Improve your conversations by being a better listener

Active listening doesn’t mean just waiting for your turn to speak. It means being fully engaged

There’s nothing worse than having a conversation with someone, especially on a topic that’s important, and you see the other person’s eyes glaze over. Or stare into the mid-distance. Story listening is essential to being a good communicator. Here’s how to do it well.

1. Remember that communication is a two-way experience. Now, more than ever, the way people do business is participatory. It’s no longer the broadcast, top-down way of communicating. Social media has changed that for ever. Increasingly, it’s about a dialogue — which means active listening.

Author Steve Denning puts it like this: ‘Obviously, I’m a great fan of storytelling. And yet, I have to say, there’s also something basically wrong with the term, “storytelling”. If you take it literally, it implies a kind of one-way relationship: “I tell and you listen.” The kind of storytelling that I advocate in The Secret Language of Leadershipis very much two-way. It’s interactive. There’s at least as much “story listening” as “storytelling”.’

To become a good story-listener, ask the right questions. If you ask:

  • ‘why’ or ‘what’ – you’re likely to get an opinion
  • ‘how’ – you’re likely to learn the process
  • ‘when’ and ‘where’ will usually get a story because it takes people to a specific moment in time. Such as, ‘When did you move house?… I moved house in 2008… it was just after the GFC…’
  • But the simplest question to ask is, ‘What happened?’

2. Active listening doesn’t mean just waiting for your turn to speak. It means being fully engaged. So, no checking on your phone while listening to a friend recount her day. Show her that you’re interested by occasionally nodding, asking questions, and saying ‘yes’ or ‘uh huh’. These appreciative noises tell the other person you are engaged.

Nancy Kline has done pioneering work on the power of listening in The Thinking Environmentwhich shows how people can actually think — and therefore communicate — better when they are listened to in a respectful way. In fact, that people’s freshest thinking happens when they know they won’t be interrupted. Having done two trainings in this approach, I can attest to this. It’s amazing that when we know we aren’t going to be interrupted, we actually go deeper in our thoughts. It allows us to relax — and for the person listening, they stay curious and the whole experience is more enriching.

3. Don’t interrupt or redirect a conversation to your agenda.In short, stop being a conversation hog. Take turns speaking but respectfully wait for your turn. Avoid thinking of your answer while the other person is talking: that will take away your attention from them and they will notice (and feel it). Also, remember that people pick up on non-verbal cues, so stay present while they are talking.

4. Be open and don’t judge.Try not to impose your opinion on someone else. Come into any conversation with the mindset that you can agree to disagree. Withhold blame and criticism.

5. Feedback encourages a deeper dialogue.Be able to receive and provide feedback. Acknowledge what the other person is saying by reiterating what you understand from the conversation. Say things like, ‘Do you mean…’ or ‘From what I gather…’, ‘If I’m hearing you right…’ This tells the other person that you are not only listening but also processing what they are saying, encouraging them to say more.

Now, go forth, and listen with whole-ears and whole-heartedly, and see what a difference it makes.

Tell me a story

While storytelling in business has become a catchphrase, it’s often misunderstood as a marketing or branding tool.

Here’s how accountants can harness the power of storytelling to better engage, and inform, their audiences and become better business partners.

THE NUMBERS TELL the story. At least, that’s what many accountants would have us believe.
“Accountants are so used to talking in numbers, we forget to contextualise what it is all about,” says Grant Anderson CA, head of government relationships at Xero in New Zealand.

“Storytelling is so fundamental, particularly if you can hook into the underlying emotion within the story.”

While storytelling in business has become a catchphrase, it’s often misunderstood as a marketing
or branding tool. Some of the misconceptions come from the word itself. After all, ask a group of chartered accountants what they think when they hear the word “story” and the response is likely to be fiction, waffle or not about work.

William Meek, CFO at Mercury, an energy company in New Zealand, is something of a convert. Mercury is making a concerted effort to use stories more effectively, both orally and in written communication.

“We’ve certainly got better,” says Meek, who views storytelling as helping deliver the strategic objectives of the company in language that the staff understands.
Recently when explaining some of the company’s products and services during the half-year results, Meek and his team talked to their investors about one initiative that gives away “free power days”.

“We let our customers pick a day within the next three months and on that day their electricity will be free. This is worth about NZ$8, but the value to customers is much more. You’ll hear stories about how customers have done all their washing or all their baking. We relay that excitement, and the surprise our customers feel at this unexpected offer, to our investors.” Not only is this story more concrete – and memorable – than simply reporting, it helps explain why the company has chosen this approach.

So often, continues Meek, accountants like to say “profit was up 10% from the year before”.
“But, tell me why. That’s the insight you’re looking for.

“At Mercury, we are very keen on making our finance staff very effective business partners… who [have] an advisory role in both strategic and operational decision- making to ultimately drive better business performance.”

Explaining data
Accountants need to change the way they communicate, says Anderson.

“Accounting is seen as a blackart and the profession has done a great job of shrouding what we do in mystery. That comes at a price.

“Not everybody thinks in a numeric way. Some people think conceptually, others think in words or pictures, so if we can tell our story in the broadest way possible we’re going to engage the audience much more.”

As data becomes the new gold, the people who work with data need to become better able to convey the insights to the decision-makers.

In 2009, Google’s Chief Economist Hal R Varian said the ability to understand data, process it, extract value from it, visualise it and to communicate it was going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades. Shawn Callahan, founder of Anecdote, a Melbourne-based company with a large network of business storytelling consultants, agrees.

