Listen up leaders – stories aren’t just for kids

The CEO of a major UK casual fashion retailer shared his career “back story” with me during a meeting the other day. He confessed that once upon a time he sold photocopiers to businesses, door to door, which involved physically cold-calling on prospects and begging them to listen to his pitch. I gather he got thrown out of more buildings that he ate hot dinners during that phase of his career.

Though he didn’t say so explicitly, he left me in no doubt that grit and hustle are in his DNA – and play a big part in his company’s culture. And I immediately understood what he is looking for in any new hire or partner. There would be an expectation to dream big and “swing for the fences”, even if that meant risking professional embarrassment. His sponsorship would give protection from internal critics. However, 100% effort would be demanded at all times and any less would lead to you parting ways.

I’m fascinated by this kind of corporate storytelling and believe that leaders willing to explain their perspectives with personal anecdotes can earn significant credibility and real influence within their organisations. In the very earliest days of building a startup, when you’re inviting customers and colleagues to invest in a vision that is not yet fully realised, your story is one of the most important assets you have. It’s critical to persuade audiences that a given mission is worthwhile and as the leader you will do everything in your power to make it a success.

Storytelling is important in big companies too, particularly when it helps people within understand why things are (or, sometimes, aren’t) happening. Chronic demoralisation sets in when people don’t understand why they’re being directed one way or another. One of the reasons Richard Branson is such an enigmatic leader because he has mastered the art of turning personal experiences into relatable business lessons.

This won’t come naturally to everyone, of course, but its importance will only increase as new generations enter the workforce. However, tapping into the power of personal storytelling means re-evaluating the traditional qualities associated with leadership and doing away with the misconception that great leaders have to be somehow cut from different cloth to the rest of the crew. Almost all experienced managers can remember previous experiences they’ve had to illustrate how different courses of action tend to lead to successful or unsuccessful outcomes in the workplace, they just need the self-belief to share these tales.

Within Yapster, we like to encourage customers to use our platform to share frontline stories across multiple locations. We think it’s crucial for culture and operational performance that best practices are shared and challenges addressed collectively.

I’d love to swap stories with you soon – you can reach me at or on Twitter –@rjliddiard

PS for storytelling inspiration check out Kevin Spacey talking about how Netflix is disrupting traditional television networks.

Yapster Admin