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'Five stories every leader should tell about themselves' with guest Ernie Sander



Hello everybody and welcome to this edition of The Coaching Conversation. As you know, our goal in this series is to provide you with insights and tips to help you be the person you'd rather be, to do the things, and achieve the things you'd like to achieve. Today's edition is going to be a bit more supercharged than normal because I've got a special guest - we're very privileged to have Ernie Sanders with us, who is an expert in communications, and it's a bit like saying Coca Cola is a pretty popular fizzy drink - it's a ridiculous understatement.

Graham: Ernie, thanks for joining us. Can I just ask you to talk us through your background by way of introduction, who you are, where you've come from, and the work that you're doing now?

Ernie: Of course, Graham, thanks so much for having me. It's great to be with you. That was an amazing introduction - I'll probably never get another one like that again! I have a media background; I was in the media business for 25 years, at a combination of bigger, legacy media places like the Wall Street Journal, and then digital media start-ups, in an editorial management capacity, launching sections of the paper, managing teams of reporters around coverage areas, doing all different kinds of formats, newsletters, videos, stories, text and audio.

In the first part of my career, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to tell really good stories. At the Wall Street Journal (as Rupert Murdoch used to mention when he bought Wall Street Journal) every story had 7.2 editors touching it before it got to readers. So, there was a lot of strategising and brainstorming and as inefficient as it may have been, I really enjoyed it and really learned a lot about how to tell good stories.

We had this feeling that people who were reading the Wall Street Journal, it was not their first read - they were reading their hometown newspaper as well. So, we had to be telling them stories that they weren't getting from their hometown newspaper. We spent a lot of time thinking about how can we make our stories different; and if they already know it, let's not tell that story, let's tell a different story. That was a really valuable experience for me.

Then in the sort of second part of my media career, I was at digital start-ups. And of course, you're still telling stories, but there's so much more that's important with content in a digital realm. Beyond how good the stories are, you have to really think about how they get to audiences, and how you create engagement. Of course, that involves the way you distribute them and the kinds of partnerships you have, and whether they're search optimised, what you do on social and all of that kind of stuff. So, I spent a lot of time on those pursuits in the second part of my career.

Then, a couple of years ago, I joined a really interesting start-up communications agency called Pioneer Collective and we work with leaders of all kinds - a lot of senior executives, but also coaches and authors to help to expand their influence and accelerate their impact. We do that through thought leadership, coaching, through networking, and I use a lot of the storytelling tricks in ‘how to build engagement’ as I work with them to increase their footprint.

A lot of them have lots of wisdom and experience, but because they're so busy doing their jobs, or because they're not really focused, they don't sit around thinking ‘how can I amplify what wisdom I have’- they don't really have the impact that they could be having. So, we help them connect what they have done and what they know to bigger audiences, to shake their ideas and build their reputation, which is a fabulous sense of purpose.

Graham: Every one of us reading this interview is going to want a bit of that – it's a tremendous skill set.

Ernie: Thank you. I'm fortunate to work with really interesting and dynamic people. I think what I try to do is to tease that out and make sure that it gets amplified. I'm not there to make them something different than they are, I'm there to tease out what's special about them - I love doing that. I think when you when you can do that successfully, there's a real sense of accomplishment on both sides, but for the leaders, it really feels like suddenly whatever they want to do, whatever they want to say; it feels like they're speaking with a bigger megaphone. So, it's a cool thing to say.

Graham: Yes, and anything that helps overcome challenges like impostor syndrome, or lack of public speaking confidence; anything that does that is worth its weight in gold if you're a business leader - you really want to be capable in those areas. I'm aware that one of the tools that you use is storytelling. Could you perhaps position that for us, and perhaps give us an example of what you do?

Ernie: You know, as well as anybody, that to be a successful leader, you really have to connect with people, but the devils in the details, and it's a lot harder to do than people think. There are people who do it really well, and there are people who do it less well, but ultimately, what you're trying to do is to get people to really believe in what you're doing.