“There’s a big misconception that people have: on the one hand there’s the data, and on the other there’s the story. You need to layer information, use infographics, tell the story orally, for the real story to come out.”

Today, Meek says that people in finance, particularly those in an external-facing role, “need to tailor their communications to the audience and put yourself in their shoes. When dealing with experts, our jargon can stay, but if you talk to a retail investor about NPAT (net profit after tax), people will look at you funny. Just say profit.”

Whether in accounting, IT or project management, says Mark Schenk, Managing Director at Anecdote, “the number one thing to realise is the limitations of the way we are traditionally taught to communicate. Once people get that, they realise that their technical language is completely useless for this stuff. This is where stories can help by being more memorable and most importantly, they can package an important message in a way that is more palatable, understandable and more influential.”

Anderson agrees, saying: “This is particularly important for public accountants. When you’re dealing with a range of small, medium and large business clients, you have to know what they actually want, you can’t tell the message in the same way to everybody because they won’t grab it.”

So how do stories work in practice?
In 2013, Rosheen Garnon FCA, then National Managing Partner of Tax at KPMG, worked with Schenk on developing a strategic story to better explain the strategy of the tax practice.

“A number of the partners were not connecting with the strategy and staff were worried about more redundancies,” says Schenk. “We helped craft a story that acknowledged the difficulties the team faced, including the impact of the GFC which had dramatically changed the tax business. By talking about the redundancies we took the fire out of the issue. It’s important to acknowledge what we call anti- stories — any stories that run counter to the official narrative.”

For Garnon, what was most valuable about the process was “working out how I would tell the story. By drawing upon my own expertise and being able to come up with what I described as connecting points, I became more invested in how I was communicating and others could see the emotion going through the conversation.” The next step was allowing members of the leadership team “to tell the same story with their own experiences. This led to a powerful multiplier affect.” Four years later Garnon, now a director of Creative Partnerships Australia, still uses the technique.

“What I saw was that by sharing those stories, it actually became easier for people to relate to
me, so you form better working relationships as a result.”

In another workplace, the culture of sharing stories is quite different. At Xero, this practice reinforces “why we all turn up to work in the morning”, says Anderson.

“When we hear from a small business administrator, who could be the plumber’s wife, saying, ‘it’s great I’ve got my Sunday nights back, I can spend that time with my children’, that’s really powerful for us.”

For Meek, it’s not just positive stories that are effective. Even those that involve disclosure are important.

“A serious injury occurred in one of our offices where a woman fell down the stairs,” he says. “It was a bad thing but rather than saying we had one LTI — loss time injury — we said, ‘we had a serious injury where someone fell down stairs and had quite a lot of time off work, but she’s okay and she’s back at work now.’ That’s a simple story but much more significant.”

How much to disclose
From my own experience working with leaders to help them develop their stories, I know they struggle with bringing in the personal element. Often they’ve been taught throughout their whole career just to give the facts. Sometimes this is cultural. A number of Asian women I spoke to, all Certified Practising Accountants, described how culturally they didn’t feel comfortable talking about themselves in a professional situation. However, I always say that personal stories are more compelling because it’s your own experience that touches the listener, and that we are all hard- wired to tell stories. You just need a bit of technique and some practice.

“It’s a challenge opening up about yourself,” admits Anderson. “Lots of accountants aren’t known for having the most sparkling personalities in the world – I can say that because I am one myself. But it’s the only way to get your team on board and show them the real you.”

For some, it can require a leap of thinking — and some risk because you reveal an element of your character. But the reward is worth it, says Schenk.

“And if it’s too personal you simply don’t use the story even if it does make a good business point.”

In fact, says Garnon, “Once people in finance learn the technique of storytelling, it isn’t any more difficult than anything else.”

We have more ways than ever to communicate, so why are we losing the art?

Good communication is about getting the right information across in the right order.

I was sitting in an Uber a few weeks ago when the driver raised the topic of communication. ‘Young people just don’t know how  to keep a conversation going,’ he said. ‘They’re losing the art.’ I wondered aloud if it’s because they’re distracted, on their phones. ‘No, it’s more than that. It’s like how people communicate is actually changing.’ 
Now, you don’t just notice this with young people. It’s becoming an epidemic in businesses. I find it ironic that in an age where we have more channels than ever to communicate, people and brands struggle to do it well. Often in business, soft skills are viewed one-dimensionally — as just about the words you say. The art of smart communication requires a lot more. 
Conversations make the world go round. It’s how we share knowledge and experiences. How great ideas are spread. How we engage and motivate teams. 

20 ways to improve communication at work and build emotional connection

Content: think about what you want to say.

1. Good communication is about getting the right information across in the right order.Sounds obvious, but if you speak before you think, you’ll probably come across as vague and waffly. The natural order of things is to think first before you speak. Unfortunately, few politicians have heard of this advice.

2. Think about your audience.If you’re talking to a peer about a project you’re both steeped in, it’s okay to use acronyms or shorthand. But if you’re speaking to an external stakeholder, you’ll need more explanation. Don’t assume the other person has the same level of knowledge as you.

3. Business jargon is a no, no.Some of the best communicators of our generation, like Tony Fadell, father of the iPod, breaks down his crazy, amazing, and highly specialised wisdom into bite-sized pieces that we can all understand.

