It seems that whenever I talk to an audience about how managers at any level of an organization can use personal stories of identity to inspire their teams and influence their worlds, someone asks a variation of this question: “Can you just give us a few quick tips or clues about how to get started and do this?”
Of course, this is a logical and legitimate query. Nonetheless, it is one that I find tricky, because there simply is no adequate concise answer. What I invariably end up explaining is that my methods for helping people and groups work on this type of storytelling cannot be reduced to systematic procedures or “recipe” that one can follow.
On the other hand, I do not want to give the impression that my methodology lacks structure or focus, as this is far from the case. What I do in organizations and with individual leaders does have a basic framework and an extensive set of exercises that I have developed and adapted over the years. At the same time, each individual case tends to unfold in its own unique way.
Thus, it is difficult for me to give precise instructions about how to get started. With each new client—individual or group–I begin by asking questions and listening a lot, as I need to tailor my specific approach to the needs of the individual and the context.
So, when I respond to such questions in public, I usually try to reframe the issue. My “advice and clues” about the process often take the form not of a “recipe for success”, but rather a collection of observations about what makes the method work as well as possible.
In a sense, I adapt the question as follows: When the people or teams I work with do exceptionally well with finding and learning to tell their stories of identity, what characterizes their approach? And, how can you employ a few simple concepts that can improve your ability to use this powerful type of story to have a positive influence in your world?
First and foremost, learn to build reflection into your life, and to make it a habit. The most effective people of influence, at any level, are continuously asking themselves essential questions about themselves and what they believe: who they are, why they do things the way they do, the impact they would like to have on those around them, and where they would like to go in the future.
The exercises I do with people at the beginning of our time together are designed to get them to focus on this type of question. My goal is to put them on the road to deep self-knowledge. Before they can find and tell their personal stories of identity, they must understand the source of their most fundamental values and beliefs.
As such, my second piece of advice is to make their reflection and their quest for more profound self-knowledge an ongoing journey. I have found that the most effective leaders are constantly processing their life experience, updating their views of the world and of themselves. In the best cases, what I do for individuals or groups is not a one-time effort at self-improvement, but rather the building of a mindset that becomes an integral part of their lives.
Third: Do slow management. Particularly in today’s world of constant rush and urgency, the scarce resource is human attention. Spending time in quiet conversation with the individuals in your professional life is not only the best way to engage others, it also helps you refine your messages and use your personal stories effectively. Test your ideas and stories with colleagues in the small interactions of daily life before trying to use them with your teams or larger audiences.
And fourth, find ways to solicit feedback. Of course, one of the best ways to get better at using personal stories of identity to influence your world is to practice the telling. Take opportunities to tell these stories, and get feedback wherever you can—not only from colleagues at work but also from your spouse, close friends and peers—any person of trust who will give you an honest, unbiased assessment.