The stories I could tell!
11,080 days ago I walked through the door into what is now PwC. I'll only walk 5 more times into our London office. Time is so short, but I've so many stories to tell!
Because I started my career as a left-brained accountant, it took me years to recognise that stories, not data, drive human behaviour.
Other people tell stories to each other about me. 'Mark is brilliant at seeing the big picture through the detail'. 'Mark is great talking to senior clients'. 'Mark's ideas aren't sufficiently practical to generate revenue'. 'Mark's a "people and change" guy and too fluffy to build the bigger commercial proposition'.
But these stories only become lead indicators of my performance if they change the stories I tell myself. It's simple: the stories I tell myself drive my feelings which shape my behaviours which determine my results.
Positive stories drive positive feelings, positive behaviours and positive results. Negative stories drive negative feelings and behaviours, and negative results.
It's therefore a real shame that the negative stories others tell about me resonate and affect me whereas I'm embarrassed by the positive ones and dismiss them. I turn up for work with my self-belief dial set to 60% but it would be much more powerful set to 90%. 90% still leaves plenty of scope for humility and self-improvement!
I say all of this because it turns out I'm not the only one. And seniority and accumulated success is no barrier to negative stories and stepping back moments. So with the help of @Adrian Gilpin at IHD, we've been piloting an approach with a group of our leaders to re-wire the stories we tell ourselves in our heads.
We ask people to identify something they're stepping back from doing because of a negative story. In my case, I've not set up the meeting with the global head of equities because I tell myself he will impose a power differential between himself (powerful alpha male) and myself (wooly consultant) and won't be interested in anything I have to say.
With some beautifully simple questions, we ask people to dream what their best story would be if they stepped forward, acted, and achieved great success.
Next, they make explicit the fears that, in contrast, hold them back. These fears make us see the opportunity to act as, instead, an opportunity to fail.
They list the reasons they haven't already stepped forward. Initially, the list is rational (not enough time, the incentives aren't aligned, our delivery capability is weak) but we focus on the things within their control (I'm worried that if I do take this action I'll be shown up or look stupid...).
We then ask them to identify stories from their past where (a) similar things have gone wrong but they've emerged stronger for the failure or (b) despite the fear, they've won out. What resources do these stories give them to emerge triumphantly?
Miraculously (or so it seems) this simple rewiring of the story creates positive energy and in many, many cases they quickly follow through with the action they've stepped back from. Sometimes with great results, sometimes not, but through results we learn and make progress. Through stepping back we achieve nothing.
I've four reasons for sharing this simple process.
First, it works! Try it for yourself, around one action you know you're stepping back from.
Second, not only does it drive better performance, it humanises our leaders. In my own firm, the approach has inspired our senior leaders, who have started to have much more honest conversations with each other about what they're stepping back from and why.
Third, I've learnt something from our rollout approach. We thought that having our senior leaders try it successfully for themselves would be enough to motivate them to lead the cascade and run 'discovery groups' for their people. But despite their active interest, they didn't immediately do so. They were telling themselves the wrong story: 'in this challenging market, I haven't the time to invest helping my teams do this, I have to prioritise my client meetings'. In effect, 'I'm too busy to lead'! We're in the middle of helping them change the story: 'unless I lead my people to step forward from their fears we will lose in the market'.
Fourth, I continue as a work in progress case study. I remind myself I've more positive stories than negative ones from my 11,080-day story bank. When I find myself stepping back, I consciously ask what negative story I'm focused on and try to replace it with a positive one. It's working: one day at a time!
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