4. If it’s an important conversation, take time to map it out — on paper or in your head.Practise with a trusted colleague or coach. Visualise yourself having the conversation before you actually do so.
Hour-glass communication 

5. The more specialised you are in a subject, the more you’re likely to communicate poorly to people who don’t share that specialisation.This extends point 3 above. One way around this is to always think of your context first, the scene setting, before you dip into the detail. Then choose 2/3 salient examples to illustrate your points, before then going broad again at the end. This way of communicating looks like an hour-glass — you start wide and broad, explain the bigger picture, then go specific — before widening out at the end.

Harness the power of stories

6. Stories can be an excellent way to explain a topic that is difficult to understand, or that requires ‘bringing to life.’ Finance legend, Kathy Murphy, President, Fidelity Personal Investing, is a pro at this. She’s  known for sharing her own stories and experiences to educate people about investments and personal finances. This makes her relatable. Richard Branson does so, too.

7. Our brain loves facts but they can be overwhelming. Facts and figures engage a small area of the brain but stories and metaphors have a way of engaging multiple brain regions that not only stimulate logic but elicit emotional responses. Facts provide a hook for the brain but our colourful word choice is what maintains attention.

8. Structure your stories in such a way so they trigger multi-sensory cortices: motor, visual, olfactory, auditory, etc.Engage the senses by describing how the ‘strong aroma of coffee lifts the spirits’ or how the ‘cool rain on my skin brings back teenage memories.’

9. The best communicators know this template by heart: the template of human drama and the triumph of the indomitable spirit:It starts with facing challenges, overcoming adversity and immortalising the lesson. Make your stories memorable by using this template. Award-winning Kenyan-Mexican actress, Lupita Nyong’o, uses intentional transitions to reveal her own hopes and emotions in order to inspire people.


Better delivery: ensure your message cuts through the noise 

10. Good communication requires a whole-brain approach.Great communication requires the heart as well as the head.

11. It’s important to realise that what people don’t say is as important as what they do say.Be aware of the silences, not just the words.

12. According to communication expert, Judy Apps, author of the lyrical, thought-provoking The Art of Communication,our brains have a huge impact on how well we communicate.While the left-brain focuses on words and arguments, and is directed towards an outcome, most elements of communication are right-brain related: meaning, inference, intention, context, tone, facial expression, gesture, humour, irony and metaphor. You need to be aware of both elements.

13. When you communicate succinctly, think about the how — not only the what.Consider body language, gestures, eye contact and facial connection. Avoid negative body language like crossing your arms, keeping your head down, or averting your eyes.

14. Watch for a mismatch between what you’re saying and your body language, people pick up on that. There’s a non-verbal aspect of communicating called subtle non-verbal responses: this is being aware of what else is going on.

15. If you nod ‘yes’ while saying ‘no’ people will think you’re not completely telling the truth. An example of this is the aptly termed ‘duping delight’. It’s when a liar says he didn’t do it but smiles at an inappropriate moment.

16. Dr John Lund, author ofHow to Hug a Porcupine: Dealing With Toxic and Difficult to Love Personalities(now that’s a mouthful!) says people take more cues from what you’re NOT saying versus what you are saying. He goes on:

  • 92 per cent of communication is non-verbal
  • 55 per cent  is based on your facial expressions and your body language
  • 37 per cent  is based on the tone of your voice
  • only 8 per cent is based on the words you say.

17. Think about the place you hold an important conversation.Avoid being somewhere noisy or at the coffee machine. This lets your listener/s know that he/she is important enough to have your undivided attention.

18. Be assertive.This is not about being hostile or contentious. But expressing your feelings confidently, honestly, and openly while being respectful of others. Effective communication isn’t about forcing your opinion on others but trying to understand the other person.

19. Keep stress in check.Speak calmly and strategically, with pauses to collect your thoughts.

20. Your breathing is also part of the way  you communicate. Breathe at a steady pace.

So wherever you are, in an Uber, in a lift, practise some of these skills. Hopefully, you’ll become more equipped to be a better communicator — a skill we’ll all need as we navigate new channels, and move rapidly into voice-first technology. Bring back the art of better conversation. Everyone has a story to tell.

So, will you tell it?

Whole Kids Has a Whole Lotta Love for the Environment

Conscious Capitalism

James and Monica Meldrum knew when enough was enough. After working for years in high-powered corporate careers, they were becoming increasingly disillusioned at how most companies focused on, in their words, ‘the health of their profits rather than the health of their people and products.’ They resolved that if they ever started their own business, they were going to run it completely differently.

Even before they had their own kids, it was by chance that they found out that there were no delicious – and genuinely healthy – snacks for children. Their respective siblings shared how hard it was to find lunchbox snacks that were not packed with high levels of sugar, sodium, fat, preservatives and additives, and the Meldrums recognised that this was a great business opportunity. And so, the idea of  Whole Kids was conceived.

Conscious Capitalism

I first met James at the Conscious Capitalism Conference in 2014 in Sydney. I was impressed by how he and his wife, Monica, approached their business, always ensuring sustainability and community are at the core. This aligns with the tenets of Conscious Capitalism,  described by co-founder Raj Sisodia in Everybody Matters as, ‘A belief system, a philosophy of business… It’s not just about self-interest, it’s also about caring; it’s not just about making money, it’s also about making a difference.’

Almost 15 years since the Meldrums manufactured their first run of certified organic products, back in 2005, James and Monica have remained true to their commitment to run a business they truly care about – and one that has made a positive impact in the community. They have consistently championed ethical sourcing of ingredients that are all organic and non-genetically-modified (GMO). They started the Unjunkit movement to reduce kids’ exposure to junk food to ensure that they grow up healthy and happy. They also use Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper and cardboard where possible in their packaging. 

