Leadership In Action: Telling Great Change Stories

Leadership & Storytelling are linked

Do you remember any nursery rhymes from when you were a child? Here’s one that sticks in my mind. It was sung to us as we were going to sleep:

“Tell me a story

Tell me a story

Tell me a story

And then I’ll go to bed

You’d better give in, you said you would

You’d better give in and I’ll be good

Tell me a story

And then I’ll go to bed.”

It was a bit of fun at the end of each day – a tradition that I was happily able to keep alive with my own kids when they were younger. They claim zero memory of this but can vividly recall all the arguments!

Easter Eggs: A couple of weeks back, my sisters were talking about the fact that minding younger children can sometimes feel relentless as the kids can be fairly demanding. One sister relayed the following story about a neighborhood Granny who’d died just before Easter. It’s always difficult to know how to explain death to children. Some of the adults in the family were trying to explain loss to her 8-year-old grandson, helping him make sense of this. After listening intently, the child replied: “It’s not that bad really.” When asked to explain (they assumed that the answer was going to be about ‘old’ people dying or something involving ‘going to heaven’) the child said. “It’s not really sad because she bought me a huge Easter Egg before she died.”

There you go. Sorted! What can you do only marvel at the sheer depth of self-interest. It’s only the fear of costly litigation that stops me telling you several ‘adult’ versions of that Easter Egg story.

Self Interest: One of the downsides of becoming an Executive is that some people (a) feel they can talk about themselves without pause and/or interrupt others as often as they want (b) that they could have been a stand-up comedian – as minions always laugh at their punch-lines and (c) they are ‘entitled’ to excellent service in every area of their life. I sat (embarrassed, but said nothing), as an executive recently sent back her coffee 3 times – until she achieved some exact ‘consistency’ of the frothed milk (it was a mystery to both myself and the waiter).

Story Power: Now, I could have made the point that all kids (and some executives) are inherently selfish. But, because we all know that anyway, the delivery needed a new twist. Telling the Dead Granny/Easter Egg story brings the selfishness point alive. But, it can’t be the ‘same old stories’ all the time. Being in the ‘storyteller’ role is a bit like being Elizabeth Taylor’s 7th husband. Broadly speaking, you know what to do, but you have to make it interesting!

Water Charges: The biggest Irish political story over the past 2-3 years has been the effort to make citizens pay for water. We pay for electricity. We pay to have our bins collected. We pay for gas, coal and wood. But water was a new charge to be imposed. The sheer uproar this caused, the levels of protest generated, the impact on the Irish political landscape and so on will be the subject of dissertations for years to come. In a recent book (The Million Dollar Decision: How Education Changes Lives), I wrote about this in some detail. Space considerations won’t allow a repeat of all of the arguments here. But at the heart of this debacle, the ‘story’ of Irish Water became hopelessly confused. Was this an environmental issue (‘polluter pays’ principle), an engineering issue (“We need to invest in new water infrastructure”), a way to increase general taxation (“The right-wing government sticking it to us again”) or a response to a legal European Union Directive (The Water Framework)? These points became hopelessly entangled in a myriad of counter-claims: the water system would be ‘privatized’ as in the UK; Denis O’Brien was ‘pushing’ this agenda with his friends in Fine Gael as he owned the company installing the meters; widows and orphans would be ‘cut-off’ from water supplies and would not be able to live the hygienic life that we’ve all become accustomed to. The pushback from the politicians was that ‘water’ had become a conduit for every ‘left-wing whinger’ in the country along the lines of the Rex Hudler quote: “Be a fountain, not a drain” And so on, ad infinitum, the dialogue of the deaf continued.  And still rolls on.

Storyboarding Change: Managerially, there is a lesson for all of us in the water charges mess. You can’t bring about change unless you can ‘tell the story of the change’ in a way that represents a compelling truth. Compelling = it has to have a blinding strategic logic. Truth = it has to be believable. Screw up the ‘story’ and nothing happens (or worse i.e. you go backwards). When faced with making the ‘case’ around an internal organization change – you essentially face the same dilemma as Irish politicians trying to introduce water charges. While there are normally arguments for the ‘new’, sometimes, there are compelling arguments to stick with what exists today (the old).

