Marking a milestone by gleaning lessons from art of storytelling

In my last column I wrote about a storytelling event I co-hosted, and today I hold on to that theme in this my 300th Business Daily article. For as I looked back over the 11 years my column has been running, it occurred to me that what I have actually been doing each fortnight is telling a story.

However old storytelling may be, it is receiving new focus as a powerful but much neglected element of leadership. For instance, in the “Voice of Leadership” programme I conducted with Martin Oduor for the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication (in partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School) we included a half-day on the subject, and it was also the theme of one of our webinars.

During that webinar I talked about the President’s Round Table with the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) I attended in May. The President, Cabinet Secretaries, PSs and other senior government officials were in the room, plus 40 private sector leaders, and it lasted from noon till after six in the evening with no break.

I described how the various speakers told their stories: from the private sector, they advocated for government initiatives that would create a more enabling environment for business, and in return they committed to creating more jobs, exports and the like; and from the government side they explained what was and was not possible.

Guided for much of the day by the President, consensus was then built around agreed actions and outcomes.

My questions to those tuned in to the webinar were “How would you have performed?” and “How would you have prepared in advance?” But they were not there. So how, I asked, will they prepare and perform at the next high level meeting at which they will be presenting, responding or chairing?

Will they, like some did at State House, talk too fast? Be reading their script so they will hardly make eye contact with those they are addressing? Will they hold the microphone too near to or too far from their mouths, or will they allow their voices to project clearly? Will they go on for too long, with too much detail and making too many points, some off target?

Will they make too many requests, insufficiently accompanied by persuasive offers? Or will what they seek be reasonable, and balanced by powerful, credible offers, thus ensuring win-win business cases? Will they show emotional intelligence in how they engage? Or come across as whiners and moaners, as defensive and bureaucratic, crumbling when challenged to strengthen their case?

Will their visual aids strengthen their case, or act as visual distractions? Will their story align with those of their colleagues, as part of an integrated team offering practical proposals and solutions? If the need arises will they protect a subordinate, support a superior? And if they are chairing a session, will they drive the priority agenda, building consensus, summarising succinctly and managing time?

In my State House story, I praised the man whose great leadership inspired and motivated us all: the President. He raised us to a higher level, around a common national vision and healthy values; he allocated work to his own people and to us in the private sector; he called a spade a spade, stimulating the needed difficult conversations and building consensus around agreed stretch targets; and by differentiating between technical and non-technical issues he guided the conversations appropriately.

Many, on both sides, learned important lessons that day, and next time all will be better prepared. They will, I hope, rehearse and role play, so making the best use of the precious time available.

As part of my preparation for helping others to be powerful storytellers – and hence influential leaders – I read The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED. If you are a leader at any level, do yourself a favour and read it too. Also watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu present with impact. You may not agree with everything he says, but he certainly tells his stories with supreme mastery.

Meanwhile, I look forward to telling more of my stories in this column, and I wish you well as you tell yours.

The necessary evil that is compliance

My colleague Frank Kretzschmar and I have been hosting our story-telling Leaders Circles for 12 years. The theme for our most recent event was “The Necessary Evil of Compliance”, a topic increasingly in the forefront of our minds.

Yes, we did include “necessary” before “evil”, acknowledging that, as former Deputy US Attorney-General Paul McNulty put it, “If you think compliance is expensive, try non-compliance”.

We began by sharing what the theme meant to us, noting that where there is high trust we can be more flexible with compliance.

Everyone must comply with national laws and regulations, we readily agreed, but within organisations with healthy cultures there is scope for making judgements, while keeping a balance between trust and compliance among broader stakeholders.

These days much more work must be done on compliance and integrity matters. It’s like a fashion, said one participant, with audits sometimes carried out in a spirit of suspicion, as “investigations” that assume something is wrong.

It can make you defensive, lead to feelings of bitterness, and an erosion of trust. You know you didn’t do anything wrong, but did you miss something? Life becomes impossible when “Compliance Jihadists” are on the job, “dangerous purists”, we heard.

On the other hand though, one must certainly not be too trusting, and pain can come from relaxing emphasis on compliance, as others related.

One participant, having introduced a regime of strict submission of weekly management accounts, so trusted his people that he relaxed the discipline, later to discover that substantial fraud was taking place.

So compliance is indeed a necessary evil where there is no prevailing culture of integrity. As another of our leaders was once told, “If your audits are not revealing problems they’re probably not doing their jobs properly.”

But compliance can lead to lost opportunities too. In his legitimate efforts to reduce his debtors, a manager in one of the organisations represented so tightened credit that he began losing business.

Here we were reminded of Peter Drucker’s experience, that “people who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year, while those who do make a similar number.”

What still must be handled is impunity: why do we need so many speed bumps here — why not just put up speed limit signs, as happens elsewhere? We know the answer to that: because they would be ignored.

Two of our leaders went to the UK to study, and there they learned about a different code of conduct, making them ethical and complaint in entirely new ways, some that were hard to practice back here.

I talked about the over-specification of procurement Terms of Reference that make comparisons between competitors more straightforward but reduce bidders to commodity providers who compete merely on price.

It precludes the possibility of offering alternatives that may be better or more innovative, risking compliance becoming the enemy of excellence.

And another said there were too many examples of opportunities lost as a result of having had to comply with some conformity. It’s what turns the dynamic to the stale, breeding timidity unless someone has the guts to raise the red flag. Such situations can arise within the family too, he added, and also in religions, leading to fundamentalism.

Then, we must beware of seeing board members as people who merely provide oversight and ensure compliance. Not enough to add value through offering strategic and innovative thinking, inspiring and motivating, acting as champions and ambassadors.

As a result, CEOs too feel the pressure to comply. One such, we were told, had done a great job in the UK of developing learning, growing leaders, helping them accept that sometimes they had to be non-compliant in order to deliver the best product, is no longer in such a position… and is really glad he is no longer there.

We did however acknowledge that we have seen significant benefits of many compliance initiatives, not least through the introduction of technology — as with fairer tax collection, through PINs, the iTax and the e-Citizen system.

Our conclusion? Have enough but not too much compliance. Above all though, do the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.