Powerful storytelling tools to help any new executive shape the company narrative

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Congratulations, you’ve just been hired to your first executive role. As you shake hands to close the deal, you’re already imagining how you’ll make an incredible first impression on the staff of your new company, assuring them that you’re the right leader to help them grow the company and herald a bright new future in 2020 and beyond.

The bad news is, despite your best efforts, first impressions might just be impossible to fully control. Research shows that people’s determination of whether they trust you or not can be based on merely seeing a photograph, and is formed within microseconds of laying eyes upon it. As much time you spend practicing that firm handshake and curating the perfect wardrobe selection for your first day, the cut of your jaw line and structure of your cheekbones will be the factors dictating these instant reactions deep within the reptile brains of your staff. These are factors out of your control.

So what can you control? The best strategy for new executives to craft these early impressions of them is to take control by shaping the narrative with storytelling techniques. Thanks to slightly less archaic brain architecture that allows us to relate to each other on an emotional level, those first impressions that we form so quickly are malleable. Storytelling tools are like the hammer you can use to bang away at that first impression, crafting it to more closely resemble the shape you desire.

In conducting research for my most recent project at Info-Tech Research Group examining the best practices for new executives in their first 100 days on the job, I interviewed eight different leaders that were either still in their first 100 days or still had in fresh in their memory. I made note of how many of them had specific storytelling techniques to help communicate their vision for the company while engaging staff and making them feel involved in the process. Think of these as tools that you can add to your own utility belt as you build your own story as a leader.

Erin Bury, CEO at Willful – Knowing when to frame the picture vs. painting the picture

After a career that started by building up a community for entrepreneurs at Sprouter at BetaKit, Erin Bury got her first chance to try her hand at an entrepreneurial endeavour directly in 2013 when she was named managing director at 88 Creative, an agency spin-off from a technology firm. She was hired to replace the departing executive based on a new concept she had for the agency. Her vision was to create a boutique services firmed focused on the needs of startups, a pivot for 88 that would take it into new territory as it established its own profit and loss sheet.

“There weren’t many agencies with the vision of what I wanted to be,” Bury says. “It was more about seeing the gap that existed and it was more about painting the picture versus framing what existed.”

In this situation, Bury understood where she wanted to take the agency based on her past experiences supporting entrepreneurs. It was her unique background that provided the vision for the business, so she had to be specific about what it looked like. When she moved to a new role earlier this year as the CEO of Willful, a startup that wants to provide a digital approach to estate planning for millennials, Bury found a new challenge in story-telling awaited her.

In taking the reigns of the business from the founder – also her husband – Bury inherited a young startup that iss still scoping the market and determining exactly what set of services it should offer.

“As the leader of a startup, it’d be a mistake to define the vision too early,” she says. “You want to know what your team cares about, what your customers need, and what your vision is to know where you should be heading.”

To provide the guiding light to employees before that clarity of vision comes into focus, Bury frames the picture instead of painting all the details. She points to Wealthsimple, a Toronto-based startup that’s succeeded by offering millennials convenient digital tools to save money, as one model of a firm that tackles a traditional industry and simplified it to be accessible to digital natives.

“I don’t know what our finish line is,” Bury said. “But it looks like making the process of dealing with death easier by making it less traditional and more digital.”

By providing startup role models to aspire to for her staff, Bury’s crafting the narrative of her new startup as she is still writing the final pages of the whole story.

Andrew Wertkin – challenging the narrative

After five years at the chief technology officer of Toronto-based BlueCat Networks, an enterprise infrastructure vendor, Andrew Wertkin decided to create a new role to better describe the work he found himself doing. As chief strategy officer, Wertkin wanted to shift from being a defender of tactics to a challenger that those tactics were supporting the firm’s overall strategy.

“I was already an executive here, with a sense of our strengths and weaknesses,” he said. With the new role, I’m trying to insulate myself a bit. It’s a very different perspective as a leader than you have as a peer.”

In his new role, he’ll work with marketing to have a higher impact on the client-facing agenda, which includes plans to launch a podcast series featuring interviews with customers. To communicate to his peers want he intends to achieve, Wertkin addressed them at an off-site meeting for the company’s C-suite. He explained his new role would shift his focus to directly collaborating with the executives to lay out the strategy for the company, rather than pushing for it from an operational position.

“I wasn’t the only one to see the gap between daily activities and the stated strategy,” he said. “The gap leads to negative impact on employee engagement and customer confusion. So people were excited for the role, and even felt it was desperately needed.”

To keep the firm’s strategy on the rails, Wertkin is laying out a five-year vision and challenging his peers in their tactics. Do the daily jobs really match up with where the train is going? By challenging the narrative of what happens day-to-day, Wertkin is shaping strategy for the long-term.

Denis Gaudreault – Be the content creator 

Not many people would pass up the opportunity to trade their job with an equivalent one in Paris for five months, and Denis Gaudreault is among them. The country manager for Intel in Canada and the director of Americas Territory Enterprise & Government Teams recently returned from his exchange in France, where he was filling in for Erwan Montaux, enterprise and public sector director for Intel in the region. 

To quickly get to know his new colleagues, Gaudreault used a common tool at Intel – a one-pager that introduces you on a personal level. It includes one or more photos of you along with basic bio information such as where you were born and raised, as well as what hobbies you enjoy.

“We use it to make a connection,” Gaudreault explains. “Which makes it super quick, so you can talk more about business instead of personal topics.”

Once he was past the introductions, Gaudreault got to learning the new subject matter around his new role by metaphorically throwing himself into the fire. He asked to lead the country review briefings for other executives that would visit the office, and tasked himself with doing the content creation needed to support it.

“I wouldn’t normally be the one to do that, instead asking others to create the content for the meetings,” he says. “Now I’ve lead the creation of it and it forced me to learn everything about the organization there. It also made me talk to everyone to put the review together. It won a lot of respect from everyone.”

To tell a great story, you have to master your subject matter. Gaudreault put himself in a position that he’d be forced to do that in short order. That helped him get control over the narrative of the region’s operations in a short time frame and make an impact on the Parisian office before his return to Canada.

Storytelling is an important skill for any new executive that’s looking to influence early perceptions of them in an organization. Try putting some of these tools to use yourself to see how they can help you craft your own narrative instead of leaving it to others to tell your tale.

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As a Research Director in the CIO practice, Brian focuses on emerging trends, executive leadership strategy, and digital strategy. After more than a decade as a technology and science journalist, Brian has his fingers on the pulse of leading-edge trends and best practices towards innovation.