Bottom Line: Learn how to tell your story well. Becoming great at storytelling is leadership in action. Get yourself some media training and learn how to do this. In my experience, CEO’s either ‘make their case’ or ‘pack their case.’ The choice is yours.


PS Story of the Week: Met a guy last week who grew up in a ‘poor’ area.  He said: “Our house was so small, that when my mother peeled onions, the bloke next door was crying.”

PPS Lighter Note:  Subject: From Amie Mooney in Australia. The Irish abroad seem to be ‘more Irish’ than those of us left here rusting in the rain. Here’s a few from my daughter….

Be Discreet: Six retired Irishmen were playing poker in O’Leary’s apartment, when Paddy Murphy loses $500 on a single hand, clutches his chest, and drops dead at the table. Showing respect for their fallen brother, the others continue to play while standing up. Michael O’Conner looks around and asks:

“Okay, boys, someone’s got to tell Paddy’s wife. Who will it be?”

They draw straws. Paul Gallagher picks the short one. They tell him to be discreet, be gentle, don’t make a bad situation worse.

”Discreet!!! I’m the most discreet man you’ll ever meet. Discretion is me middle name. Leave it to me.”

Gallagher goes over to Murphy’s house and knocks on the door. When Mrs. Murphy answers, Gallagher declares, “Your husband just lost $500, and is afraid to come home.”

“Tell him to drop dead!”, says Murphy’s wife.

”I’ll tell him.” says Gallagher.

Fight Back: 
Into a Belfast pub comes Paddy Murphy, looking like he’d just been run over by a train. His arm is in a sling, his nose is broken, his face is cut, and bruised, and he’s walking with a limp.

“What happened to you?” asks Sean, the barman.

“Jamie O’Conner and me had a fight,” says Paddy.

“That little f**ker O’Conner,” says Sean, “He couldn’t do that to you, he must have had something in his hand.”

“That he did,” says Paddy, “a shovel is what he had, and a terrible lickin’ he gave me with it.”

“Well,” says Sean, “you should have defended yourself. Didn’t you have something in your hand?”

”I did,” said Paddy, “Mrs. O’Conner’s breast, and a thing of beauty it was; but absolutely useless in a fight!”

Guinness is Good for You: Brenda O’Malley is home making dinner, as usual, when Tim Finnegan arrives at the door:

“Brenda, may I come in?” he asks. “I’ve somethin’ to tell ya”.

“Of course, you’re always welcome, Tim. But where’s my husband?”

“That’s what I’m here to be telling ya, Brenda. There was an accident down at the brewery”

“Oh, God no!” cries Brenda.

“Yes, your husband Shamus is dead and gone I’m sorry”

Finally, she looked up at Tim. “How did it happen, Tim?”

“It was terrible, Brenda. He fell into a vat of Guinness and drowned.”

“Oh dear Jesus! But tell me true, Tim, did he at least go quickly?”

“Well, Brenda, no. In fact, he got out three times to pee.”

From the irrepressible Joe Kenny… The “Agony Aunt’ Column

Dear Abby,

I have never written to you before, but I really need your advice. I have suspected for some time now that my wife has been cheating on me. I’m seeing the usual signs – phone rings but if I answer, the caller hangs up. My wife has been going out with “the girls” a lot recently, although when I ask their names she always says “Just some friends from work, you don’t know them.” I try to stay awake and watch for her when she comes home, but I usually fall asleep. Anyway, I have never broached the subject with my wife.

I think deep down I just didn’t want to know the truth. But last night she went out again and I decided to finally check on her around midnight. I hid in the garage behind my golf clubs so I could get a good view of the whole street when she arrived home from a night out with “the girls.” When she got out of the car she was buttoning up her blouse, which was open, and she took her underwear out of her purse and slipped them on.

It was at that moment, crouching behind my golf clubs, that I noticed a hairline crack where the grip meets the graphite shaft on my Ping G30 driver. Is this something I can fix myself, or should I take it back to the PGA Superstore?


Concerned Golfer

Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.



About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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