Paul Smith Q and A
100th Q and A in a Series
This is it! The 100th Q and A in this series that began in 2008. Paul Smith is also the third Smith to participate in the series. Paul wrote in a email to followers that “for the last three years, I’ve had an ambitious goal: to make a significant personal contribution to the voices in leadership and storytelling in the U.S. and around the world. I began that journey three years ago when I started researching and writing a book aimed at bringing the art of storytelling further into the mainstream of workplace practices as a leadership tool, building on the work of authors and practitioners like all of you.” That book has now been published, and Paul talks about it here.
“My research included more than 100 interviews with leaders at dozens of companies and in 13 countries around the world,” Paul says. “I ended up with 100+ stories from CEOs, small business owners, bankers, consultants, teachers, secretaries, scientists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, salespeople, talent agents, engineers, marketers, and even fashion models — demonstrating that storytelling can be helpful no matter what line of work you’re in, or what title is on your business card.”
Bio: Paul Smith is a keynote speaker and trainer in leadership and storytelling techniques, and the author of a newly released book about storytelling as a leadership tool titled Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire. In addition to corporate clients, he is a lecturer in the MBA programs at Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati.
Paul also has a full-time role as director of market research at The Procter & Gamble Company in Cincinnati, OH. In his 19 years with the company, he has worked in leadership positions in both research and finance functions, in several multi-billion dollar business units. He is also a highly rated trainer in several P&G training colleges for leadership and communications courses. Prior to P&G, Paul was a consultant for Arthur Andersen & Company.
Paul holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Cincinnati suburb of Mason, OH.
Q&A with Paul Smith:
Q: What surprised you most about story and leadership as you researched and wrote Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire?
A: The fact that storytelling could be used in such a wide variety of situations. Most of the previous literature on business narratives suggests storytelling is appropriate for the same small set of circumstances and objectives: defining the culture, setting a vision, providing inspiration, teaching lessons, encouraging collaboration, and explaining who you are.
But in the course of my research, I found storytelling used to navigate a much wider set of challenges. For example: leading change, making formal recommendations, valuing diversity and inclusion, setting policy without rules, building courage in the face of failure, helping people find passion for their work, providing coaching and feedback, demonstrating problem solving, delegating authority, and encouraging creativity and innovation, among others. In all, I identified 21 common leadership challenges where storytelling can make the difference between mediocre results and phenomenal success. And there are probably 21 more.
There are a handful of stories in my book to help you navigate each of the 21 challenges — more than 100 stories in all.
Q: Can you share some of the highlights of researching Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire? Who were some of the most inspiring leaders?
A: After interviewing over 75 leaders from dozens of companies, I was pleasantly surprised that almost every one had a compelling story in them. Most needed help extracting it from the facts and crafting it into an effective narrative. But almost everyone had the rudiments of a great story in their head. Usually several. That was encouraging to me. I learned you don’t have to lead an especially colorful life to have great stories. You just need to have the good sense to fashion them into stories to tell.
I was also surprised that some of the most inspiring stories came from people I didn’t expect. For example, today John Bryant is the CEO of Kellogg’s (pictured, with Sara Mathew). But he came up through the finance department, and previously served as chief financial officer. He got his MBA from the Wharton School, an ivy-league business school famous for it’s highly analytical curriculum and competitive student body — hardly the background one would associate with an empathetic storyteller. But just a few minutes into the interview, it was clear from his stories he was passionate about understanding the consumers his company serves, and is a caring manager of the employees he leads.
The CEO of Dun & Bradstreet, Sara Mathew, has a similar background, having served as its CFO. She’s intimidatingly bright, ambitious, and a demanding boss. But she readily shared a story of when she learned a hard lesson about her own shortcomings as a leader, how she overcame it, and how she openly shares that story with others so they can learn from it as well. That kind of selflessness is a refreshing in top management today.