I think too often if you're the boss, you can come in and tell the people that work for you ‘we're going to grow sales five times’, or ‘I want you to strike up a partnership with this person this way’, or whatever you set your goals as being. You can say ‘I'm a really ethical person’, or ‘I'm a really charismatic person’ - whatever you want them to think about you - but just making statements like those really isn't convincing and doesn't really create buy-in. So, you need to figure out how to create faith in what you're pursuing; and this is where stories come in.

This whole idea of push and pull - where if I'm the boss, I can just push somebody to do something - but what you want to do is create a pull around your ideas and who you are, so that you can achieve what you want to achieve - That's where we use storytelling.

Graham: That management is exercised through authority, but leadership comes through persuading people to do what you want them to do; that's the ultimate goal - you want people to really buy into your vision and your ambition.

Ernie: Yes. I think we all can think about people that we've worked for, and who we really connected with, that we'd go into battle for, who was the type of a boss that we listened to - not just because they were paying us. I think, for me, the difference was that I did buy in on a deeper level with the people that I really would go to battle with. I understood at a deeper level, what made them tick, but also why we were doing what we were doing. It didn't just feel like a bunch of goals on a whiteboard, it felt like there was some rationale to it, and because of that I was all in. So, I think that it's important to try to create that - it's harder to do than to just order people around, but I think it pays dividends if you pay attention to it.

The other thing I would say is I think that we forget that people are inherently sceptical, so the burden is on you as the leader to convince them, at a deeper level, that what you're saying is right, or truthful or makes sense. So, I think that's where storytelling comes in - it leaves a deeper impression on people.

If I spent five years with you Graham, and we went to the pub and we took trips together, I would know that you're a great guy, and I know that you're ethical, and I know that you're successful, and I know that you're somebody that I should follow, but if you if you're my boss - when you tell me these things about yourself - I don't have any reference point; I don't have any context. So, stories help create those little bits of context for people to say ‘Oh, I get Graham’, ‘I understand him’. Now, this gives me a window into his soul. So, I think that they're important for that reason.

Graham: That's really true. It's also the social dimension, isn't it, the more people know each other, and understand each other, the greater the cooperation and mutual support are going to be.

Now, one of the tools you use, I believe, is called ‘the five stories that every executive should be able to tell about themselves’. I'm really curious, so perhaps you could share it with us and talk us through how it works?

Ernie: I should just preface this by saying that five is the number that I've come up with, but if you could do just or three two, then you're moving the needle in the right direction. I think it's really about just starting to get into that zone of developing stories that you can tell to illustrate points.

If you start, take baby steps and get to one and two, or three; the goal with all of them is to give answers to the big questions 'who am I?', ‘Why am I here? and ‘where am I going?’ These stories help in different ways to get to those questions, which I think are the way that you create connections with people.

I should also just say that it's easier to summon facts or just to make statements, and people feel uncomfortable, totally understandably, talking about their life; they're worried that it's going to come off sounding weird, or that it's going to be too self-referential, or that they're going to sound like a loser if it's a story about failure. So, there's a lot of inhibition to sharing personal stories.

I do think people should get comfortable sharing some personal stories, but all the stories don't have to be personal, they can be a story about your aunt, or a story about Mother Teresa, or a story about Winston Churchill, you can use stories about other people that are important to you. And by the slice of that story that you capture, you give a window into what you think is important and what resonates with you. Thus, you're helping create connections with other people to who you weren’t connected before perhaps because of the size of the organisation, or because of the length of service.

Graham: When you're working with a client, and you're introducing this concept, what do you get them to do?

Ernie: I usually start by working backwards a little bit; we start to try and find out what they want to say, then you work from these statements back into the stories that can illustrate it.

So, the first story that I say that people should be able to tell is ‘Is there a time when you overcame a challenge, and how did it change you?’. This could be a tough work relationship, or maybe it was a stretch goal, or a new job or assignment.

I talk about when I was in high school; I was playing American football and I broke my neck. I was in a halo cast and in traction for three months. I had to cut up all my shirts so that I could wear the same shirts, and I was out of school for a while. Then, when I went back to school, I was wearing this contraption and everybody thought it was funny. I had friends, but even so, people would laugh at it and for a while, I couldn't play sports; for about nine months or so I had to be a different person. But it gave me a lot of time to really think about what was important in my life. I spent a lot more time studying, I spent a lot more time with fewer friends. I was much more appreciative of my family who was really there for me, and so it's a story about resilience and a story about growing up as well. I think everybody has those challenges and they can be from any period in your life.

