I beat the drum for “stories” hard and often. Did it just yesterday, as a matter of fact. And I’m always delighted to find others—even in very different contexts—marching to the same drumbeat.
This morning, I listened to my friend Joan Garry’s latest podcast episode. Joan helps nonprofit staffs and boards work more effectively together and she’s a smart cookie, so I almost always find some nugget of wisdom in what she or her guests have to say.
In this week’s show, Joan answered questions from her listeners. One of them was something like,
“I’ve just been hired to be the Executive Director of a nonprofit and I’m going to have a sit-down with the outgoing Executive Director. What questions do I need to ask?”
To be honest, when I heard that question I zoned out a bit. While it’s an important question, I thought the answer couldn’t possibly apply to me. But when I heard Joan say something like, “Don’t focus on the data,” I forgot about my mental grocery list and listened a little harder.
Get the stories
Don’t focus on the data, Joan said—or something like that, which is why it’s not in quotation marks; I’m reconstructing all of this from memory. Get stories instead. Okay, she didn’t actually use the word “stories,” but that’s what she meant.
Have the outgoing exec tell you about the people you’ll be working with—your board members, your staff. Not gossip—stories. Who can you count on for moral support when the going gets rough? Who’s got skills that enhance the organization and who’s just dead weight?
Of course, Joan said get the data too. It’s essential. But a computer can spit out all the numbers you need. Nuance—stories—you can only get from another human being.
Stories have an added benefit Joan didn’t mention: They’re memorable. I’m sure the outgoing Executive Director would be perfectly capable of doing a data dump. But you, the listener, need a mental framework to hang all that data on.
Think about times when you’ve started a new job: What would be more useful for you to know—how much money the budget allocates for this or that function? Or how to work effectively with the personalities you inherit?
I think you know how I’d answer that.