Credit: Whole Kids

B Corporation – a global standard


These initiatives (and more) have since earned them the distinction of being the first food business in Australia to be certified as a B Corporation by the non-profit  B Lab,  joining the ranks of companies that aim to solve social and environmental problems through the power of business. In a nutshell, B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.

For companies to become B corp registered they go through a globally recognised and rigorous certification process. The aim is to ensure that businesses balance purpose and profit, and B Corp businesses are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, community, and environment. Currently, of the 2,788 Certified B Corporations across the globe, 272 are from Australia and New Zealand.  Go B Corp!

Today, Whole Kids actively call for government accountability and changes in national policy to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Closer to home, they’re also exploring innovative packaging alternatives and working with recycling companies to keep their pouches out of landfills. 

In the words of Monica Meldrum, Whole Kids co-founder and CEO, ‘We are proud to be a founding B Corp in Australia and the mantra for Whole Kids to not just be the best in the world, but be the best for the world is something we consider on a daily basis. Being a snack brand, we recognise that convenience and environment don’t always go hand in hand and we’re looking to change this. The driving force behind our environmental focus is to ensure we leave our children with a healthy planet for their families. Companies carry a large portion of accountability for the next generation and this can’t be ignored.’

Credit: Whole Kids

We couldn’t agree more.

How to Deliver a Kickass Presentation and Live to Tell the Tale

Your presentation doesn’t start when you get on stage. Rather, it starts days, weeks, even months, before. The best presenters will spend hours practising in front of the mirror or to people they trust.

Last week, I delivered a presentation to 100 senior leaders. I always start with a connection story to build rapport with the audience and to reveal something about myself. But finding the right connection story takes time. I’ll usually come up with two or three ideas until I find the one that pops. 

I also have a secret weapon: my wonderful story buddy, Sonya. No, Sonya isn’t a bot. She’s a real person! We help each other hone our stories, test our beginnings and endings, make sure each story has a solid point. 

Four years ago, I would have had a sleepless night before such a presentation but with time and practise, I’m getting more comfortable in front of a business audience. Each time I focus on something different and this time it was to give the group an experience of connection – fast.

When I started, the energy seemed a little flat. Stories can shift that. So, at the last minute, I changed the start of my presentation and after my connection story, I showed a short video, and then asked people to share stories. First in pairs, then in plenary. 

Immediately, people started to engage. To connect. To laugh. Spontaneity helps here. The more spontaneous I can be, the more people respond ‘in the moment’.

At the end of the presentation, I left energised and the room was buzzing. For me, that’s the sign of success — when I connect with the audience and between us, we co-create something new, and this magical feedback loop happens between people. Then everyone’s spirits rise.

So this week it’s all about what you can do to make your presentations crackle, snap and pop.      

Prepare for Success

Your presentation doesn’t start when you get on stage. Rather, it starts days, weeks, even months, before. The best presenters will spend hours practising in front of the mirror or to people they trust.

  • Take time to plan out your presentation.Rather than start with the slides, think about the overall message you are making. What is the one point you want the audience to know? How do you want them to feel when they leave? Work backwards from there.
  • If you’re using slides, don’t cram them with numbers and words.TED Talks will often have only 40 words over 15-20 slides. Yup, you read that right. Each slide only contains one point, sometimes one word, with a photo. 
  • Recognise that presentations take time. Apple spent 250 hours for one 20-minute presentation, from the presentation design, to the technical expertise, to the execs delivering the final presentation.   
  • Think about your beginning.I always encourage people to use a connection story at the start. You want to link the point of this story to the overall presentation so there’s alignment. 
  • Our brains are more active when we hear stories.A powerpoint slide filled with bullet points and text activates only the language-processing centre of the brain, but stories use the whole brain and activate language, sensory, visual and motor areas. 
  • Beforehand video yourself on your smartphone.It’s excruciating but you’ll soon see how you can improve.
  • Time your presentation to ensure you don’t run over.  
  • If it’s a major presentation, practise in front of a colleague or friends.Here are a few good questions to ask them at the end:
    • Do I sound conversational? 
    • Is there enough variety in my tone and pacing?
    • How are the visuals? Do they help or are they distracting?
    • Do I have any annoying traits, like clicking my tongue, swallowing too often, moving side to side, etc.?
    • Any moments where you got bored?

Practise, practise, practise!

Own your audience

There’s no real one-size-fits-all solution to becoming a seasoned presenter, but these tried and tested techniques can ensure that you claim your audience’s attention. 

Let’s count the ways:

  1. Deliver a dose of drama.Your first words could make or break your presentation, so make them as compelling as possible. A little drama never hurts and is a great way to capture attention.
  2. Start right where they are.This ensures that you and your audience are on the same page and they engage straight away.
  3. Spark curiosity.Ask a provocative question or introduce a concept that would create a ‘knowledge gap’ for the audience. It’s your job to fill this gap.
  4. Use visuals.Make your powerpoint zing with a compelling video — this gives you a break from talking and brings in other voices. Also, surprise people with a prop or artefact linked to the presentation.
  5. Tease.Keep the audience interested with a well-placed tease. Indicate where you’re going with the talk without giving too much away.
  6. Introduce concepts one by one.Don’t just dump everything in their laps.
  7. Use metaphors. A timely and appropriate metaphor makes your points digestible and relatable. They’re also remembered better because they connect emotion with logic.