One of the most inspiring stories I heard didn’t come from a senior executive at all. It came from Bev Keown, a 56-year-old administrative assistant at Procter & Gamble. She was born the daughter of a sharecropper in Seaton, Arkansas, in 1955, and suffered the torment and ridicule many African Americans endured in earlier times. But her experiences were as recent as the year 2002. Not until coming to P&G in 2005 did she find a working environment that accepted her for who she was and treated her no differently than anyone else.
Some of my other favorites came from a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, a London-based internet company founder, and a cook at Pizza Hut. And I didn’t just find inspiring stories from business people. I found them from doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, engineers, and even a fashion model! It turns out storytelling works just about everywhere.
Q: Do some leadership challenges lend themselves better to storytelling than others?
A: Certainly. For example, if you’re trying to decide what your five-year strategy should be, you don’t need a good story. What you need is a good strategist. Or if you’re trying to decide how much money to pay to acquire your biggest competitor, you don’t need a storyteller. You need a good financial advisor.
But once you’ve decided what your five-year strategy is going to be, and you need the 15,000 people that work at your company to line up behind it and deliver it, now you need a good story. Or once you’ve acquired your biggest competitor, and you need the 5,000 people that work there to stay, and not quit, now you need a good story. In short, storytelling isn’t always the right tool to help you manage things; but it’s exceptional at helping you lead people.
Q: What future aspiration do you have for your own story work?
A: I’d love to help businesses figure out how to efficiently find, capture, and leverage their stories — something most aren’t doing today.
Modern businesses database everything from sales and purchases, to personnel information, market shares, and production schedules. Just about anything that can be measured is saved in a computer somewhere. Everything, that is, except for the richest source of wisdom in any company — its stories. Those are left to the frailties of human memory and the inevitability of attrition. It’s time we start databasing our stories!
Imagine if a company had all its stories written down, or recorded, in a searchable database. Anyone that needed a good story about getting the client to pay their bills on time, or getting your boss to approve your new product idea, can just run a quick query of the company story database. Better still, imagine if there was a database housed on the Internet that anyone could both contribute to or retrieve stories from. [*See editor’s note below.]
It irks me that it’s easier to find out what Kim Kardashian is wearing tonight than it is to find a useful story. I want to change that.
[*Editor’s note: Zahmoo may be something like the database Paul seeks. Readers, do you know of other publicly accessible story databases that could be tapped for business?]
Q: If you could offer just one piece of advice to storytellers, what would it be?
A: I’ve seen too many business leaders and professional speakers lessen the effectiveness of their stories by apologizing for them, or asking permission to tell them in the first place. They start by saying something like, “I hope you’ll forgive me for telling a personal story, but …” I’ve even seen a paid professional speaker ask several times in his speech, “Can I tell you a story?” and then proceed only after a few obligatory nods from the audience.
That kind of language signals to the listener that you don’t value the story as much as what you would have been saying otherwise. If that were true, you should skip the story and get on to the bullet points on slide number 72. A story is a valuable gift to your audience. They’re lucky you took the time to craft it and share it so they can learn something important in a way they’ll remember and perhaps even enjoy. Leaders don’t ask permission to lead. They just lead. Never apologize for or ask permission to tell a story. Deliver your story with the confidence that your listeners will thank you for it later.
In fact, while you’re not apologizing for or asking permission to tell a story, go one step further and don’t even tell your audience you’re about to tell them a story. Some people (including me) bristle when a speaker announces he’s going to tell a story. They’ll sigh and roll their eyes and think, “Oh, here we go. Another 20 minute waste of time.”
I think that’s because great storytellers don’t announce their stories. They just tell them. Inexperienced storytellers, on the other hand, often preface their stories with “Let me tell you a story …” It’s probably just a nervous habit. Or perhaps they’re insecure about telling stories in a business setting and they feel the need to clarify that what follows is a story, and not “real” business dialogue (whatever that is).
As a result, many people rightfully associate what follows “Let me tell you a story” with a poorly crafted, poorly delivered story. They immediately shut down.
Follow the example of the expert storytellers, and just start telling your story.