Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A business book in seven days - Chapter Three

Please let me know your thoughts - any builds will be accredited in the book!

Chapter Three – Telling Stories about the Individual. The CEO as Chief Storyteller.

“Screw it, let’s do it”

Richard Branson

One of the fundamental truths of all stories is that there is a main protagonist. Someone has to go through a series of events in an engaging enough manner that the reader or listener wants to find out what happens next.

I am going to ask you to take a leap of faith and think of organisations as stories writ large and see the CEO as the main protagonist. I believe that the role of the CEO has become that of Chief Storyteller – to the organisation, to the customer and to the investors.

He or she is the one who stands up at the annual conference and reviews the year for the employees, he is featured on the news in good times and in bad, and it is their behaviour and choice of words that reveals the core values of the brand and organisation.

To understand how critical CEO behaviour is in consciously or unconsciously telling stories take what happened to Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, who was photographed sailing around The Isle of Wight when millions of gallons of oil were seeping across the Gulf Coast. He found himself demonised in the world press and severely reprimanded by the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.

A father taking a day off from a dreadful workload to spend time with his son and re-charge his batteries? Or an overpaid, uncaring and incompetent Chief Executive who showed little care for countless fishermen whose livelihood’s were in danger due to the biggest environmental disaster in decades?

You will have your own personal opinion on this (and it will have been shaped by the stories you tell yourself about big corporations and their Senior Managers); but we all know how the world press took it. And we all know that Tony Hayward is leaving for Japan.

My Mother always says “Actions speak louder than words” and in Tony’s case it shouted from the front pages of the newspapers.

With the growth of the Internet, twenty-four hour news stations, the phenomenal success of reality TV we have become a personality and celebrity obsessed culture. This can have its upside – Lauren Luke was trying to sell make-up on U-Tube from the home she shared with her mum and daughter. It got picked up and ‘went viral’, with thousands and thousands of ‘hits’. The result is a once penniless single mum now has a global cosmetics brand, a weekly column in The Guardian and is the author of her first book. On the other hand, our obsession with celebrity has also given us Jedward.

It is a stretch to claim that CEO’s are the new celebrities, but as we become more and more obsessed about the face behind the mask, they are under increasing scrutiny and need to tell ever increasingly effective stories.

There is increasingly a cult of celebrity developing around the CEO - and if they use it in the right way, it can be dynamite.

Take Steve Jobs. Every year he holds his summit at Apple HQ to launch new products to employees and the world’s press. Everything he says and does is crafted to a tee to tell a story. His dress code is always the same – black polo and jeans. His clothes are simple and uncomplicated and the subtle message he is sending out is “I am picking something comfortable, that won’t distract me, so I can focus on the real task ahead of me”. It’s much easier to be creative if you don’t have to waste energy focusing on the trivial things.

In this book “Inside Steve’s Brain” Leander Kahney says “Jobs has turned his personality traits into a business philosophy”. He tells us that Jobs wants to create “products so good you want to lick them”, that “I’m not afraid to start from the beginning” and that “softwear is the user experience”

What Jobs is doing in stating these beliefs (or telling these stories) is creating a mantra inside Apple that guides the work of everyone from retail staff to App developers.

But beware too much the cult of personality. When Jobs announced that he had pancreatic cancer, the share price took a nosedive. He had made Apple so much about him, that the investor community did not believe it could continue if he chose to step down. Happily for Jobs he is a well man today, but if you ever get a challenge from one of your line managers about “another pointless succession planning meeting’, just remind him or her just tell the cautionary tale of what happened to Apple’s share price when there appeared to be no immediate successor to Jobs. They will beat you in a mad dash to the conference room to start drawing organisational charts.

Another ‘celeb’ in the business world is Sir Richard Branson. Love him or hate him, that man has dominated the business world since the first Virgin record store opened in Oxford Street in 1971.

We have seen this Knight of the Realm dressed up as a bride, get gunked on national TV, fly up (and come down) in attempts to circumnavigate the world by balloon, take on the might of British Airways and Coca Cola and now, for $200,000 he is offering you the chance to go to space with Virgin Galactic.

There are many commentators who have applaud Branson for his knack of getting free publicity and, most of the time, he must be his Marketing Director’s dream; but by putting his own personality at the forefront of everything the Virgin group of companies do, he is telling a very well thought out story.

In his biography “Screw it, Let’s Do It” Branson tells us:

“My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise about them…. from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to achieve that”

But the fact that he does this in public and links it so strongly to his brands, Branson is telling a story to staff, customers and investors. He is saying that Virgin will keep on achieving, that Virgin will keep on doing what everyone else says is impossible and it will keep on being mavericks who buck the system and show up the competition. He shows that Virgin is fearless, takes risks and is an exciting brand to connect with.

As we have become more and more focused on personality, the CEO has become the Chief Storyteller. Do this well and it can reap great rewards, but tell the wrong story and the results can be disastrous.

A film called “The Social Network” charting the history of Facebook comes out at the end of October 2010. It is reputed to be rather unflattering about Mark Zuckerberg.
Mr. Zuckerberg has just announced that he is to donate $100,000 to Newark schools. Is he getting his side of the story in first?


  1. Totally agree that the CEO is chief story teller, and, that telling the story is what creates the foundation for an organizations creativity. Or lack of it.

    Nice post.

  2. Thanks Gregg - I really enjoyed your book 'Jack's Notebook'