The Big Day

Finally, the day of your presentation is upon you. You’ve got your talk or keynote ready and you’ve rehearsed as much as you can. 

Here are some things to ensure you own that stage:

  • Familiarise yourself with the venue. As well as the technology and the lighting.
  • Check the microphone if you’re using one.Avoid wearing clunky jewellery that could cause unnecessary noise. If you’re using a wireless microphone box, wearing a belt is a great idea.
  • Keep a bottle of water close by.Also keep a copy of your speech or cue cards close as a backup plan.
  • Feel your feet on the ground. Stay grounded.
  • Smile.When you walk on stage, take a moment to smile and make eye contact — at someone you know, or at the audience in general. 
  • Make it like a conversation.When you begin your presentation, imagine you’re having a conversation with a friend.
  • Be mindful of your voice. That’s to say, your pitch, volume, and pace.
  • Be conscious of your breathing and posture.Remember that your body language should be consistent with your message.
  • If you’re moving around the stage, do so with purpose. 
  • If you stumble or forget your words, turn to your backup plan.Apologise and even make a joke. Audiences are usually forgiving. 
  • Keep going. Use your slides or visuals as a guide to keeping you on track.
  • Most importantly, enjoy it!You’ve worked so hard to get to this point. Remember that you’re on stage doing this presentation because you know your stuff. This is your time to shine. 

Any other great tips, let me know. I’m the forever beginner, always learning. 

How Positive Stories Can Help Save the World

Negative vs positive narratives

I don’t know about you, but now, more than ever, climate change seems real. More freak weather events. More protests. Daily news items on the mass extinction of species. In the past year, things have speeded up.

Of course, we’ve known for years what climate change is and how it’s devastating our planet. A good percentage of us know how to mitigate its effects and do our part. Yet, why is it that we’re still so divided on this issue? Why so many non-believers? And why, even amongst those who dobelieve and acknowledge the problem, is there still inaction?

This is a big thorny question. Here in our new Sustainability Corner, we’ll be exploring this issue through a business lens. In particular, we’ll be featuring inspiring stories of individuals and organisations making a difference for the environment.

Because what I’ve realised is that how we talk about this issue, and how the message is shared, matters. It matters a lot.

Negative vs positive narratives

Right now, the predominant narrative theme on climate change is pretty negative. This is no surprise, considering the latest predictions that what we do in the next 10 years will impact the next 10,000 years. Gulp.

However, research has shown that using fear to provoke a behavioural change can be counterproductive. So, when we see visions of scorched earth and plastic-choked wildlife, it makes us anxious. Or worse. People feel depressed, which invariably leads to denial or avoidance of the environmental issues at hand. Similarly, too many facts and numbers can blur on a page, especially in the staggering volume that they are being produced today.

How positive narratives can help

It’s important to go back to our roots and connect with our core humanity. Numerous studies have shown that emotionally engaging stories affect more areas of the brain than data-centric messages ever could.

Without going into the neuroscience of it all, our brain has the unique ability to recognise patterns that help us predict likely outcomes, which makes narratives and storytelling the most elegant and effective way to communicate messages. We’ve been doing it, after all, since our ancestors sat around the campfire tens of thousands of years ago.

In particular, stories that focus on positive outcomes with positive role models can lead to concrete action. They actually get people thinkingabout what they could do and how they should do it. In contrast, negative narratives that convey hopelessness and despair can lead to avoidance and inaction.

This was confirmed at an April workshop I ran for North Sydney Council. For one exercise, community groups came together to create a narrative of change.

One local leader said that, ‘Since the ABC series, War on Waste,  ordinary people have woken up to the impact our daily rubbish is having on the environment. Now they’ve accepted this is a reality, they are able to do something about it. It’s actually empowered them to act.’

That’s certainly true for me. Now I’ve accepted climate change as real, I feel motivated to do something about it. Indeed, positive storytelling is a powerful tool that can help bring about the change that our planet needs, and it’s one that we should use and use well.

As more people and businesses are doing their share, more positive stories are generated… encouraging others to do theirs. So, I encourage you to send in your own stories hereto be featured at Sustainability Corner– inspired by ‘Speaker’s Corner’ at Hyde Park in London where everyone has the chance to stand on his or her soapbox.

Together, let’s do our bit to save the environment, one beautiful story at a time.

10 ways to masterful storytelling

We all know how a well-placed and well-timed anecdote can tell us so much more than stats or facts ever could.

‘Storytelling is fundamentally how we construct identity and a sense of purpose,’ says Mark Strom, author of Lead with Wisdom.

Tell a story and people will grasp what you are saying.’

We all know how a well-placed and well-timed anecdote can tell us so much more than stats or facts ever could. While politicians have long had a go at this approach, it was Barack Obama who took the art of narrative campaigning to another level. It’s also a technique that is becoming the go-to in business, leadership, content marketing and social media.

Strom believes it’s not only the telling of stories that’s important, but it’s also about asking ‘grounded questions’. This, he says, leads to people telling more meaningful stories.

I heard Strom speak on this subject some years ago and was impressed by how he brings together his belief in the value of wisdom with his knowledge of philosophy. He describes himself as a ‘storyteller with a PhD in the history of ideas.’ He now helps businesses identify their narratives to affect positive change.

‘We can’t make anything without words,’ says Mark. ‘We all have to become the author of our own world.’

And yes, you can make this approach work for you, too.

