In the weeks leading up to the Summer Olympics, the media was awash with stories. Special sections of newspapers overflowed with tales of the athletes’ journeys — their sacrifices, their accomplishments and their hopes and dreams. Well produced video accompanied most of these stories, bringing the athletes, their coaches and families vividly to life on our televisions, tablets and smart phones.
The stories were deeply personal and each was unique. I think it was storytelling at its best — they drew us in, helped us to understand not only the athletes, but perhaps ourselves as well. While very few of us have dedicated our lives to breaking a world record, we can certainly relate to the rhythms of the athletes’ lives: missed opportunities, responding to setbacks, enduring defeat, encountering discrimination and overcoming obstacles, to name a few.
These stories allow us to relate to Olympic athletes, straight from our couches at home. In many ways, businesses try to do the same thing. They take a product or service that seems abstract, and try to fit it into our lives, hopefully in a meaningful way.
Brands and those who manage them awakened long ago to the power of storytelling in attracting customers. Marketers attend seminars and receive coaching from some of the brightest minds on how to craft their company’s brand story. Within a corporate culture, storytelling is often focused on the business — its history perhaps, or mistakes made and overcome, or a founder’s journey. But there is also room for more personal storytelling in creating a corporation’s narrative.
Sharing personal stories of a C.E.O. or a senior manager can stimulate important conversations within a company. At their best, such tales can even affect change in a corporation’s internal culture.
In Fortune Magazine’s August 2016 edition, Pattie Sellers interviewed Jes and Peter Staley. The article, entitled The AIDS Activist and the Banker (http://fortune.com/barclays-jes-staley-global-500/), tells us that Jes built his career in finance at JPMorgan and JPMorgan Chase before being named the C.E.O. of Barclay’s last December. Peter also started as a bond trader at JPMorgan, but the arc of his career changed dramatically after he was diagnosed with H.I.V., came out to his family and began life as a gay activist.
The brothers talked in this piece about support, transformation and family. Peter chained himself to the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange to protest Big Pharma’s role in the enormous cost of medication for HIV and AIDS. He also played an integral role in ACT UP, an activist organization combating AIDS. But in less obvious ways Jes also played a role in this narrative. Besides debating strategy with his brother, he also worked to make JPMorgan more LGBT friendly; under his influence, it became the first corporation to support GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Jes, whom Peter had once viewed as a homophobic older brother, had come a long way.
What can communications teams take away from this interview? Selective use of a personal narrative can give permission to employees to engage in difficult conversations – and in ways that a policy memo or an invitation to a mandatory HR training session simply cannot.
None of these approaches will work by themselves, of course. Culture change requires time, abundant two-way communication (http://lcjsolutionsllc.com/2016/06/excessivecommunication/), meaningful policy changes and clear expectations. This is also known as leadership!
But when the message from the top includes a personal narrative (of growth, self awareness and change), employees will immediately recognize its importance and understand its relevance to their work.
Of course, not every leader has a compelling personal story to tell, and many are reluctant to do so, fearful of exposing too much about themselves. But it is certainly within the domain of the communications leader to ask the question and to try to tease out a powerful personal narrative.
While confronting one’s own biases is never easy, sharing stories like Jes and Peter’s can open up important conversations and provoke serious soul searching. My guess is that after employees at Barclays read their interview, invitations to unconscious bias training sessions will not go unnoticed.