Corporate storytellers are best left on the shelf; What starts as a way to guide and motivate people becomes a plot from which bosses cannot escape

March 17, 2014 4:17 pm

Corporate storytellers are best left on the shelf

By Andrew Hill

What starts as a way to guide and motivate people becomes a plot from which bosses cannot escape

Once upon a time, a worried manager realised staff were ignoring his instructions. He paid a handsome fee to sages and soothsayers, who advised him to use a compelling tale to season the facts and figures he wanted his team to digest. And so, business storytelling was born and spread throughout the land.

Now even big companies such as Microsoft and Germany’s SAP employ people with the title “chief storyteller”, usually in their marketing or communications teams. Microsoft’s in-house storyteller did the first “interview” with new chief executive Satya Nadella last month. The anodyne video ended with this probing question for the interviewer’s new boss: “Why do you feel Microsoft is going to be successful?” Yet as one FT colleague remarked, the slick official website Microsoft created to tell Mr Nadella’s story will make every other CEO want the same treatment.

When the storytelling trend started, it was easy to dismiss it as a fad. But what started as a colourful way to illustrate a strategy change or persuade customers about a new product has leached into the fabric of companies, with consequences that could distort how they are run. It is a good moment to put storytime back in the nursery.

Steve Denning, the management writer, first explored the power of storytelling in the late 1990s to convince World Bank colleagues to share information. He has described “the ability to tell the right story at the right time” as an essential leadership skill .

He has a point, since reinforced by neuroscience. Stories, properly told, can lubricate a dry speech and leaven a difficult message because they stimulate the brain in powerful ways. At a time when business leaders are again becoming riskily dependent on data, it would be counter-productive to stop them trying to add a human touch to slide-decks clogged with figures and jargon. If stories make complex, important information simpler, more coherent, and more memorable, why worry?

Quite simply, because there is a risk the corporate storytellers start to believe their own stories. To make a business narrative stick, leaders have to repeat it, reinforcing the story for themselves. What starts as a way for chief executives to guide and motivate staff, investors, customers and boards, becomes a plot from which they cannot extricate themselves.

A story, as all the manuals will tell you, has a beginning, a middle and an end. Writers always plot out stories before they tell them; they know what is going to happen to the hero. But business, unlike fiction, remains inherently unpredictable – however easy it is for ghostwriters and biographers to recast a successful business leader’s life after the event as a tale of obstacles overcome and goals reached.

Reality and story often diverge when a new chief executive takes over and has to reset expectations of growth or strategic direction. The audience, deprived of the ending the previous CEO promised, reacts with disappointment.

Storytelling also has a double meaning, as in the embarrassed parent’s apology for a fibbing child: “Oh, don’t believe him, he’s always telling tales”. In business, the temptation to create a coherent plot, with no implausible twists, or awkward gaps, can lead to embellishment, white lies and even fraud. So beware when the boss’s storytelling turns into mythmaking.

John Hagel, from Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, has suggested it may be healthier to think of business stories as open-ended narratives in which everyone participates, rather than finite tales told by a single raconteur to a passive audience. But he points out that “narratives cannot be crafted by PR departments [and] existing institutional leaders are generally poorly equipped to take on this opportunity”.

To avoid becoming heroes in myths of their own creation, business leaders need to be honest and transparent – with others, but above all with themselves. They need to avoid signalling specific plot developments that may be hard to achieve in real life. But as long as business storytelling survives, the temptation to construct a tale of eerily smooth double-digit growth, inexorable increases in market share, and eventual corporate dominance – and to twist reality to fit that plot – will remain strong. Unfortunately, as journalists know, the old tabloid maxim “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” rarely guarantees a happy ending.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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