Developing Leaders and Teams
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Women leaders as storytellers
We’re looking at the storytelling skills of women leaders. We suggest that in some areas, women have superior ability to tell stories and engage people. Except, when it comes to telling their own story.
Why is storytelling so relevant today? Former CEO of Sony Pictures, Peter Guber, says that telling powerful stories cuts through the chaos of this hyper-competitive, global economy. They grab attention and lift motivation like nothing else can.
Storytelling is built into our DNA. From our earliest days, telling stories was the way of passing knowledge and learning down through generations. Men told stories around the camp fire, about their hunting successes and experiences. Yet, women played a central role in this essential form of communication. They enabled others to make sense of things as well as learn a wide range of lessons through stories.
Storytelling can help to impact change, right wrongs, set direction, or successfully advocate a position. Whatever the reason, women seem to have in innate ability to do this, perhaps because they are often in the role of advocate in our families. Women are also hard wired to nurture and develop others. So sharing stories is natural and easy for many women when some form of development is the end goal.
Yet, within the business world, two facts appear to present difficulties for aspiring women leaders. Firstly, the art of storytelling is a very useful skill when it comes to gaining recognition and credibility. Thus, improving chances of promotion or assignment to high profile projects. Creating stories about accomplishments engages the listener and improves the level of receptiveness. Most of us who have experience of selection, will remember a candidate who was a good storyteller. They make a strong impression and, assuming their experience and skills are good, are more likely to be employed.
The second fact is that women are less effective at telling their own story. There has been a lot of focus on the lack of progress made, to date, to ensure a more diverse collection of leaders in business. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave a seminal TED talk on the topic. More than 2 million people viewed the talk.
Sandberg describes the “Tiara Syndrome”. This is where women expect that if they keep doing their job well, someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head. In other words, rewards, promotion etc. would follow. With this mind-set, the need to tell their own stories is greatly reduced. Male colleagues, however, have far less difficulty telling stories that get them noticed and promoted. Not much has changed from the camp fire days!
Consider, also, a fascinating experiment conducted at Columbia Business School in 2003. Students were given a case study about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. She became a successful venture capitalist, using her outgoing personality and vast network.
Half the students were assigned to read the original case study. The other half was given the same case study with the name Heidi substituted for Howard. The students found both Heidi and Howard equally competent and respected both of them. However, Howard came across as the far more likeable and appealing colleague. Heidi was seen as selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” The same data, with a single difference – gender – created vastly different impressions.
So, this experiment supports what other research has shown. Success and likeability correlate positively for men and negatively for women. It would seem that women, when telling their own stories about achievements, face a significant issue.
What can be done? Women leaders need to be confident about telling their story. They should believe in themselves sufficiently to see it as relevant, interesting and of value to the organisation.
Sandberg also suggests that they have to get cleverer about how they tell their story. Substituting the word “I” for “we” whenever possible will negate an image of selfishness. Using natural talents such as smiling and self-deprecation, where appropriate, can also engage the listener.
We’ve already established that many, if not most, women leaders have storytelling skills. What’s needed is to harness those skills and enable women to use them to better tell their own story. Talent for Growth regularly coach women where the focus is on confidence, impact and image projection. The beauty of storytelling is that it can be practiced easily and regularly. With such an individual approach, results can be achieved rapidly.
Organisations have a major role to play in two areas. There needs to be a way to remove these natural biases through education and, if necessary, a change in culture. Support measures such as coaching and mentoring should be available for women who aspire to senior roles. This can remove the risk of them being held back by an unwillingness to tell their own, powerful story.
Refs: Storytelling: stories, not data at the heart of human motivation, Juma Wood, May 2011 Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, 2013