As I walked in it felt as though I had come home!
The CEO’s office could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as ostentatious but the large desk was well ordered and adorned with some impressive looking gadgetry. As it was a Boomer boss I was dealing with here I couldn’t help but wonder just how much of the gadgetry was really used, but of course discretion dictated that I keep such thoughts to myself! Central to the office was a round table with comfortable leather chairs, a combination that invited conversation. Running the length of two of the office walls was a waist high built-in mahogany wood cupboard on which were displayed a variety of artifacts. It was the artifacts that caught my attention as I walked in and it was the odd assortment of collectables that struck a cord within me, inviting the question as to the story associated with each of them.
And that is where it began‌but let me backtrack a few weeks to where it all really started.
The story begins had been invited to participate in the sales conference of a renowned international manufacturer whose head office is situated in Switzerland. My colleague Graeme and I presented a series of presentations over a two day period and sampled the creativity of a well thought through and organized conference. And trust me; well thought through and organized conferences are as rare as horse flies on an iceberg! My conversation with the CEO began on the bus trip back to the conference resort following a resplendent dinner on the beach complete with a tin drum band and full moon. Chance threw us together on the crowded bus full of happy ‘conferencers’ and there I learnt that he had become CEO at a tender 32 years of age, inheriting what at that time was a local operation in something of a shambles. Obviously a lot of water had passed under the bridge since then and I was keen to learn how that transformation had taken place. The trip back to the resort didn’t really answer that question (that is why I was now in his office) but it did provide glimpses as to the character of this CEO. I learnt something of his family life and the courageous decision to ‘adopt’ the two children of a friend, a single parent, who had tragically died, the circumstances and timing of which had provided a real challenge. I knew I wanted to know more of this man’s leadership journey and so asked if it would be possible to visit him at his office after the conference was done and dusted in order to continue our conversation.
And so here we stood, gradually making our way down the line of artifacts as the CEO shared the story behind how each of them had come to be in his office. It was obvious that they evoked many memories of places visited, times shared with others and special events. Several were the tokens of affection and esteem whilst others symbolized achievement and reward. And as I suspected there was a story to be told for each one.
We then sat at the round table and over a couple of ‚our special cups of coffee‛ as I had been informed (and they certainly would have done any reputable coffee shop proud), the conversation turned to how this particular company had grown from a R70million to R190million turnover per annum in a remarkably short period of time. With, as I was later to find out, a goal to reach R600 million by 2008. I would guess that qualifies as a reasonable ‘stretch target’!
The CEO explained that shortly after he took over the reigns, the traditional end of year function for the staff had taken place. Being new on the block he decided not to mess with the tradition, in spite of some apprehension concerning the event. His misgivings proved to be right as during the event a riot broke out amongst the staff, one which necessitated calling in the riot police. The need for discipline and a framework in which that discipline could be practiced was obvious. Putting in a negotiated framework to ensure such discipline was the first of two things that the CEO attributes too much of their subsequent success. The fact that the framework had been developed by everyone made applying it easy. Over the years it has provided the foundation of what is a truly remarkable discipline record in the volatile manufacturing context that has been South Africa during the past 15 years. ‚We have not had a riot or strike since‛ the CEO informed me with just a hint of justifiable pride.
The second process to be implemented was the undertaking to educate the workforce concerning the various aspects of business in general and their business in particular. The vast majority of the workforce was illiterate and so the first step was to change that reality. Today over 90% of that same workforce is literate � a remarkable turn-around. Then started the process of helping the workforce understand just how the business they were involved in worked. This was not academic classroom stuff as the CEO explained some of the innovative and practical ways this was achieved. It was also something that was not achieved overnight but was a process that took both commitment and resources, underpinned by a belief that it was the right thing to be doing. The CEO explained it as ‚contributing to people’s personal quality of life‛.
