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Why CEOs Must Be Masterful Storytellers

Alan Brew

This piece previously appeared on CEO.com

Few leaders of large public companies quote lines from a poem in an important business presentation. It was remarkable, then, to hear Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella quote the poet T.S. Eliot. That he did so within 45 seconds of his first public performance since becoming CEO was astonishing.

His reference to T.S. Eliot was no literary flourish for show. It immediately signaled something significant is afoot at the $70 billion technology giant after years of drift.

The lines Mr. Nadella quoted were from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” part of the Four Quartets series that reflects on time, perspective, humanity and salvation – deeply philosophical issues that did not seem to encumber his two CEO predecessors.

By elegantly co-opting the metaphor of exploration and reflection he gave himself a powerful philosophical context in which he formally embraced a different future for Microsoft, one far removed from the world of personal computers and Microsoft Windows. Nadella hinted that Microsoft will rediscover its purpose and passion in the coming years.

Metaphor refers to the understanding of one idea, or conceptual domain, in terms of another. An example of this is the understanding of quantity in terms of directionality (e.g. “the prices are rising”).

Perhaps because of their power to connect people with ideas, conceptual metaphors litter our language, from Shakespeare (“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”) to Picasso (“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”) to the Bible (“I am the good shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep”) and Einstein (“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.”).

Satya Nadella’s invocation of T.S. Eliot is a classic example of the use of metaphor in business as part of what has become known as a “corporate narrative” – a transformational story that describes a future that exists beyond the quarterly increments of a strategic plan.

The use of corporate narrative is fast becoming the strategic map for guiding people through organizational change. The world is moving so fast that the notion of the strategic plan has become almost obsolete. Corporate executives are being challenged to regenerate and renew: Where is growth going to come from when the current market for what you make is either tapped out or displaced by a new technology? Narratives make radical change not only acceptable, but supportable and sustainable.

IBM rewrote its narrative a few decades ago by shifting the focus from its products to the solutions its products made possible. This different story about the computer industry softened resistance to cutting back on hardware (and eventually selling the PC business) and provided the foundation for a shift to services, data analytics and the smarter planet brand campaign. IBM’s revised narrative focused attention of millions of employees, suppliers and customers, helping the company flourish as the only survivor among major U.S. hardware manufacturers by opening up a new set of opportunities.

The master of the corporate narrative today is John Chambers of Cisco, the company once known as the “plumber of the Internet.” Cisco’s fortunes and future depend very much on where it places its bets today and where its sees the entire technology industry going. His keynote addresses at CES each year are sweeping, inspiring performances in which he describes, with statistics, macro industry trends that will collectively change how people live and work. And in that future, of course, is where Cisco will flourish.

At the 2014 CES, for example, Chambers introduced the metaphor of the “Internet of Everything” (i.e. connecting all devices, people and things), predicting it will become a $19 trillion economy over the next 10 years, altering the trajectory of virtually every person on the planet, consumer and professional alike. The Internet of Everything will be “bigger than anything that’s ever been done in high tech,” he told his enthralled audience.

In a time of mounting performance pressure and growing uncertainty the use of narrative will make the difference between institutions that remain trapped in the metaphor of their past and those that grow stronger and evolve towards a new future. The effectiveness of narratives, however, depends very much on an understanding of the construct: They are not closed stories with a beginning and an end; they are open-ended. The outcome is unresolved, yet to be determined. That is their power.

The resolution of narrative depends on the choices you make and the actions you take – you will determine the outcome.

Satya Nadella has much to do at Microsoft. He would be well advised to heed a few other lines from his beloved T.S. Eliot:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

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