So, the first story to tell is to talk about a challenge and how it shaped you - ideally in a way that's still important to you, or so there's some longevity to the story that you're telling me.

I also talk about a time when I lived in a little town in Japan in my 20s; I only spoke a tiny bit of Japanese and nobody spoke English there. I use that story as a time when I made a lot of mistakes with the language, with the culture, but it helped shape me and I have a lot of really long-term relationships that came out of that time in this little town of 50,000 people. So, I have stories like that, that I use, but they can come from any different setting.

The second story that I asked people to think about in their lives is ‘what about a time when you failed and you didn't overcome it?’. Our first story has a happy ending, but for this second story; was there a time when I didn’t succeed and how did that change me? What did that feel like?

I talk about when I lived in Hong Kong for a little bit of time, then I moved back to the US to work at The Wall Street Journal. I worked on their Asian publication in Hong Kong, then I moved back to the US, and I joined a new section and help launch a new section. I had new bosses and new colleagues and I was trying to impress everybody, and I was trying to make everything perfect - I started spending too long on things and I was blowing deadlines, and over time, I realised that the section was set up in a collaborative environment - people would spend a lot of time sitting around talking about story ideas and writing headlines together. But I was so focused on trying to do this perfect set of work myself that I wasn't integrating with the group and I was messing up other things in the process.

Once I realised that it's not about perfection, it's about doing something quickly, and you need to do it pretty well, you need to get something 90% of the way there yourself, but it's all about tapping into the power of the group and collaborating. That's what made this section really successful. Once I saw that I was able to get better, but there was a period where I didn't see it and I felt like I was really failing and was missing things. I felt like I couldn't do what was needed and what was expected of me.

The third story is to talk about ‘why I chose the career that I chose'. For example, if you're a healthcare executive, why are you in healthcare? Where does your passion come from? Where does your energy come from? Why are you committed to it? Why won't you just go into the energy industry tomorrow? Or become a CFO in the banking world? What makes you attached to what healthcare is all about? I have a story that I talk about there as well - I think that's really important.

Then the fourth story is ‘Tell me a little bit about your future vision for yourself’. With some of the leaders that we work with - I'll use healthcare - we work with healthcare tech leaders. My sense is that the UK healthcare system is more together and works better, but our healthcare system is massively fragmented. So, one of the challenges is that all these different specialists and all of your different records and data are all over the place. And there's nobody who's minding the store. So, a lot of the leaders in digital health talk about a future in which it becomes more integrated, and everything is unified on a platform where people - all your specialists - can see what's going on, can have access to your health data, where you can share it with whoever you want, you don't have to fill out 10 Page forms for every doctor you see.

They talk about, for example, family members that have fallen through the cracks that have passed away because the healthcare was so fragmented that they were seeing eight different doctors, but none of the doctors was talking to each other and they missed something; missed a cancer diagnosis, for example, or they'll talk about a story when they were growing up many years ago, (because we the world has moved on since then), but we had family doctors, who were the point people for us and who knew everything about us, we came in they knew about our lives, they ordered all the tests that got done around us, and so they were the people that were ultimately responsible for our care. Now, that is so spread out. So, they'll tell stories like that - either something that didn't work out and why, or something that they thought worked out really well and try to evoke a vision of how we can get back to that.

Then the fifth story that I think is important is 'tell a story where the leader or the executive had a role in a group setting' - where you can see what that leader looks like when they're in a larger setting.

For example, we work with a sales leader who, during COVID, was used to being out and about and got a lot of energy from meeting with people in person. He was frustrated at the inability, as a lot of people were, to be able to do those things. He was they were able to do a few things here and there, and he wrote a piece on LinkedIn about a volunteer effort where he and a bunch of people got together in Florida and did a trash clean-up in Mangrove swamp. He wrote about just how important those in-person experiences were for him, how he learnt things about people, he learnt things about the business that he wouldn't get in a Zoom meeting, and how there's a social component to it because afterwards, people go out for drinks or for a meal. He shared photos of this experience of this clean-up effort in Florida, and it was a really nice way of saying ‘I miss in person meetings’ -which is kind of a generic statement that I think is true, but not very captivating. He wrote a story about a volunteer effort, about the conversations he had with these people, he shared a photo, it was much more evocative the way he did it. But it was all in the service of making this broader point about how he really can't wait to get back to where he was. Now, he believes that virtual has a role in our future - and we've learned a lot about the power of virtual - but he really felt like we've swung way too far and he hopes that we don't ever go that far again, in terms of the move to virtual at the expense of in person. I thought it was a powerful way to make that point.

