The Best CEOs Tell Stories: James Allen in HBR

If you wonder “How the Best CEOs Get the Important Work Done,” James Allen’s recent Harvard Business Review article offers a detailed answer. Do yourself a favor and read the whole article, but I can boil it down to a one-word executive summary. That word will be familiar to my regular readers: Storytelling.

Okay, Allen talks about some other things too, like guarding your time devoted to deep thinking and not getting involved in the petty bickering of your staff. But when it comes to conveying—and executing—strategy, Allen is all about the storytelling.

He concludes:

“CEOs don’t lead companies, they lead a collection of people who all need to move in the same direction. And that demands a thousand conversations.”

Each of those conversations offers the CEO a chance to tell a story. And, as Allen suggests, leaders should not rely on telling just one story. They need “a thousand conversations,” tailoring each to the audience they’re trying to reach—whether that’s one senior executive or an entire department.

Conversations and CEOs

Allen presents those thousand conversations as a way to help CEOs avoid boredom, but it’s also a basic principle of speaking. Every stakeholder has a different dog in the proverbial hunt; each group needs to feel you hear and understand the issues. Or as the first President Bush said when he was running for re-election, reading off a note card (bullet points! another reason to hate them):

“Message: I care.”

As you may recall, the elder President Bush lost that election. Message: it’s not enough to say you care; you actually have to be specific about why and how.

Allen tells CEOs, “Ultimately, you have to find some joy in this” unending storytelling. Personally, I can’t imagine anything more exciting than being able to stand in front of my “troops” and inspire them to coalesce around a common goal. But I am a writer, not a CEO—and maybe we now know why.

To inspire his CEO-readers, Allen reminds them:

“Each conversation is an opportunity for mutual discovery, for mutual insight. You can be successful as a CEO only if you can mobilize the hearts and minds of thousands, so you must love this mobilization…”

But don’t focus on the “thousands”—that’s too abstract a concept. Focus on the actual people you’re talking to,

“and take joy in helping each group and each individual discover what the strategy means for them.”


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