Becoming a Champion: Transformative Storytelling for Organizational Change

Becoming a Champion: Transformative Storytelling for Organizational Change

Author: Jennifer Brown

In this minisode, Jennifer discusses the work that she does with leaders helping them to excavate their diversity story, and how they can use that story to create change. Jennifer shares a powerful structure for finding the universal truth in any story, and reveals why the process of story development has value for a leader, even before sharing that story with others. Discover how to condense your story to any length and how to overcome some of the most common storytelling challenges.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why storytelling is crucial for the future of leadership (2:00)
  • One of the top 5 expectations that Millennials have for employers (3:30)
  • Key points to explore in shaping and defining your diversity story (5:30)
  • The value of shaping your story even before sharing it with others (11:30)
  • What is missing from most presentations by leaders (12:00)
  • How to uncover the universal truth in your story (12:30)
  • How to condense your story to any length (13:30)
  • Where to share your story and get feedback (14:30)
  • The most common obstacles to sharing your story and how to get support (15:10)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. As you know, this is Doug Foresta. This “minisode” is with Jennifer Brown, and today we’re going to be talking about the role of storytelling in building diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Jennifer, I love welcoming you to your own show. Welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, that’s always my favorite part, Doug. (Laughter.) Thank you, Doug! Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly, pulling the red carpet out.

I know that you’re doing some work right now with Fortune 50—maybe even Fortune 10 company—doing this work, but can you say a little bit about why is storytelling important when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

JENNIFER BROWN: There are a million books on storytelling on any shelf of Leadership 101 books. It’s not a new concept. When it comes to leaders these days and in the future, and this is not just because I think diversity and inclusion is important to tell stories around, but it is being fueled by what younger generations of talent want to see in their leaders. They want to see the full person. They want to perceive who you are. They don’t want the sanitized version of who you are, they want to see how you got to where you are, what mistakes you made, what challenges you have that you overcome, and I think they want to see the realness.

Fortunately or unfortunately, many executives and senior leaders who have any level of public roles have gotten really good at managing themselves and their image around this bullet-proof, perfect, having all the answers, unassailable persona that is the “executive” when we think about that. Certainly, that executive that we think about is, by the way, often not a woman, a person of color, an out person, or a person with a disability.

We’ve got a lot of challenges. If I were an executive right now, I’d be thinking, “What got me here won’t get me there,” as we say. I didn’t make that up, that’s a book title that I love, but the idea is that we’ve got to dramatically shift how we show up when we have public leadership roles. What do we say? How do we personalize what we say? How do we make it real? How do we push our own comfort zone to dig in a little deeper, or maybe a lot deeper into things that maybe we have never believed had any place in our leadership narrative in our arsenal of tools?

When it comes to inclusiveness, which also is one of the top five values and expectations that millennial talent has for employers, it’s a great one-two punch to think about storytelling and think about storytelling around inclusiveness, belonging, or exclusion. That topic is going to really, really resonate as well.

It’s what you talk about, how you talk about it, and how often you talk about it that should be on leaders’ minds these days, Doug. It really should be getting a lot of people’s time and attention because I think it would have an outsized impact on followership.

DOUG FORESTA: I know this is a minisode, and we obviously can’t go too deep into this, but could you say a little bit—I’m really curious about that process and what that looks like. I know this is what you do—you help leaders excavate their stories. Could you say a little bit about what that looks like? How do you even start that process?

JENNIFER BROWN: When I’m involved, I will go and spend time. It doesn’t take much time, but I will, for example, interview someone, put them at ease, and share some of my story to build trust with people. I walk in, Doug, and you know what I always joke about. I walk in and people say, “Who is this woman?”

DOUG FORESTA: What does she know about diversity?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, “She doesn’t look like a diversity consultant. She looks like a housewife.” I don’t know what people think I look like. Anyway, it’s not correct.

When I do the work, I have to establish trust quickly, and then we start to speak about their lives, the choices they’ve made as leaders. We go back in time, sometimes to family, sometimes we go to parenting, sometimes we go to their career progression and unlikely places where they found support or mentoring.