Graham: I can see that when leaders put all of those five different stories together so that they have them in their kitbag, each of those stories for an appropriate moment with an appropriate audience. Absolutely, I can see how that massively enhances the quality of the relationship that they're going to build with that group of people or an individual. It's about making themselves vulnerable. It's about making themselves authentic, opening themselves up taking a bit of a risk, and being seen to do that by being seen to share. Now, clearly, they can control what they say, but it's a way of allowing people into your mind and into your thoughts and emotions without it becoming intrusive or overbearing.

I can see that storytelling as a form of training for a leader, for a business executive, is really helpful. I can see that if you get their mind thinking this way, they won't just have five stories - they'll think about it whenever they're posed with a challenge when they want to engage with people and to motivate them to think the way they want them to be thinking.

We're talking about being on the emotional channel, not just the data channel; not just transmitting information and instruction. We're conveying it in a way that says ‘this is why it matters. This is why I care about it, and what I want you to care about it’. I think that is it's a tremendous tool, I can see how eye-opening that kind of equipment would be for many of my coaching clients; I can see how they would warm to it.

Many of my coaching clients have real problems with engagement, either because of imposter syndrome or because of fear of public speaking and so on, so they do tend to be very reticent, or concentrate on facts and not on the emotion. Not the why. Just the what.

Ernie: I think there are ways to take baby steps into this; I think there are some people who are really comfortable with public speaking and obviously that's really powerful, but some people are more comfortable writing and they can write great emails that have some of this stuff in - I think that can also be great too.

You can turn the stories into really layered stories with lots of twists and turns and make them exciting, or you can also turn these stories into something that isn’t a Hollywood script, but it has elements of this and you still get some of the bang for the buck if you start to wade into this and just start to open yourself up; just start to tell little anecdotes, even if it's only a 15-second anecdote, it doesn't need to be five minutes.

I'm mindful of the fact that there are only so many personality traits, and there's a lot of people that are going to claim that, for example, ‘diversity is important to me’, I think that's great - I think there's a lot of people for whom diversity is really important for - so, if somebody writes a story, and they just tell me 100 times that diversity is important to them, I'm probably not going to remember it, but if they tell me a story about why diversity is important to them, or when it was important, then I'm probably going to remember that and if it's a better story, then I'm really going to remember it.

So, the other important piece of the stories is that it's really one of the only differentiators that we have - I should say one of the key differentiators that we have - to just announce that you have certain attributes; You're one of the millions of people that claim to have those attributes or that truly have those attributes, but your stories are truly original.

I see that all the time with the leaders that we work with when you start working with stories (even if they're not these spellbinding stories) their story is different than anybody else's story around that same thing, there's no way the facts can be exactly the same, and so if there's a certain amount of detail and a certain amount of colour, it's their story and I think it has to resonate with people because it's unique.

Graham: I think in the example you gave of diversity, just telling people that you value diversity is just a very thin veneer. If you say ‘I value diversity, and this is what I'm doing about it in my organisation’, or ‘these are the experiences I've had around diversity that made me think this way’, suddenly, you're credible, suddenly you're believable. Suddenly, people want to help you with whatever that, in this context, diversity subject is. I can see that.

Ernie, I'm really grateful for you coming and joining us today. Thank you very much. If any of our audience wants to reach out to you, how could they find you?

Ernie: A couple of different ways; is our communications agency. You can reach me via email at I'm also on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. I really look forward to hearing from your audience. If they have questions, if they want to know about storytelling, or they want to know more about our agency; I'm totally open to questions and love connecting.

Graham: I also need to recommend your podcast ‘you said what?’- a fantastic title for a podcast! Thanks so much, Ernie and goodbye.


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