Lead With a Story: Interview with Paul Smith

Interview with Paul Smith

Paul Smith has spent a career researching what it takes to inspire and motivate a change in a human being. He’s a key note speaker, a corporate trainer and the author of the book, Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire

What are the qualities of a great leader?

In this interview, Paul talks about why storytelling is an important skill to have to be a great leader. He found that by using the art of storytelling in business, leaders were more effective in their ability to communicate, inspire, motivate and engage employees. Paul explains how to tell a good a story and the benefits of incorporating it in a leadership role.

Meet Paul Smith:

Antonia:  What inspired you to write “Lead with a Story”, and what is the message behind what leading with a story means?

Paul: Yeah, I may be a slow learner but, I probably worked 20 years at Procter & Gamble.

It took me the first 15 or so years to figure out that storytelling was an important skill to have if I wanted to be a great leader.

It just occurred to me after 15 years of watching the leaders that I admired the most and the ones that I wanted to be like when I grew up in the company and the ones that I wanted to work for and wanted to be my boss, that all of those people were really good story tellers. So, I thought back, well if I want to be like them, I need to get good at that skill. Now, there wasn’t a storytelling class in business school, they didn’t teach it to me when I came to the company and there wasn’t a whole lot out there to teach it to me. So, I ended up setting out to learn about it myself. I interviewed about 75 or 80 CEO’s and executives from all over the world to learn when are they telling stories, what kind of stories are they telling and what kind of success are they having with it. So, I thought, if I was this interested in this topic, other people might be too. I ended up making it into a book instead of just keeping it all to myself.

Antonia: Absolutely. Thank you for that because I believe that leading with a story does get results. Paul, if you can tell us what are the advantages of incorporating storytelling in a leadership role?

Paul: If there ever was a day where you could just boss people around and get them to do something, those days are gone. You can’t tell people to be more creative or be more innovative or start loving your job or get more inspired. You can’t just tell people and order them to do those things.

You can lead them there with a good story.

As I was doing the research for the book, there are other books written on the topic and after I read them all, I determined there were 2 things really missing:

  • One was, the main reason why people don’t tell good stories at work is because they just don’t have any good stories to tell.
  • The second is, even if they would have a good story, they don’t know how to develop it into something they can share.

So, that’s what I tried to do with the book. First, give them a bunch of stories to fill their data base of stories. There are 115 stories in the book. One for each of 20 different leadership challenges, 5 or 6 for each of those challenges. Secondly, how do you do it? What’s the structure of a well told story? How do you get emotional elements into it?  The element of surprise and how should I start my story? All the nuts and bolts of how to craft a business story as opposed to a Harlequin romance is in there as well.

Antonia: Can you share a personal experience where storytelling helped you to inspire others or get people on board with an idea?

Paul: Sure. A few years ago, I was appointed to be in charge of a project that was supposed to be a 10 to 20 year long term strategic planning process for the business unit that I worked in at Procter & Gamble. Frankly, I was finding it quit difficult to recruit people on this team because a lot people question the usefulness of a 20 year, long term vision. But, even if they did, it’s hard to feel rewarded on a project like that because whatever you come with, won’t happen within your working lifetime. So, I got a few people together that agreed to at least listen to me for a few minutes. I told them a story about another paper company just like us back 100 years ago in South-Western Finland. This company started as a paper company as well and ended up growing into a company that acquired electronics and rubber making equipment. This was right in the time when communication was starting. The telegraph and telephone were getting invented back then. Before, they were just making paper which was used for communication, letters and newspapers. Then, they got into the equipment to make the stuff that goes into the telegraph and telephone. They were still in the telecommunications business.

Every few years, they would expand into a different space that was related to communications and 100 years later, this company is still around and everybody knows the company because they are in 140 countries around the world and the second largest manufacturer in their industry. It’s Nokia communication. They are making cell phones today. So, I tell them that not to suggest we get into the cell phone business, but, that we plan our growth. Otherwise, we will end up staying the size of what Nokia would have stayed if they had never changed. They would have been the biggest manufacturer of paper in Finland. Now, they are about a 140 billion dollar company or something because they planned that growth. So, stories like that can help get people excited about a new challenge.

Antonia: So, just listening to that story, I was able to visualize it. Through a story, people are able to visualize what a result can be. That’s powerful! You know, it’s funny because I’ve spoken to many leaders and they’re very skeptical because they still feel that storytelling is treating their employees like children. What would you say is the most important factor in telling a corporate story in getting people engaged?

Paul: I can see that problem if in the way leaders told their stories was in a patronizing way. Like if they said, “Okay, boys and girls, gather around, it’s time for stories. Once upon a time…” So, of course it would be insulting and childish. This is not how you should tell stories at work.

You shouldn’t tell people that you’re going to tell them a story. You just tell it! The way it should happen is very natural and organic.

It would be like, if one of my employees comes to me with a problem and says, “I’m struggling with this problem, what should I do?” My response, instead of it being, “gather around, I’m gonna tell you a story,” should be, “well, you know when I had your job 5 years ago, I ran into that same problem. Let me tell you what I did about it. Here’s what I did…it was an awful disaster. Now, Sally down the hall, when she had your job, she ran into the same problem, here’s what she did. She’s now the head of the department. You can see that one of these strategies worked and the other didn’t.” That’s the way storytelling should evolve. It should be very natural and organic and not a big production about, “I’m going to tell a story.” If you do it right, they won’t even recognize that you’re telling them a story, they’ll just be listening and engaged.

