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Published 07 May 2013 11:40, Updated 09 May 2013 00:47
Storytelling as a leadership technique has entered the mainstream, with National Australia Bank, for example, offering organisational storytelling as a short course through its internal training division. Illustration: Tim Pearse
Leadership is a competitive game, and the top performers are always looking for an edge. Best practice is not good enough any more: leaders are trying to stand out with the kind of unique selling proposition that was once the domain of branded products, not people.
It’s a demand that has led to innovation in the field of executive training and development.
One Thousand & One: Organisational Storytelling is a company that trains executives to use storytelling as a way to capture the attention and interest of their staff.
While such ideas can sound contrived, they are more or less a way of life for the modern executive, says Yamini Naidu, co-founder with Gabrielle Dolan of One Thousand & One. “Leaders have done so much of what is out there in terms of training, they are looking for a new factor,” she says. “We want to equip leaders to communicate and engage better. They have seen other leaders do it, and they think, ‘My God, I wish I could do that’.”
When the business started eight years ago, the idea of storytelling was a new one – now it has entered the leadership lexicon. National Australia Bank, for example, offers organisational storytelling as a short course through the NAB Academy, the bank’s internal training division.
One Thousand & One has had to add to its repertoire as the storytelling idea becomes more familiar. The founders’ secrets will be published in a book in June (Hooked: how leaders connect, engage & inspire with storytelling, published by Wiley). The storytelling course is available online, and courses are followed by a mentoring and coaching program.
“Short courses can be inspiring and then nothing happens after,” Naidu says. “For six months after the course, we offer mentoring by phone and email. Every time [a participant] is going to present, I would ask ‘which stories are you going to use’, and if they didn’t use them, I’d ask what happened, and help them.”
The company’s workshops have expanded to cover personal branding, and a fast-growing area of executive training called “thought leadership”.
Peter Cook, a director of Thought Leaders Global, says: “The term was first coined by [management consultant] Joel Kurtzman in 1994 when he was editor in chief of [magazine] Strategy+Business.
“We define a thought leader as a subject matter expert, with unique insights and perspectives, who offers those insights to contribute to the future directions of clients, an industry, a community or a way of thinking.”
Cook says it is not for everyone. “We say to companies, ‘Give us your five or 10 most talented and brightest people and we will help turn them into rock stars in your industry’.”
Participants in the program, which ranges in price from $5000 to $10,000, are guided through a structured program in order to discover their own “intellectual property” and to learn how to think, write and talk about it.
“For example, I was working with a chemical company, an absolutely commoditised business,” Cook says.
“One of the guys there was really interested in sourcing: where are all the different places in the world that produce chemicals and what is going on in the world that will affect those sources? Now, when he goes out to his customers to sell chemicals, he says, ‘Here is a white paper I wrote about trends in sourcing chemicals, and if you like, I could do a talk for your procurement people’. He’s not flogging the product any more, but his customers are more inclined to buy from him.”
Why more inclined? “Because he has given them something,” says Cook. “The relationship has gone beyond ‘sell me something’.”
For executives, this kind of training can supercharge their careers. For companies, it puts their people in front of the market: as speakers at conferences, media commentators and experts in the industry. It also helps keep executives loyal.
“It is a great retention strategy,” Cook says. “The best and brightest people get bored and leave, and saying ‘we will help develop you in a unique way’ will make them want to stick around. We say [your best people] will stay longer, contribute more and speak better about you when they are gone.”
Can there be too many thought leaders? Cook says that so far, the TLG directors haven’t seen a company with too many.
Executive training is not all branding – skills are still in vogue.
At Swinburne University’s Industry Solutions faculty, the focus is on providing specialist skills. In the business faculty, executives can bone up on the latest research and practice, with both academics and industry consultants delivering the courses.
Sales expert Sue Barrett, whose company Barrett Consulting delivers Swinburne’s sales essentials program in its Diploma of Business, says: “What is happening is that universities are looking at different ways of attracting students and funding. One of the initiatives with Swinburne is to partner with industry.
“They have recognised there are providers of a high standard, and if they don’t have the content themselves, it makes sense to partner.”
The general manager of the Industry Solutions faculty, Greg Harper, says it helps companies meet the development needs of their workforce, with consultants delivering some programs.
“We call them ‘pracademics’: they have strong industry experience and are smart and capable communicators.”
The university’s expertise with assessment and standards assures companies that the training they pay for will be used in the workplace. Coaching services are also on offer to guide graduates as they apply what they have learned.
Strategy is often presented as a theoretical subject, but it can be taught in a practical way, says Paul Hunter, the founder and chief executive of the Strategic Management Institute. The institute, established two years ago, has run a six-day course in strategy for executives for the past year. It then admits successful graduates as SMI members.
Hunter says the topic of strategy has grown in a confusing way, with each successive wave of theory supplanting the old one. SMI brings the theories together, examines when they work and when they do not, and teaches a framework for companies to develop their own strategies.
“Different gurus claim to have the theory of strategy, but it is all part of a jigsaw. We have put it together,” Hunter says.
About 1.5 per cent of gross payroll is spent on training and development, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and human resources managers are often the decision-makers on what and when to spend on training. Naidu says: “They often contact us when the company has a new strategy that they want leaders to roll out, or have had feedback about [poor] employee engagement. They are trying to fix something.”
Training organisations such as the Australian Institute of Management and Mt Eliza Executive Education typically conduct an audit before starting programs.
AIM Victoria chief executive officer Carmel Ackerly says: “Our learning and development consultants talk to line managers, individuals or human resources about what they want to achieve. We look at performance reviews, conduct personality profiling, and we have a management skills index so individuals can self-assess. Training takes a lot of time and money, so it is important that it works.”
The attitudes of chief executives determine the success of training, the experts say. Return on the investment can be easily measured as long as the outcomes are agreed before the courses start. In addition, AIM encourages participants to get their leaders involved in the course as presenters. “If the company pays, it is great for the company to get involved with the learning,” Ackerly says. “CEOs attend as guest speakers and share their stories of transformational change.”