5 keys for HR: making business storytelling a success

Business storytelling may be the silver bullet you’ve been looking for

If you’re looking to address organisational challenges including employee engagement, talent development, increasing authentic leadership or communicating strategy, business storytelling may be the silver bullet you’ve been looking for, writes Gabrielle Dolan

The scope of the HR director’s portfolios incorporates a variety of challenges including employee engagement, talent development, increasing authentic leadership, communicating strategy, rolling out values and the list goes on. What if there was a silver bullet that significantly contributed to addressing all these challenges? Well unfortunately there isn’t a quick fix however I believe that storytelling gets close.

Over my career, I have partnered with some of Australia’s largest organisations such as nab, Australia Post and BUPA as they have introduced storytelling to increase employee engagement, to develop their talented leaders, and to more successfully communicate strategy and values. Whilst organisations normally introduce storytelling to address one of these challenges such as communicating values, they also receive positive flow on effects in other areas such as talent development and employee engagement.

BUPA who are one of Australia’s leading health providers introduced storytelling into their organisation recently and are finding it is helping with many of their challenges. In 2015 they used storytelling to communicate their corporate values in a more personal way as they have a strong focus on authentic leadership.

Naomi Attwood, the HR Director, shared with me that “At BUPA we’ve been particularly focussed on authentic leadership and bringing your whole self to work. One of the best ways to bring that out of people is to tell stories. Leaders telling personal stories about their successes, setbacks, families and life journey paves the way for others to be authentic.”

She also stated that “Insecurity or lack of confidence are huge barriers to talent acceleration. Sharing stories is helping us to create stronger leaders who are not afraid to share their vulnerabilities and open up much richer contributions from others.”

Successful implementation of storytelling
Implementing storytelling strategically into an organisation involves four stages with authenticity being at the heart of the strategy.

  1. Equipping leaders, key influencers and support specialists with the skill
  2. Capturing stories throughout the organisation
  3. Sharing stories both internally and externally
  4. Generating stories by your actions and decisions
Strategic storytelling
The strategic storytelling model

The first stage of the process is to skill all the necessary leaders, ideally including the CEO, senior leadership team and the next few levels down. It is important for the most senior leaders to be role modelling the use of business storytelling throughout the organisation.

Companies should avoid training leaders purely according to hierarchy by including key influencers and support people in the organisation, such as internal communications and human resources specialists. This allows them to support and encourage the use of storytelling throughout the organisation. BUPA did exactly this when they invested in skilling up not only their key leaders in storytelling but the Corporate Affairs team that continue to play a critical role in supporting their leaders.

This is about developing formal and informal strategies to capture stories throughout your organisation. The focus of the stories you gather should celebrate the past, acknowledge the present and paint the future. Therefore, it is critical to capture stories from a diverse range of people, including people of different age, tenure, position, location and race.

When running story-capturing sessions the questions you ask are critical. The biggest mistake people make here is asking for stories. If you ask for a story you will rarely get one but the right questions will naturally generate stories.

Throughout 2015, BUPA conducted several story capturing sessions bringing together a diverse group of people from all over the organisation to capture stories about employees living their values.

Once you have captured your stories you need to share them. The obvious place is sharing them with the leaders you have skilled so that they can start to use the stories in their day-to-day interactions with employees, customers, potential customers and other stakeholders.

It is also important to share stories across your traditional communication channels such as your website, newsletters and employee briefings. However, don’t neglect the most important communication channel you have in your organisation…the grapevine. Your aim with sharing stories is to influence the grapevine without controlling it. Overall, these stories should encourage the behaviours and culture you want within your organisation.

It helps to understand the concept of how the actions and decisions of your leaders and employees generate stories. When delivering change that involves new strategies or values, organisations need to empower all employees to demonstrate congruent actions that generate positive stories. You can also maximise the impact within your organisation by being aware of the ripple effect of stories.

The first step you need to undertake when implementing business storytelling is skilling your leaders. Many organisations stop there, which is reasonable, as your leaders will be communicating in a more engaging and effective way once they have learnt the skill. However the ones that reap the most benefit are the ones that focus on all four stages. If you’re looking to address organisational challenges including employee engagement, talent development, increasing authentic leadership or communicating strategy, business storytelling may be the silver bullet you’ve been looking for.

5 strategies for making storytelling come alive
My 5 top strategies to help you bring in storytelling effectively into your business:

  1. Attach storytelling to a current business issue. Bring in storytelling for a specific purpose, such as to communicate the new strategy, values or develop your talented leaders.
  2. Provide business storytelling training. Storytelling in business is a skill. Just like any other skill you expect your employees to undertake, you need to provide the training to do so effectively. Train senior leaders, key support people like Corporate Affairs and Human Resources as well as other key influencers across the organisation.
  3. Create a tipping point. Train leaders in relatively quick succession including the senior leadership team. This creates an environment of support and role modelling to ensure storytelling becomes part of the way you communicate.
  4. Start to actively capture stories. Use a structured approach to capture stories. Bring a diverse group of people together from across the organisation to uncover the great examples of your people delivering the values you want to encourage and celebrate.
  5. Proactively and strategically share stories. Start to share stories across your already established channels of communication as well as exploring mediums that lend themselves to storytelling. Don’t underestimate the power of the grapevine as a powerful informal communication channel.

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