Here are 10 ways you can become a master storyteller:

  • Make your story a universal one. This will touch more people.
  • Use emotions. How we respond to people is relational not just intellectual. If someone else feels what you felt, your story will touch them.
  • Be succinct. Don’t waffle.
  • Know the point of your story. Why are you choosing to tell it?
  • Ditto with intention. Intention will help your story resonate better with the listener because this is pure energy focused into your words.
  • Consider your delivery of the story. Allow for suspense and build to a punchline.
  • Listen to other people’s stories. They will inform your own.
  • Your story needs to suit your listener. Be prepared to reshape and adapt an anecdote to make it more appropriate to your audience.
  • Use your imagination. Stories don’t merely come from the mind. Rather, from the heart and soul, past and future, ether and the winds. You might not be able to harness all of these but if you are delivering an important presentation, think beyond the intellect.
  • Lastly, be open to reflecting on the story of your life. How you share your story is up to you. You are, after all, the hero of your own narrative and ultimately, destiny.

So give these tips a whirl and watch the master storyteller in you unfold in no time.

Fighting the good fight, for the people

Ryan McCarthy CA is a winner in management, as well as in the boxing ring. Acuity asked him for his formula for creating good workplace culture and bringing out the best in people.

BEFORE STEPPING into the ring for his first boxing fight, Ryan McCarthy CA was more nervous than he’d been in his entire life.

For nine months he had been training and his goal was to win. But it was more than that. He wanted to show “the best version” of himself “…in an incredibly confronting situation”.

That was back in 2012 when McCarthy, financial controller at leading medical technology company Stryker, was finishing an emerging leaders programme. While his peers chose to stretch themselves by building houses in Fiji or trekking to Everest Base Camp, he committed to two boxing matches. Why boxing?

“When you’re preparing for fights and you are in the ring, you have to be there 100%. It’s very  rare that in ordinary life you are truly present in every fibre of your being and I found boxing did that for me. I was then able to bring that back into my work.”

Aside from the hours of training, McCarthy needed to master the technical element of the sport. Mental courage was required.

“You don’t know if you are going to get your head punched in,” he says, “so I was pretty excited when I won. It was a perfect measurement of success.

“As accountants, a lot of what we do is supporting other people. We give advice, we keep control of a business, but it is typically someone else’s big moment when they hit their number. Whereas when I won that fight, it was incredibly primal, and very satisfying. It was my moment.”

Working well

Since joining Stryker seven years ago, McCarthy has advanced smartly up the ranks and has just become managing director at Stryker Medical.

It’s probably no coincidence that in May 2016 he received a Gallup award as a Global Great Manager finalist at a Gallup conference in Nebraska. Over two million participants enter into the award and according to Gallup, the ten finalists have to be consistently in the 90th percentile or above in overall engagement and to have shown high levels of consistent performance. On the awards night McCarthy wasn’t nervous.

“I just felt incredible peace. I had already won when I worked at an organisation where people care about me so much that they had done the nomination for me. There was no pressure to come first in the world.”

Last year Stryker was voted the second best place to work in Australia in the Great Place to Work awards. McCarthy puts this down to top-down policies, combined with a detailed multi-year plan initiated in 2014 and employees “knowing how their performance connects to that plan”.

It helps that healthcare is a thriving industry and while other businesses face disruption, Stryker is working to become the disrupter. In 2015, for example, they launched an orthopaedic robot.

Globally, Stryker is a Fortune 500 company with 36 years of uninterrupted growth and AUD $13 billion in revenue; in Australia and New Zealand there are around 500 employees with AUD $500m revenue.

Previously the Australian business had used some of the global Stryker leadership programmes, but in recent years, it has created equivalent local programs. The result: employee engagement has gone up year on year.

In practice, this means that “a work friendship at Stryker is somewhere between a best friend and a colleague,” says McCarthy. In November, he heard how a team member, Asmah, was working late one night. It was 7pm and a colleague, Kyle, asked her if she was going to be leaving soon. When Asmah said she was going to work for another 30 minutes, Kyle offered to sit with her and help her finish her work.

“Kyle is in a different team,” explains McCarthy. “Instead of him just leaving, he stopped to help Asmah so she could leave earlier. There was nothing in it for him but this is common at Stryker: the sense that we are all in it together.

“Culture is the sum of all the little things you do and the big things. [It’s also about] being purposeful about your people development, your accountability processes, your talent management… this is ten years’ worth of investment.”

And underpinning it all is the Gallup strengths-based approach that has been embedded in Stryker for more than 30 years.

Gallup strengths-leadership approach McCarthy is passionate about the efficacy of Gallup’s strengths-based process. When he was at the Gallup conference in Nebraska, many people stopped and asked him his “magic formula” for being a good manager. He told them that he selects the best talent, focuses that talent on what people are naturally good at, and then helps them turn that talent into a strength. As a leader, his role is “to ensure the individual has the opportunity to use those strengths every day in an engaging environment”.

But to build good teams, you first need to recruit the right people. Stryker is one of the hardest places in the world to get a job, he says.

“You don’t come without six interviews.”

Gallup first interviews any potential candidate and measures his or her profile with the level of talent required.

“I’ve seen IQ tests, profiles and lots of different ways of doing recruitment,” he says. “I’ve never come across anything as accurate as Gallup. It’s uncanny.”

Once employed, McCarthy then works on actively developing people so they can see a better future for themselves. For this he adopts Gallup’s 34 strengths framework. Part of the process is to also become “more aware of your weaknesses, which we call derailers”. These derailers can include a person’s dominant strength when it gets in the way of what a person is actually trying to achieve. “A lady in my team was very competitive,” he explains.