The company has had to make several far reaching adaptations to both local and international demands. In the context of discussing the need for business to be adaptable in the face of relentless change, the CEO then said something remarkable. ‚Here customers initiate change, not management‌customers have a choice of product and we need to be listening to them‛. At last, I thought‌someone else singing our signature tune! In a Connection Economy, understanding the need to authentically connect with those both inside and outside one’s business is a critical factor in determining one’s success. Here sat a CEO who understood that reality. I scribbled a note to myself that read‌‛the two most powerful words for a CEO are‌ ‘our customer’.‛
Contrast that to my experience a day or so ago whilst in a cellular shop in the Pavilion Shopping Centre, Durban. I alone stood in the queue, something that placed me right under the noses of two staff pouring over a single computer terminal. I stood ignored. In fact I seriously contemplated whether or not I had become invisible and for several minutes allowed my mind to explore the far-reaching possibilities of such a transformation. The arrival of an important looking third person did nothing to interrupt their obviously important activity. Any consideration as how best to make me ‚our customer‛ was clearly non-existent. I had decided to wait and see how long it took but have to admit that I was the one to eventually initiate contact, my patience having evaporated like candy in a kid’s hand. As I walked out not having given them my business I thought to myself, ‘they just don’t get it’.
Now in front of me sat a CEO who spoke about ‚our customers‛ as though they were family. He got it – and the results in his business prove it! If only more CEO’s would understand this and ensure their staff not treat their customers as though they are the ones who should be grateful or as targets for mindless fodder such as, ‚sorry Sir / Madam but that’s our policy‛.
Extended family
Speaking about ‘family’ in any organization is risky business. For one thing using the description of ‘family’ carries with it a weight of expectations and is something that can backfire in no time at all. It’s a nice idea but‌
Well the CEO told me of an independent HR audit that had been carried out on the company, the final report of which had opened with the words, ‘In this business it is like family’ ‚That‌‛ he said, ‚meant a lot to me‛. And so it should!
It was a long conversation. But let me end this story of our conversation with a brief explanation of the response of our CEO friend to two questions that are standard fare on my ‘questions to ask leaders anywhere’ list. The first was this: What is the ‘best advice’ you would offer a leader based on your experience and journey? I have had some memorable answers to that question on the many occasions that I have had the opportunity to ask it. On this occasion the response was no less significant and was one that sparked a further in-depth discussion as the answer given was unpacked. The CEO replied, ‚For those leaders who consider themselves in it for the long-haul, it would be to encourage them to be honest and consistent‛. This led to a conversation of just what ‚being honest‛ meant in the often bloody waters that is the corporate sector? For instance, does it mean ‘full disclosure’? Perhaps this is best left for you to explore what this means for you in your own context and allow that exploration to happen in your own way and in your own time.
It could be a great exploration with a few surprises along the way!
The second question was this, ‘How do storytelling and leadership connect, if at all?’ Of course, as Director of Storytelling within, I am compelled to make such an inquiry! There is not much available on storytelling within organizations. Much of what exists in this field emanates from the academic/therapy stable where the theory and practice of narrative as a therapy has long been explored. As we understand the emerging Connection Economy, it is hardly surprising that this is now creeping into places where one would not expect it to inhabit, namely the corporate domain. In fact interrupting the writing of this article was a phone call to explore the possibility of designing and facilitating a storytelling process for a retail group of no less that 750 stores representing 17 000 staff. Storytelling as a concept and practice will take root in the corporate sector � it is just a matter of time. And those who ‘get it first’ � who understand the powerful role that narrative plays and are willing to experiment a bit with it � they will be the ones who stand to benefit the most.
‚Storytelling and leadership‌‛ our CEO mused, ‚that is obvious. You relate to people by listening to their story. It is essential to good leadership‛.
I have written much about the leader as a Storyteller and here again the CEO had highlighted a vital characteristic of savvy leadership â€? understanding the importance of the story: both the individual and the collective story. So perhaps the question to leave with you is, ‘what is your story – what has been your journey as a leader?’ let me warn you that there will be lessons in both the telling and the listening as you entertain and share that account.
A closing thought. Leadership‌good leadership at least is a process, a journey � one in which you never really ‘arrive’. Smart leaders are learning leaders. They are comfortable having a big red ‘L’ attached to their back designating ‘Learner’. Beware of leaders who have stopped learning, who have ceased to ask questions and only offer answers. And wherever it is you find ‘smart leaders’ offer to buy them some coffee in exchange for hearing something of their story. It is a great exchange and I suspect one they really won’t mind making! Better still‌pay them a visit.
Good luck.
Keith Coats
Keith Coats is a director of, a dynamic organisation that helps companies identify the mega trends that will impact the people connected to their business � employees, customers and partners. Keith is a recognised expert on leadership development and a gifted facilitator, executive coach and futurist.

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