Mentoring by telling stories

One of the most powerful ways to get people to do something new and great is to share stories. Storytelling is art old thousands of years and it can work miracles if done right. As Steve Denning points out in his work “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling” different types of stories can be used in different situations to achieve the desired results. There are stories to rally people, to share information, to transmit values, to communicate who you are or to dissolve gossip. One of the most important tasks of any leader is to spark action and lead the team to achieve a specific goal and to provide mentoring along the way.

So how do you do that? You need to provide some guidance but at the same time you don’t want to give orders and tell the team how exactly to do it. Why not? Check this post “Don’t manage. Empower!”. The best way to do it is to give suggestions in the form of stories. It may start something like this: “Let me tell you a story. It has happened when I was leading a team of developers in Siemens in 2007 and may not be completely relevant or usable in your situation but it may give you some ideas or a different perspective.” If you do this, the employee cannot really take what you just told them and match it exactly to current situation but it can open their eyes to possibilities. What are the advantages of this approach? Well, you are not telling the person what to do, you are just telling stories and opening their minds. It is much easier for that person to go and do it their own way because as you will point out the story may not be relevant. It will also create a learning opportunity for employee and help them grow by looking at things from different perspective. It will make them think.

A good story that will spark action and that will provide the necessary mentoring to the team must follow couple of basic principles. The story should be:

  • Authentic – truly powerful story is based on truth. If you want the story to have the right impact you should provide couple of details like when and where it happens so it is easy to verify. You will be also able to tell such a story with ease and conviction as you just relate the facts as they happened and don’t need to fabricate new ones.
  • Short – the story needs to be short and sweet. If you want to use stories as a regular tool in your leadership toolbox for daily use you need to keep it to one or two minutes long and not longer.
  • Focused – don’t get distracted. It should be organized in such a way that it is easy to follow and should get to the point fast. It has to be immediately visible why you tell the story and what the significance is.
  • Positive – for a story that should spark some action it is important to show a positive side of that action, a happy ending. If it is just to warn and provide an example of mistake feel free to use something negative but still make sure the overall impact is positive as it will causes the person to want to follow the advice included in the message.
  • Relevant – it has to be relevant to the situation at hand. The audience needs to immediately understand why you are telling it and how to apply it in the present situation. Otherwise they will just get bored and won’t listen to the message.

The story should be somehow relevant but ideally it shouldn’t be exact match, because then it would be seen not as a story or suggestion but as an order. One thing I would like to point out at this stage is that this is not pure coaching. It is more a mentoring in a sense that you share your experience with your employee. Also for this to work long-term you must never ever say to the employee after they didn’t follow your advice and failed: “I told you so. You should do it the way I described.” If you say something like this it will translate to: “Next time I give you story of my life, you better listen and do exactly what I would do in your situation.” And this is not environment you want to create. This is not environment where people will feel free to step up, make their own decisions, feel the sense of ownership, get things done… and yes, from time to time fail.

Twitter type summary: “Telling stories is a powerful way to provide mentoring. Just make the story authentic, short, focused, positive and relevant.”

Do you tell stories? How do you approach it? What are the pros and cons of this approach to management?

4 thoughts on “Mentoring by telling stories

  1. Pingback: Allow your team to fail | The Geeky Leader

  2. Pingback: Holiday Special – The Best Posts of 2013 | The Geeky Leader

  3. Pingback: The Art Of Influencing Others – Lesson 1 | The Geeky Leader

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