Oct 162012

At a social event for former consulting colleagues the other day, I mentioned my interest in organizational storytelling.

Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter

One woman mentioned having read somewhere that Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and now CEO of Square, considered his job to be almost entirely about telling stories.

This was interesting!  Apparently Dorsey has often spoken about the nature of his job (for example, in this address at Stanford).  He describes himself more as an editor than a storyteller, and talks about how ideas, teams and priorities need to be edited down to one cohesive story, both to coordinate and drive internal efforts and to communicate effectively with the outside world.  He many not call himself a CSO, but the end result is the same.

I still began to wonder… is there such thing as a Chief Storytelling Officer?  What would this person do?  Is she the more familiar Knowledge Management wallflower, glammed up with a hip new title?  Or is he an old-timer with too much wisdom, corporate memory and employee support to let go, but who doesn’t quite fit into any other functional role?

My initial survey of public sources (read:  a quick Google search) suggests that even though the storytelling component of any CEO or senior leadership role seems to be increasingly acknowledged (for example in this HR Magazine article on the characteristics of an effective leader, or in this post by the Leadership Hub), it has not been established as a standalone function.

A handful of Chief Storytelling Officers I did find:

  • Mauricio Mota, co-founder of a transmedia storytelling company in Rio de Janeiro called The Alchemists.  See his elevator pitch on YouTube here.
  • Bob Allen of IDEAS Orlando, an innovation studio specializing in entertainment, learning and marketing.
  • Neil McOstrich, author and co-founder of Cleansheet Communications, a boutique agency in Toronto
  • Hayley Downs of Catchafire, a New York specialist pro bono recruitment service for social enterprises
  • David Armstrong, author and late President and CEO of Armstrong International
  • Jay Jaboneta, the Firestarter and the Chief Storyteller of the Yellow Boat of Hope, which transports Filipino children back and forth to school by boat so they don’t have to swim every day.

Admittedly, it’s a small club, and half of these are selling storytelling in some form or another, so you would expect them to reflect this in their titles.

Why would you need one?

Maybe there’s a better way of thinking about this:  what would a Chief Storytelling Officer do that otherwise might not get done, and which needs doing in a healthy, functioning organization?  A few thoughts:

1) Improve communications (and therefore understanding, appreciation and cooperation) among organizational ‘silos’ by creating and supporting opportunities for individuals within them to identify and share their stories across organizational boundaries.  Note:  this would differ from the more traditional internal communications activity of collecting and communicating stories through an internal newsletter or website, in that the stories are told directly rather than intermediated.

2) Support internal and external communications efforts by developing stories to reinforce the key messages that are derived from communications objectives, and helping weave those into communcations products and channels

3) Develop storytelling training programs for employees in roles of influence (sales, customer service, marketing, team management); these would focus on how to identify, develop, practise and deliver personal stories to maximum effect

4) Capture the stories that make up the informal organizational storybook, by listening to what people are really saying about it – even, or indeed especially, if this is not what its leaders want or expect to hear!  Interpret these stories into implications and recommendations for improving the health and effectiveness of the organization

This may not be a full-time gig.  It could easily be part of a broader role in communications, organizational development, knowledge management or even senior management (referring back to the idea of CEO as Chief Storyteller).  It could also be almost entirely supported by outside consultants, on an as-needed basis.  But they do seem to be activities worth undertaking in support of overall organizational and communications effectiveness.

The bottom line:  Storytelling as a lifestyle choice

To me, these storytelling activities are to an organization a bit like eating well, sleeping well and exercising regularly are to an individual.  We can get away with not doing them, sometimes even for a surprising length of time…. but how much happier, healthier and more effective are we when we do embed one or more of them into our lifestyle?

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