Do great leaders need to be great storytellers?

The short answer is no.

But you do need to be a better storyteller, and here’s why.

Increasingly, the spotlight is turning on CEOs and how well they communicate to their employees and the world. Why? A host of reasons, but perhaps the most critical one is how they manage innovation and the organizational change that by necessity comes with it. Studies show that successful change programs are built around a common ingredient: the right story. So are successful companies.

Investors and stakeholders are becoming increasingly aware that story creates meaning, meaning creates awareness, and awareness creates value. In other words, story creates value. The story behind the brand is the X-factor for many of the world’s most valued and highest performing companies.

You might say it started with Nike and Starbucks and Apple. But even old guard companies like Procter & Gamble understand the story = value proposition. P & G has enlisted Hollywood movie directors to teach its senior executives how to lead through storytelling. At Nike, every senior manager is designated a corporate storyteller trained to tell the Nike story. At Starbucks, the story is the experience, and every barista is trained to tell it. And then there’s Apple.

Apple took things to another level when Steve Jobs resumed control in 1999. Jobs told the world that Apple was spending millions on advertising and no one even knew it. That’s because Apple’s story at the time was about bits and bytes and boxes and “why we are better than Windows, (even though we are)”. Jobs reminded his employees and stakeholders that Apple, the company, stood for something. It was about values, and Apple’s core value – and its core story – is that “people with passion can change the world”. That was his story and it aligned perfectly with Apple’s core employee group. It was a big ask, changing the world. But Apple delivered on it.

Of course, not every company’s products are in a position to change the world and not every company is lucky enough to have someone like Steve Jobs at the helm. That said, every CEO and every company is in a position to change the world, at least the one it operates in. If you are in the widget business, for example, you can change the way your widgets are made and how your story is told, and in the process you can change your world – your industry.

Although Apple’s CEO was an extraordinary visionary and storyteller, most CEOs don’t need to be extraordinary storytellers–they just need to be good. “Who has time to bother with all this “soft” stuff? I’ve got a business to run,” you might ask. The answer is, your business must adapt to the undeniable impact of the world wide web or it will fall behind. Organizations must sell their products and services differently now. The way people and businesses buy has changed forever. The majority go online before they do anything else, and it’s not just consumer companies that have seen the light. Business to business buyer behaviour has changed too.

Venerable old IBM sees the writing on the wall. “[The CEO’s] focus is shifting to the power and potential of recent advances in social media and analytics to reimagine connections among people — whether that’s customers, employees, partners, investors or the world at large,” said Ginni Rometty recently. Rometty is IBM’s President and CEO.

You don’t have to be a great storyteller to be a great leader. But being a good one will make you a better leader because it will measurably boost your organization’s bottom line. In fact, Towers Watson produced a landmark study on communications ROI — the subject of a future post.

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