Managing professional services

Humans need story. Why, exactly, we don’t know. It just is.

And this despite the fact that ‘story’, it seems, is not an essential part of nature. Evolution, according to Darwin and others, has no particular rhyme nor reason, no overriding narrative. In fact its very randomness is evolution’s key defining feature.

Story, of course, is not random. Story is the opposite of random. In fact you might be tempted to argue that it is the ultimate antidote to our fear and frustration with a random world. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What do I do now?

The biggest and most successful stories aren’t just good tales. The Bible, the Koran, sacred Hindu and Buddhist texts didn’t become bestsellers by just keeping readers on the edge of their seats. Stories endure by helping us see our place in the wider cosmos. Stories endure by placing us at their very centre.

The essence of story is obligation. Humans, like all mammals, are social animals. Rarely in story is the path to glory found by acting selfishly. In the most famous of stories, the Hero’s Journey, personal salvation comes only from risking all for the good of all, or in the romantic version, risking life and limb for true love. Enduring story becomes myth and myth the basis of good story.

As social animals it must be the case that we’ve evolved to exist at least partly for others. For the group to prosper each member must play their part. But to play your part you must know firstly, the ultimate goal of the group and secondly, how you specifically can help. What is expected of you? And in return, what can you expect of the group?

All organisations, families, community groups, sports teams, and businesses are the same in this regard. Humans prosper when we are all on the same page, of the same book, of the story of our communities. The why, how, who, what and the when.

As individuals we all ask ourselves (at varying levels of consciousness) what is the larger story of my community and what role am I expected to play in it? Communicating this story is the job of the leader. Next to this task, a leader has simply no other purpose. Crafting the annual business plan, the sales and revenue goals, new markets, products, head counts...these are all just elements of story.

If you want to truly engage your people, you need to let them in on this story. You can't buy their engagement with a kombucha stocked kitchen and cold pressed espresso. Explain how they fit into a larger purpose. Don’t keep it at the executive level. Share it. If you want people to engage with the mission, it can’t be top secret.

If you are a leader of an organisation and you are looking for a New Year's resolution, try this one:

  1. Share your organisation's top three goals for the year
  2. Spell out what this means for each part of the organisation
  3. Empower managers to communicate what this means at the team and individual level
  4. Communicate honestly and regularly how you are tracking in meeting those goals.

If you want evidence of what this approach can achieve take a look at Netflix and their famous HR playbook. According to Paddy McCord, former chief talent officer, making sure each and every employee understands the most important things the organisation is focused on is key to employee engagement. And although she doesn't articulate it this way, humans addiction to story, might just be at the heart of it.

So, if you are a business leader and you are not telling stories that endure then you are failing. So come on Spielberg, your time is now...