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Storytelling: The New HR Competency

Posted by NEHRA  April 23, 2010 09:00 AM

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“Daddy, tell me a story.” Whenever I hear those words I’m transported to my childhood and reminded of memories that I cherish to this day. That most basic childhood request triggers a fond recollection for me and probably for you as well. It also introduced me to the power of storytelling.

Now, many years later I’ve become the storyteller. I’ve learned to use storytelling as an equally powerful and persuasive tool that continually serves me as an HR business partner and leadership coach. Storytelling has become part of my toolbox and is every bit as effective and important a competency as some of the more traditional ones that define an effective HR professional. Do you have your own stories? Are they conscious and deliberate? Do you leverage them effectively? Do they serve you in increasing your credibility and effectiveness? Perhaps the stories that follow will help you remember some of your own or prompt you to generate new ones to navigate your way through challenging interactions or to make routine encounters even more impactful.

Story 1: “Why are you at this meeting?”
(Explaining HR’s role as a business partner)

I first discovered (stumbled actually) upon the power of storytelling about ten years ago. I was director of human resources for a global athletic footwear and apparel company south of Boston. My client groups represented the entire product development lifecycle from concept to commercialization.

Four times a year the company held a “design review” meeting. On the wall of a large display room were dozens of prototypes arranged horizontally by category (tennis, running, football, basketball, etc.) and vertically by price point. All of the company’s top managers, sometimes including the founder and Chairman attended to hear presentations from each category’s team leader on the shoes they were recommending for production. There was often lively discussion on materials, color, location of a stripe on a shoe and anything else that impacted a “go/no go” production decision. Historically HR wasn’t invited to the design reviews.

Since I supported the cross-functional teams that were organized around the different categories I decided that I was going to attend the next design review meeting whether I was formally invited or not. When the day came I took a seat in the back and listened to the first round of presentations. During a break the SVP of design and I engaged in casual conversation in the hall outside the room. Sam was a good leader, open and receptive to my ideas and inputs but not accustomed to an HR business partner who offered ideas and inputs. For a variety of reasons he simply hadn’t experienced that type of HR before.

As we were getting ready to resume the meeting Sam came up to me and asked “Ron, this is a business meeting, why are you here”? I knew that it was an honest question rooted in genuine curiosity and not Sam’s way of suggesting that I didn’t belong. He just didn’t understand.

I started to formulate a response that was going to sound like a defensive justification flavored with a bit of lecture about how he should know the value of HR and that I had every right and need to be there since it was my job. (How many times have we all wanted to say that?)

Thankfully I caught myself and stepped back from the brink. I paused and then an idea came to me. I asked if Sam if he knew who Red Auerbach was. (Being in a sports oriented company I knew that he would know.) He instantly replied that Red was the legendary coach of the Boston Celtics who had led the team to an unprecedented nine championships in ten seasons. To which I replied “and Sam, what kind of coach do you think Red would have been if never showed up for the actual games?” Sam paused for a second and then nodded an acknowledgement as we both headed back into the meeting.

To this day that story serves me every time I find myself needing to explain what I do in working with my client groups and teams, or when I need to “get myself invited” to a client group or team meeting that HR hasn’t customarily attended in that organization.

Story 2: “You are my HR Director. Come up with an organizational change program to fix this.”
(A Lesson in Organizational Change, Accountability and Leadership)

How many times has a leader complained about the lack of progress with an organizational change initiative or the effectiveness of a desired “cultural transformation”? Those frustrations are often rooted in two factors. First is the mistaken notion that organizations change and/or cultures transform. They don’t. People do. So when a leader is frustrated with the pace or quality of organizational change what s/he is really saying is that people aren’t behaving in the intended way. Second, their frustration is externalized and projected onto others in the organization. But it is often their own leadership behavior that is the missing ingredient in obtaining the new behaviors they expect from others. The following story is one that I share with leaders when ever I hear those frustrations, and especially as we begin to talk about “organizational change”.

The President of my division was intending to sit in on a key product team meeting and he asked me (as his HR Director) to join him. He had heard that there were problems on the team and wanted to see for himself. (The team knew he was coming to their meeting.) Despite his presence and the possibility that the team would be on their “best behavior” the meeting did confirm much of what he was hearing. After the meeting he asked me to his office. When we arrived he shut the door, pounded his fist on this desk and said “Did you see what I saw? We introduced the Company’s values six months ago but I didn’t see candor, instead of teamwork they were pointing fingers and you could see that they don’t really trust the team leader. That’s unacceptable. I want you to come up with a plan to get these values accepted!”

I had a very strong relationship with the President so I decided to engage him in a different conversation. “Karl, can I ask you a question?” knowing that he would be agreeable despite his irritation with the team meeting. “Can you give me an example in the last thirty days where you publicly acknowledged someone for demonstrating one of our values, or where you privately coached, counseled or gave feedback to someone who had acted in a way that was contrary to one of them?” Karl thought about it and finally said that he couldn’t come up with an example. I said that I would like to come back in a week and ask him the same question to which he agreed.

A week later I stopped by Karl’s office and asked him the same question. Now he had an example. So I asked why he was able to provide an example this time but not when I posed the same question the week before. He said that because he knew I was going to ask him, he made it a point to generate an example for me. Knowing that I was going ask (“hold him accountable”), he behaved differently.

I then asked Karl to pose the same question to Bill, his SVP of R&D and that I would check in with him a week later. When we got together the next week I asked how it went and Karl reported that like himself, Bill could not offer a specific example. Karl then added that he told Bill that he was going to ask him the same question in a week. (Thank goodness for agile learners!)

A week later Karl asked Bill and sure enough, Bill had an example. So now I suggested that he go back to Bill and ask him to do the same with Mike, his Director of Engineering. So he did. And the story repeated itself throughout the R&D organization and was then introduced into the other functional units within the Division. Over the next few weeks we had made more progress with the values than had been accomplished in the prior six months. We didn’t put everyone through another training program, we didn’t create a new communication plan and we didn’t have marketing provide new table tents or wallet cards proclaiming the importance of the values. We simply had leaders engaging their people in two minute conversations where they established accountability and followed through on it personally.

In Conclusion

Good stories don’t always need be true (see “fairytales”). They just need to come from the heart, to have a level of passion and authenticity in their telling, and to offer a lesson or message that resonates with the listener. Have fun with your stories, enjoy their telling, and benefit from their lasting impact.

About the Author:
Ron Weisinger is the Principal of DevelopmentLINKS Consulting. Areas of expertise include leadership coaching, employee development, change management, team chartering, succession planning/talent management, training and specialized tools to help leaders build and revitalize their organization, their teams and their people. He can be reached at

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About NEHRA - The Voice of HR Featuring articles and resources for Human Resources / HR professional and hiring managers from the Northeast Human Resources Association (NEHRA).

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