It’s interesting when you’re sitting across from a diverse leader, defined as someone who’s not white and not male, what is really curious to explore is to ask, “Who helped you along the way and took you under their wing? What did they look like? Who were they? Was it a secret relationship? Was it one of those secret mentorship situations?” There are a lot of those where somebody has your back, but it’s sometimes secret even to you. It’s always interesting when people find out and say, “Wow, that person has been sponsoring me when I haven’t even been in the room. They’re my champion, but I didn’t know that they were my champion.”

There are a lot of mysterious ins and outs of support mechanisms which helped create the executive sitting across from you. Going back through that, excavating it—I love that word—and holding it up to the light together. And then we ask, “Is there a story in here? First of all, have you ever shared that with anyone? Have you shared how you overcame that challenge? Have you shared something painful about your background or your family? Have you shared where you’ve gone out on a limb on behalf of someone else?”

Many times, leaders will say, “I feel self-conscious doing that. I don’t think it matters, it’s irrelevant. I don’t want to have this perceived as a grab for sympathy. I’m ashamed, and I don’t want to talk about it. What does it have to do with my business persona?”

You’ve got to name it and get underneath all of that and challenge the leader and tell them, “Actually, it could be very powerful in ways that you can’t even imagine to share that.”

Back to our concept of the leader as an infallible human being, when we don’t show these things, when we don’t talk about why we’re still learning, how we struggled, what we learned through the struggle, it’s a problem. So many eyes are on you that crave seeing that imperfection, because they have that imperfection in themselves. I don’t mean that literally, I mean it metaphorically—they have a similar imperfection.

When I tell my story about losing my voice, I try to talk about it as a metaphor. I lost my voice literally, I had surgery, and had to reinvent from being a singer. But to me, there was a bigger truth. In sharing that very vulnerable, scary, shameful story—which I didn’t even think I could share without crying from the TED stage—was I discovered the metaphor of the voice. We all can lose our voice or give our voice away in so many ways. It can mean so many different things. It’s been beautiful to see it come back to me in a different shape. I might not have ever shared that story because I didn’t want to, I wasn’t in the mood, it was too raw emotionally, I didn’t know what the point was.

You’ve got to let the audience figure out what the point is, and bring that back to you. When you receive that back from your listeners, you add it to your story, and your story becomes more broad, robust, powerful, and it deepens over time. That’s what my story has done.

You have to trust your audience. You’ve got to go there, stick your neck out, and say, “Here’s who I am. I’m still piecing together what it all means.” You can even say that. It’s find not to have all the answers. Some of the deepest things that happen to us in life, we don’t know why they happen—we don’t. Yet, the work of our lives is to figure out why they did. It’s not something you can snap your fingers, understand, and it all makes sense. It took me hears of hindsight to understand that so much of my life has been about finding my voice in so many ways—as a woman, a business owner, an LGBT person trying to bring my full identity into the frame. There is so much that other people can relate to in that.

We excavate, we look at the elements of story, we talk about giving ourselves permission to tell it. Then, literally, what I do, Doug, is I take a lot of notes, my team takes a lot of notes, we go back and write up a draft of the story. The other challenge for leaders is they might have a beautiful story which they don’t think is beautiful or relevant, we think it’s beautiful, but then they don’t know how to write it. They may not be a great writer just technically speaking.

Writing about yourself is always really hard for everyone. As a business owner, I’ve had to learn how to write about myself in the third person for bios, awards, and things like that. It’s a little self-conscious.

This is a team sport. You’ve got to have someone who holds the space for you and gives you the language to try it on. Maybe you try it on privately, and nobody hears that story. Maybe they don’t hear it for a year, maybe you take a piece of it and you try it out the next time you have a town hall. By the way, I can guarantee you, the first time you do it, many, many people will come up to you and say, “I really appreciate what you shared.” Hearing that, I cannot describe the feeling of that. You took a risk, and it will fill your soul and heart when you hear that. When you start to hear it a lot, you realize the power of these stories.

