Working with great people naturally leads to great lessons. One I just learned came as a result of the desire to create a good story teller from an already effective leader. So how does that happen? Well, the effective leader just learns how to ask the right questions. When the right questions are asked, the next thing you know, the stories start appearing!
As a news reporter, one of my favorite storytellers was Charles Kuralt. His basic belief was everyone had a story to tell. (After he died, Mr. Kuralt’s story ended up being more colorful than we ever knew, but that’s a whole different topic.) These days, Steve Hartman very ably fills that roll. In an earlier version of his work, Hartman would literally open a phone book or map (remember those) and pick a random person to do their story. Sure enough, that random person had an interesting story to tell. But, clearly, asking the right questions has always been the key to learning great stories, so let’s get to it.
Do it on purpose: For this leader I suggested every time she visits a new plant or manufacturing facility she ask questions like, “Who is your best employee and why?” “Can I meet them?” “What is the best problem your team has solved in the last six months?” “What’s the biggest challenge you are currently facing?” For retail execs who aren’t already doing this, I insist they regularly hang out in the store and talk to the customers or listen in at a call center. For a homebuilder CEO I suggested she go to at least one closing every quarter – just to witness the excitement of someone getting a new home. Go out, ask questions and gather great stories.
Remember, they are everywhere: If you are always on the lookout you’ll start meetings with, “Who has a great story from a customer?” or “Who talked with a customer this morning and what did they say?” Creating a team of people who are constantly in search of stories just multiplies the process and the variety. (One word of caution here: make sure the stories you gather are TRUE. Everyday, myths are busted on the internet and you don’t want to be on the wrong end of that story!)
Create a system to remember them: The best story tellers have a plan to be sure they never lose track of a great story. My humble version is a cloud-based list containing a few key words that remind me of the details. Others have elaborate card files or a thousand post it notes! Figure out a system that works for you and get started.
One last word on asking great questions: Once you ask them (“Why do you do what you do?” “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” “If you could make this place better by doing one thing, what would it be?” “What is your favorite part of this job?”) then sit back and just listen. There is no more important skill for a leader than the ability to listen.
Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting, www.clear-comm.net, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org