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The Magic of Your Story

Preparing to facilitate next week's leadership development session for staff at a local Big Ten university has reminded me of the many excellent leaders I’ve known. For example...

I consulted with Ed, the president of a division of a major pharmaceutical company, and his international leadership team on an initiative to get better results through more purposeful leadership and culture. It was a healthy organization when we started and the team made progress on raising the bar even higher. Things were going well. Except…

They were over budget in a few areas. Nothing major - 3% here, 5% there – but it was happening more frequently and the numbers seemed to be rising slightly. I learned about it from executive team members who described Ed as growing more and more incensed about the overages. One exec described Ed’s progression as moving from a mild-mannered, “Bruce Banner” type toward a full, green, raging Hulk. They got that he was angry but didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. After all, the individual overages were tiny.

When I asked Ed about the overages, he spoke of disappointment in his team’s lack of responsibility while turning faintly green and beginning to swell. So I asked him to think of a time when small overages made a huge difference.

After a brief silence, he spoke quietly and slowly about an episode from earlier in his career when he worked in an organization that acquired, merged, and streamlined organization. Streamlining often meant closing plants and laying off people. Ed went into the targeted plants to execute the streamlining. And he was good at it, handling the issues and the people effectively and efficiently. His results were well respected and he was well rewarded and proud of his work – that is, until he ran out of toothpaste.

Shortly after arriving in a small town to begin the process of closing another local plant, Ed went to the local grocer to pick up replacement toothpaste. A genial man by nature, Ed struck up a conversation with the clerk who served up information about the community along with groceries and sundries. In the midst of one of the clerk’s stories, it struck Ed that he wasn’t just closing the plant in this small town. He was closing the medical treatment needed by one of the employees, the college funds carefully built for the children of dozens of employees, even the dental work that the clerk described with a mix of fear for the process and hope for the results. Years later, listening to this story, I saw sadness, then shame wash over Ed, quickly followed by anger riding an express train toward rage. Why was he angry? Because a town of good, hard working people was being punished for the fiduciary failures of fat cats far away. Why was he moving toward rage – back in the small town and now in his division? Sometimes rage is anger amplified by a side of fear. Ed explained that he feared that one day in his comfortable retirement he would drive past the shuttered facility that currently houses his thriving division knowing that the small overages he hadn’t addressed grew to financial ruin. If that happened as result of fiduciary failures on his watch? “Judith, I just couldn’t live with myself.”

In his next executive team meeting, he calmly and quietly related this story again and those who listened found themselves tearing up, just as I did. With no further discussion and no further sightings of the Hulk, projects and initiatives were delivered at or under budget for years afterward.

Next week I’ll work with leadership participants to find their own relevant stories, following in the path of my mentor, Terry Pearce, who asserts that a true story told from personal experience in vivid, living, sensory-rich detail does more to engage followers than the most detailed data or studies. People don’t follow the 200 page statistical analysis of financials. They follow humans who connect with both their heads and their hearts. The magic of your story is the connection it builds.

For now, back to session prep.

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