Stories entertain, delight, teach, inspire, and help us make sense of our experiences. In the workplace, leaders rely on stories to share about their life experiences and to connect with others, or to rally a group around a mission. Are your pockets filled with the right set of stories? Here are five stories every leader needs to have at the ready--
1. The Backstory – On occasion, you’ll be asked about your career path or have the chance to speak about how you chose your current profession. This is the story you need to polish before any job interview, or before meeting new leadership. You may wish to highlight what drew you to your work, or what it means to you.
For years I led a monthly webinar series on various career topics, and at one event our speaker was a DC-based executive who had led a successful career consulting in the intelligence space. Having studied journalism in college, she told us that she “stumbled upon” the field of intelligence analysis. Early days in her career, she “did time” in a damp basement of a government building where she and her colleagues staged water bug races. The story was funny and memorable. It reflected her flexibility, provided insights into how to adapt the skills you learn in school to a client's need, and made a highly accomplished exec (read: intimidating!) very approachable.
2. The Aha – This is your personal genesis story. For leaders in large organizations, it may be the moment that a blind spot lifted, or that suddenly you had a great idea that transformed your organization. For entrepreneurs, this may be the breakthrough moment when you determined your main business offering.
NPR’s How I Built This with Guy Roz podcast features one of these stories in nearly every episode. In one episode, Roz interviews Stacy Madison, the founder of Stacy’s Pita Chips. Madison started her business selling sandwiches out of a cart. Every day, she’d toast the leftover pita bread, break it into chips, and serve it as a snack for customers waiting in line. One day, she had the idea to make the chips the primary business product. What had been the leftovers suddenly became the feature product. Ten years later, Pepsi bought the company for $250 million.
3. The Big Win – This is one you may need to have ready to help encourage yourself (or a group) when things go sour. 'Big win' stories also tend to showcase your values. What’s a proud moment—an achievement or big win that you worked hard for? These stories tend to be centered around events such as graduations or other big life/career milestones.
A government appointee I heard speak recently reminisced about the details of his swearing-in ceremony. He talked about how meaningful that day was to his family (including recent immigrants) and spoke of his strong patriotism and commitment to serve the country. What struck me as he spoke were the details he chose to share—who was sitting where, the angle the photographer captured when photographing the event, and even what he was wearing.
4. The Outsider – This story can serve to encourage others who are ramping up in a role, and also spotlight strength in your character. It could be childhood story from your first sleep-away camp or the chance to take center stage when the lead actor was out sick. It could be about feeling like a fish out of water, or it could be about faking it until you make it.
When I was eleven, I spent the summer in my parents’ hometown in Italy. It was my second time on an airplane. I had very limited (and passive) knowledge of the language, and was a pretty shy kid. A neighbor (of course her name was Maria) took me under her wing. It was a small mountain village, and my arrival was a pleasant break from the routine. She jokes now that my vocabulary was limited to ‘Nutella,’ and the Italian word for watermelon. I clung to her side that whole summer. She kept me safe, and she spoke for me. What I learned from that experience was the power of a friend—just one—to get through any new situation. (Incidentally, the Gallup best friend at work question should have been my idea.)
5. The Oops – This is story about a mistake, and how you recovered from it. It can be a chance to share a lesson learned, show self-awareness, and/or demonstrate resilience.
I recently heard a senior executive in an IT organization talk about a mistake he made early in his career. In setting up a recovery system for the company’s email—this is in the days of tape back-up systems—he never tested the set-up. He discovered the mistake when it was too late. Email was down, boss was on travel, and the recovery took days. He shared the story after being prompted to share a “favorite failure.” The room was full of IT professionals, and lots of heads were nodding…So many lessons learned from this bad situation—and, as he shared, it inspired his career in IT operations.
Feeling like you might not be ready with your stories?
Take a simple next step. Begin by listening for your stories. Over the next few days, take note of which stories you choose to tell, and in what context. You can dig into your past if you don’t have the five stories above covered. Think about pivotal moments and mishaps, fist pumps and tears.
For resources on how to tell a memorable story—including determining which details to include and how to sequence them—refer to this series of posts on getting started with business storytelling from Shawn Callahan, author of Putting Stories to Work.
Acknowledgements: A special shout-out to Dr. Anna Marie Trester, master stortyteller and storylistener, consultant and coach, for planting the seed that grew into this article. For more on her 'pocket full-o-stories' approach, check out this article.
This article was posted Sonia Checchia's LinkedIn articles on February 10, 2022.