inspiring leaders have always used to storytelling to inspire, influence and engage.

 

Share
Share
Open chat
Hi,
Thanks for reading my blog. How can I help you?