The New Narrative Leader

Yasser Youssef
President, The Budd Group

The New Narrative Leader

Over the last few months, I’ve considered personal and work narratives and have begun to evaluate my need to change them. I’ve also been thinking about the narratives we cling to in business, and how we can change those to grow our organizations. Some companies fail because they cling to old narratives. Some companies succeed because they are not afraid to change their narratives. Which kind of company do you have? Which kind of leader are you?

Not Letting Go

Remember Kodak Moments? One in-depth Forbes article explores the company’s demise only to reveal the true problem: Kodak was reluctant to change its narrative of success through film and marketing. Leadership is about constantly evaluating relevance and relevance leads to the narrative question. Holding onto an old narrative is deadly.  Your company leadership needs to be asking: Are we continuing to be relevant in the ways we need to be?

The new narrative leaders are those who can change the story but not lose track of the main thing (that’s another blog). That means they’re adaptable, open and creative. What else? What are some of the can-do and will-do attitudes and mindsets that can take our organizations to the next place? Here I’d like to share the skills I’ve found to be essential in this new-narrative leader, and stories of transformational, new-narrative leaders to exemplify their importance.

Interpersonal Skills
“Trust and listen to your team. It’s not something I just learned, but the past year has made me really appreciate the value of input, guidance, and diversity of thought and perspectives provided by my leadership team.”

That’s a quote from Ursula Burns, Xerox CEO who credits trusting and listening for her success, and Xerox’s success, too. For a company that started selling paper copies to still be relevant today means many new narratives were invented along the way.

We get so much from others. A lot of how we feel has to do with what we pick up from those around us. The ability to identify what people feel and how they communicate has so much to do with how we feel as leaders. Those interpersonal skills are critical to us becoming our best. If we don’t connect with others and have the skills to work with others then our ability to lead becomes limited.

Problem Solving Skills

Steve Jobs reportedly called a meeting at Apple, sat everyone down and said, “You know what’s wrong with this company? The products suck—there’s no sex in them.” Jobs’ decision to throw resources into a new, futuristic computer model drew people’s attention to Apple, and it paid off. Steve Jobs isn’t necessarily known for his warm and trusting interpersonal skills, but his problem-solving skills allowed him and Apple to change narratives often enough to stay on top of innovation, making the company’s very ability to change narratives an element of its story.

Steve Jobs didn’t say, “You know, I’m not comfortable with this product.” He said, “They suck.” You gotta love that. It’s transparency. A lot of times in problem solving we are trying so hard to get along with people and be kind and sensitive that we can’t openly identify the problem. When you start problem solving, you can feel the environment change when people get defensive. If you’re going to be able to radically change your narrative, you’re going to have to be able to tell it like it is, just like Steve Jobs.

Mentoring and Coaching Skills

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, has led GM through tough times to change narratives and remain relevant, focused and successful. Under her leadership, GM has made huge changes, like selling off operations overseas, aggressively pursuing radical new technologies like ride-sharing and mass-market electric cars, and listening to data from customers as its narrative continues to evolve

Barra has relied on a system of mentors throughout her illustrious career. These mentors have helped her pivot the company narrative when it was needed most. They also helped her to make a decision to take an HR position at GM even though she was an engineer. Here’s what she has to say about the importance of mentorship for leaders:

“When building your network of mentors, be honest about your mid- and long-term career goals, and how hard you are willing to work to achieve them. Then turn to those who best know you and your work. Earn their respect and trust so they will extend their personal capital to you with confidence and be your professional champion.”

I think of mentorships as like emotional philanthropy. It’s somebody who has emotional capacity and wisdom and they are giving it away to someone else who really needs it. Some of the best mentors I’ve ever met in my life do it because they feel like it’s a calling for them. This completes their identity, and some of them do it long after they leave their companies because it anchors and centers them.

Collaboration

Collaboration is the cornerstone of culture for Zappos, which experiences very little turnover and seems to invent a new narrative every day to keep relevant and profitable. CEO Tony Hsieh is known for his quirky, teamwork-centered approach to leadership. His company’s self-organized governance methods are recreating the entire idea of corporate teamwork, in fact. Here’s how he talks about it in a McKinsey interview:

“We shouldn’t have to be dependent on a benevolent manager or CEO to allow employees to move around within the organization, because that’s a single point of failure. Our org chart is available in real-time online and changes probably 50 times a day, and every one of our 1,500 employees can transparently view what every employee’s purposes and accountabilities are.”

Are you a new narrative type leader?

Give yourself an old-fashioned letter grade in each of these areas:

  1. Interpersonal Skills
  2. Problem Solving Skills
  3. Mentoring and Coaching
  4. Collaboration

After you identify the areas you need to improve your grade in, why not find a mentor who could coach you through the process of strengthening that skill? You’ll get extra points if the mentor is helping you with your mentorship skills! This is not just for yourself, this is work that will help you lead your organization. When you become a new-narrative leader, the sky becomes the limit for your success.