DOUG FORESTA: Obviously, there’s a huge value in sharing the story. Do you find that leaders find that even having the story, there’s a value in that you’ve helped them put it together so it makes sense for them?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, if they speak on the personal level. I see a lot of executives who might present a lot, but they’re doing the corporate talking points, or they’re giving a presentation about their functional knowledge. They don’t start with the personal piece, and maybe they never get to it.

My theory is there is so much that’s interesting about people that would connect an audience to them in a very different, more profound way, but that they have not either had a coach to help them put the pieces together, or someone to give them permission that it’s a good story, and here’s where it leads. Your story isn’t just in a vacuum.

Erin Weed, who was on the podcast, you’ll recall we start with a lesson or a challenge that happened to us, then we go to a truth that occurs to us as a result of the lesson or the challenge. The last part is the universal truth, which is, what does this mean now for the person listening to the story?

The most beautiful talks, and this is why some of the better TED talks work, they’re always personal, but they take the listener in an arc of story, truth, universal truth. Ending up at universal truth means saying, “What happened to me, you may be experiencing, and here’s what I think you should take out of it, because here’s what I’ve taken out of it.” That’s transformative for people. They don’t soon forget that.

You can use story, truth, universal truth in a very compressed way. I have mine down to two or three minutes if that’s all I have. Time is not an excuse, but as you’re working your story, it may be a longer version for a long time. After you practice a lot, Erin calls it the “Slinky” speech—you have the two-minute version, you have the ten-minute version, you have the half-hour version. You can segue into this story wherever you have the time to do so.

In business communications in general, we leave so much on the table that could be helpful to us. We don’t go there. That’s what I want to challenge. In particular, the vulnerability piece around inclusion, exclusion, belonging—it’s a wonderful place to start, but it’s a very vulnerable place to start. There’s a lot of hesitancy.

Then I give a script to someone and I say, “How does this feel? Where could you deliver this? What audience would make you feel like it’s not too risky?” We think about what they have coming up where they could utilize the script.

You can also go to social media. You could go to a LinkedIn post where you post your story, or you tweet pieces of your story, directing people back to your LinkedIn post. You’re not just leveraging your in-person audience, but you’re leveraging that virtual audience as well.

There is risk to all of this. Your company has to support you doing it. That’s where some leaders get stuck. Whatever the official or unofficial rules and norms of a company—we need you to keep your head down, we don’t want you to be self-promotional, stick to your functional job talking about what we need you to talk about.

There is a bit of agency here that you have to take. When you’re a senior leader, you have a lot of agency in many ways—you have the most agency of anyone in the whole hierarchy. You’re in the end zone, you’ve achieved a tremendous amount, and you’ve got this title that protects you. It’s not a total protection, but it’s relatively less risky when you’re at the executive level to really use your voice in this way and I think we should see more of it.

DOUG FORESTA: I think it’s beautiful. In closing, as you were discussing this process, I was thinking of the medieval process of alchemy—taking a metal that is just a regular metal and turning it into gold. To me, that’s what I see you and your team doing. You’re taking these raw experiences, maybe things that leaders are ashamed of, maybe they feel they’re the worst moments of their live, and then turning them into this gold that has universal application for everyone. It’s a powerful process.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Maybe that’s the title of the next book, Doug. (Laughter.) That’s good. That’s good! Hashtag “alchemy.” (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Alchemy, yes. Jennifer, thank you so much. Thank you for joining yourself today on The Will to Change. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, self. (Laughter.) Okay, thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: All right, thank you.

Jennifer Brown is a leading diversity and inclusion expert, dynamic keynote speaker, best-selling author, award-winning entrepreneur and host of The Will To Change podcast, which uncovers true stories of diversity and inclusion. She will be the morning keynote speaker at the Annual NYC SHRM Conference on April 27. Visit the NYC SHRM Conference website to learn more about her session:

Thank You to Our Chapter Partners