“So even though competition was very motivating, it was also a derailer because she was competitive with other people in her team. We then worked with her to help her redefine what she was competitive with, so instead of competing with the team, it could be about competing for an outcome.”


Feedback hurts – but works

McCarthy keeps himself accountable with “truthful feedback”. Eighteen months into working at Stryker, he had a 360-degree review “delivered with an iron bar”. McCarthy admits that what hurt the most was being told he was too focused on the outcome and not enough on the team. “I can move too fast, and leave people behind.”

Although he was frustrated at hearing the feedback, in hindsight it allowed him to become more self-aware.

“The further you go up in your career, the less truth you hear. You get into this spiral of thinking that you are incredibly successful and everyone else around you is not. Whereas keeping yourself grounded and having relationships that are good enough, that people care enough to tell you the truth, that’s the ultimate accountability.”

These days McCarthy actively seeks out feedback.

“Just recently  I had a one-on-one meeting with Richard Barber, commercial manager, and I kept asking him until he told me, ‘you can be very judging of people’. I felt fine with that. I am aware of it.”

So how can chartered accountants become the best managers that they can be?

“As an industry we need to be investing more in CAs getting better people leadership training and learning more relationship skills. A chartered accountant who has strong relationships and technical expertise  will be in far more conversations in a business and can add a lot more value.”

He’s also an advocate of CAs taking a proactive role in keeping businesses ethical and transparent.

“As a professional body we’ve got to continue to fight for public policy that is right for Australia and New Zealand. Taxation is a great example of where Chartered Accountants ANZ can make a big difference. Our voice needs to be clear and active.”

And his advice to other chartered accountants?

“Focus relentlessly on your own development. If you’re not fighting to develop yourself, you’re not going to win in the long term.”

As for McCarthy, he credits much of his success to his family. The only person more nervous than him at his first boxing fight was his wife, Sonja. “My family is my biggest support. They seem to believe that I can do anything. Knowing that just makes me feel like I can.”

Download the article PDF: Fighting the good fight, for the people

Seven female leaders share their stories of success

Seven successful female leaders on how they achieved their success and how other women can break down any door.

TEN YEARS AGO a female partner of one of the top four professional service firms was invited to attend a dinner celebrating her new partnership. When she arrived, she was refused entry as it was being held at a gentleman’s club.

On seeing her, a senior male partner at the same firm, simply said, “unlucky”, and walked right in. In 2016, the widespread recognition that gender diversity increases productivity and improves the bottom line means that there is an industry-wide commitment to increase the number of women in senior management roles. Here, seven senior female leaders give their hard-won advice on how women can break down doors.

Elizabeth Broderick, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner 2007-2015. Overall 2014 winner of the 100 Women of Influence Awards.

In developing the Male Champions of Change strategy, Elizabeth Broderick believes that our fundamental concept of work needs to be reimagined. “Let’s put talent at the centre and let work wrap around that.”

Once flexibility becomes the starting point the whole conversation changes, says Broderick, who describes the introduction of the all-roles flex initiative as “running like a wildfire” across diverse industries.

Broderick is convinced that the best way to promote gender diversity is the better sharing of paid and unpaid work between men and women.

“If you have more male managers taking primary parental leave this shifts the whole stereotype. That’s what will really help women advance because it sends a strong cultural message that you can be a serious player at work and be a father, whereas any number of women with young children doing that will not change corporate culture.”

In 2001, Broderick was the first partner at law firm Blake Dawson (now Ashurst) to go part time. She had two young children and her mother was dying of leukaemia, and her employer gave her full support.

This flexibility “buys loyalty in a way that money never can”, she says.

Her advice to younger women is to be solution focused. “There are enough people who can tell you what the problem is, not enough people who can explain creatively the solution.”

Theresa Gattung, formerly CEO of Telecom. The first woman to run a large New Zealand public company. Co-founded My Food Bag in 2013.

In the five years since Theresa Gattung has chaired AIA Insurance she’s seen a transformation from “no women on the board and in senior management to half-half”, a trend she sees across the financial services sector in Australia and New Zealand. Gattung believes that what you do is so much more important than what you say. As well as senior women helping bring others through, “you need a mixture of women. Some who’ve got kids, some who haven’t… Diversity within diversity.”

While governance on boards “is fine” it’s also about putting capital to work. “Some men do choose just to do boards but many do things that involve investing money, taking risks, building businesses. I think women tend to be less prepared to do that.”

In part that’s because the image of entrepreneurs is still male. Stepping up as an entrepreneurial role model herself, Gattung co-launched her new business My Food Bag two years ago which now turns over A$60m a year. The fail fast mentality, where you own the learning and move on, is key to success, she says.

Gattung admits she’s always “approached life as a sprint not a marathon”. She now recognises that: “Life is a very long time. You’ve got time to do everything, just not all the same week, though.”

Deanne Stewart, CEO of Metlife Insurance, with 20 years of experience in the financial services sector in Australia and internationally 

After 11 years working in London and New York, Deanne Stewart was surprised at how blokey Australian corporate culture was when she returned in 2007.

“Many people talked about this myopic, quarterly-return, aggressive, cost-cutting type of working environment; some even used the word toxic.”

This determined the next steps in her career path.

“I wanted to run a company and create an environment which is fun and caring but where you’re very clear about your goals and what high performance looks like.”

Fast-forward and Feldman has a leadership team handpicked for its diversity. The result: a turnaround in culture and more innovation.