Antonia: I love that one! Paul, one of the biggest challenges that leaders have come to me is communication. More specifically, when it comes to communicating change to employees. That’s a huge one. A lot of them just freeze up. As a sneak preview, if can share how storytelling can make this particular challenge easier.

Paul: Probably the best lesson about leading change that I ever learned is from 2 twin 6 year old boys. From their dad who told me about them. These boys rode the school bus to school every day which can be scary for a 6 year old. There are all these strangers on the bus and you’re away from mom and dad for the first time. Anyway, they were told that half way through their first grade year, the place that they would get on the bus from school to come home was going to change to a different place on campus. That could be scary because they don’t know where to go. Coming up to the big day of the change, one of the boys was very nervous about the change and the other boy was not nervous about the change at all. Dad figured out why. It was because the new school bus pick up spot was right by one of the boy’s classroom. He could see it from his classroom window. For the other boy, the pickup spot was further away and in another direction. So, it was scarier for him.

The night before the big change, that little boy wasn’t sleeping. He was tossing and turning in his bed and got up and told his daddy he couldn’t sleep. Dad got him out of bed and got his clothes on and said, “Okay, let’s pretend it’s tomorrow at school and it’s time to go home, where do you walk when you go out the door?” They walked out of his bedroom and turned left, they walked down the hall and they turned right. So, they walked through, pretending that he was going to the school bus stop and they did this 3 times for him to get used to doing it. His dad said, “Is there anybody else in your class that is on the same school bus?” The boy answered, “yeah, Johnny B.” His dad told him, “You pretend I’m Johnny B and ask me if you can follow me to the school bus stop.” He tried 2 or 3 times to get up the courage and figured out a way to do it that he was confident. So now he had a plan A and a plan B and was very confident and went to bed and slept through the night.

The lesson that I learned from these kids is people,

kids and adults are not really afraid of change. They are afraid of not being prepared for the change. Once they get prepared for it, all the worry stops. 

I tend to share that story before I announce a big change to let people know, “Don’t freak out about this change, if you’re going to freak out about something, freak out about your own preparedness. Which you don’t need to freak out about it because you are in control of it. As long as you get prepared for it, it’ll be fine. Don’t be daunted by this change that you don’t know anything about. You’ll be fine as long as you are prepared for it. Guess what? We’re going to prepare you for it.”

Antonia: That’s amazing. I think I’ll use that one too! In the book you talk about a few of these challenges that leaders face daily. If you can mention a few of these challenges you cover in the book.

Paul: I thought I would find only 5 or 6 main leadership challenges where leaders are using storytelling when I started doing these interviews. I found much more than that. In fact, when I got to 21, my editor told me stop. So, I’m convinced there are dozens and dozens of situations. But, it’s things like; leading change, setting vision for the future, making recommendations that really stick, getting people to collaborate better, getting them to be more creative and innovative, giving feedback to people in a way that will be received as a gift instead of as a constructive criticism. So, basically the difference is, storytelling is not a management tool. It’s not a good tool for making decisions or managing processes or machines. It’s a great tool for leading people. It’s a leadership tool not a management tool.

Antonia: I agree. Just like when we were kids, we loved to hear a good story. Correct me if I’m wrong Paul, it really puts a person in a visual mode and be able to see that can get from point A to point B. When you were talking about change, we’re afraid of the unknown. We like to know exactly how things are going to turn out ahead of time and we don’t know that, we get afraid. A good story makes people feel comforted that if you’re prepared for it, like you said, we can get there.

Paul: I agree. In fact, you’ve always heard that there are 3 types of learners. People that learn visually, people that learn by listening and people that learn by doing. Somehow, storytelling works with all 3. It’s because of what you just said. So, the people that are more visual learners, when you’re telling a story, they’re visualizing in their mind’s eye the story like a movie happening in front of them. People who learn by listening, of course, listen to the story and learn from it. People who learn by doing and feeling, called kinesthetic learners, they learn from the emotional feelings they get from the story. Stories work with all 3 types of learners and really nothing else does. So, people who learn by listening, if you’re lecturing to them, that’s great. But, if you’re a visual learning and you’re getting lectured to, it doesn’t work.

A story connects with all 3 types of learners.

Antonia: Thank you so much Paul. I know you’re working on a second book now. Can you tell us a little about it?

Paul: This book is using stories to help you be more effective at work. The second is using stories to help you be more effective at home. It’s a book for parents to use to teach their kids wisdom and values and character and life lessons through stories instead of just pointing your finger at them and saying, “look both ways before you cross the street” and all the advice that we give to kids that goes in one ear and comes out the other because it’s not delivered in a story that they can learn from. There will be another 100 stories in that book for a very different purpose, more personal purpose.

Antonia: When will it be out?

Paul: I just started writing it, so probably fall of next year, 2014.

Antonia: For this book, Paul, many people are probably going to have questions on how to get a copy. So, do we go through the same channels, Amazon?

Paul: Yeah, it’s available in just about any book store and online, Amazon
and Barns and Nobles. It’s also available in a few different languages too. English, Japanese, Korean and Indonesia will have a version soon. You can get it through my website as well at LeadWithaStory.com.

Antonia: Thank you so much for being here and sharing what it means to lead with a story.

Watch the interview Lead with a Story:Interview with Paul Smith on Youtube.

How about you? Have you used storytelling to inspire and motivate others? Share your story in the comments below and let’s all help each other master this skill.

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