Stewart thinks that for women to attain and sustain senior roles, there needs to be a 50/50 split at home, not just at work. What’s crucial are “constant conversations” with your partner.

In the workplace it’s not only about doing a good job.

“You’ve got to have an understanding of the commercial acumen and the P&L of a company.”

It’s also about actively finding sponsors as they “are sitting around tables determining succession planning”.

Lastly, Stewart urges women to be courageous in their career choices.

Terri Janke, lawyer and founder of Terri Janke and Company. Finalist in Telstra NSW Business Women’s Awards 2015

Terri Janke encourages younger women to become clear on their personal values and align their career with them and spend time writing out goals.

Once you’ve strategically looked at your path and managed the risk, you need resilience. Regular training helps, as do formal and informal mentors.

Janke has found her board positions helpful in learning financial skills and advancing her position as a director.

“I get to see how other board members think strategically. These people are better than an MBA especially when dealing with a crisis.”

Seeing firsthand how bigger businesses work has had a direct “flow on effect” in her own business while widening her client base.

As an Indigenous woman, she finds the biggest challenge is getting pigeonholed.

“I always felt I had to try even harder to prove myself. You feel you have to overcompensate so it’s been about developing that confidence and not doubting myself for being Indigenous and for being a that. Persistence is the thing.”

Kerry Doyle, CEO of Heart Foundation, recipient of Public Service Medal for Services to Science and Medical Research 

As a mother of five, working in a male-dominated profession, Kerry Doyle says that wherever you are, find a champion.

“It’s critical for some of those champions to be men. You’ve also got to find role models, somebody who looks like you that you can believe you can be.”

And if you’re the only woman?

“Don’t be afraid to be a pioneer.”

Doyle says when she started out it was almost impossible for employers “to conceive of someone with a large family having a career”. She doesn’t like to say that her “partner has been supportive, it sounds like they are doing us a favour. My time is as equal to his.”

To get ahead, she urges women to “be very self-aware”, gain experience in public speaking and presentation; and develop a virtual network through LinkedIn, Twitter with like-minded women.

“Back yourself. If you’re offered an opportunity, take the risk.”

Jane Halton, Federal Department of Finance secretary, former secretary of the Department of Health and the first woman to hold both these roles

Jane Halton didn’t start out thinking she was going to be a secretary of a department, but once in “striking distance” she thought she could do those jobs “as well as the chaps” in charge.

“You always want to work with someone from whom you will learn — somebody who is different to yourself and looks to be an expert.”

And when things go wrong, don’t crumple at the first knock.

“Often it’s not the making of the mistakes, it’s how you recover and learn that will be most formative. When I’m recruiting, theory is fine, but I want people who have had their feet in the fire and continued to walk afterwards.”

Halton says that even though she loves her work, her life isn’t defined by it.

“When I am home, I am at home.”

She likes to reflect on the day, how it’s gone and could have gone better. Her policy is always to ask if she doesn’t understand, to communicate, and to be inclusive in her conversations.

“I don’t think you can have a dialogue about a genuinely equal relationship between men and women if you don’t have men as part of that conversation.”

Norah Barlow, formerly the CEO of Summerset Group Holdings Limited, which became a NZX 50 company

Norah Barlow says that in her career, she hasn’t had other women around at all: “The people I’ve looked up to, my peers and my bosses, have always been men but I’ve never felt judged.”

When she was on the NZX 50 Index, she was the sole female CEO.

She never “pretends to be anybody” other than who she is. She thinks that too often women try and emulate men.

“Women in general are more consultative, wanting to make decisions from a big base of information, but men are more inclined to be quite speedy and make their decisions off limited information. Women try and act like that, instead of adhering to their natural principles.”

Whatever you do, she says: “think and act like you are in management from early on. Never think that a job is beneath you. Get into what you are doing as if you own it, as if you are it, then people respect what you are doing.”•

Download the article PDF: Seven female leaders share their stories of success

How stories transform company culture

Happy New Year to you all! It’s hard to believe it’s already February. Despite everything that is going on in the world and I think you’d agree, things can feel pretty crazy right now, the stories we tell ourselves and others are more important than ever. During this year on my Wordstruck blog I’m going to be exploring and explaining how you can use stories to create change in your life and in your organisation.

There are three parts to how stories work in business:

  • Storytelling
  • Story triggering
  • Story listening

In order to lead persuasively, whether you are leading an entire company or a team of three, or simply yourself, you need to know how all three work together.

When I coach leaders and CEOs one-to-one we start with storytelling. Once they’ve mastered the four story patterns that we use as part of the Storytelling for Leaders program™,  they are ready to delve deeper into the process.

We can move to using stories to create and shape the culture of an organisation. This is the start of a new and exciting phase. This marks the shift from using stories to communicate to using stories to influence and transform work culture.

So what is story-triggering?
It’s a way to create or amplify the culture you want. As a leader, your actions can trigger stories that are then re-told — both positively and negatively. This is the core concept of story-triggering. It is the equivalent of ‘walk the talk’. If there is misalignment between what you say and what you do, people around you will notice. As American author and businessman, Stephen R. Covey says, ‘You can’t talk your way out of what you’ve behaved yourself into.’

Now, over to you:
1.    Can you think of a time when you triggered a positive story in your organisation? What was the impact?

2.    Can you think of a time when, without realising, you may have triggered a negative story? With hindsight, what could you have done differently?

3.    What change do you want to affect this year? What is one thing you can do, so people repeat that positive story of change?

Look forward to hearing your thoughts!