Find a New Story

How Finance Leaders Transformed Their Communication

Editor's note: This article was written for and appears in the December issue of Dialogue, a global publication of Duke University CE. David Drake is a faculty member of Duke CE. It was originally published online in November, 2015.

43. It’s just a number. It only makes sense if it is placed in a context; e.g., it is the projected decrease in revenues (by percentage) in a key product line. Data itself is never enough on its own. It is the story about the number that matters most in the end. This is because people largely make decisions based on their stories about numbers more than the numbers themselves.

People largely make decisions based on their stories about numbers more than the numbers themselves.

For example, the responses to the example above are based on what people believe caused the decline, what they think that means, and what should be done about it as a result. Finance people are hired for their computational and/or analytical skills, but their success is ultimately determined by how well they communicate their data and influence the stories that drive its use.

This calls for greater narrative leadership. My colleague Geoff Mead describes it as the ability to “tell a coherent and convincing story that acknowledges where an organisation has come from, recognises the realities of the present situation and offers a worthwhile future.” I would add an awareness of one’s own stories related to the situation and an ability to help those involved (1) connect the dots between the past, present and future; and (2) connect their stories, the organization’s stories and the market’s/customers’ stories.

An awareness of one’s own stories related to the situation and an ability to help those involved connect the dots between the past, present and future; and connect their stories, the organization’s stories and the market’s/customers’ stories.

In teaching narrative leadership, I focus on three main objectives: (1) transparency—helping leaders create a personal decision framework to navigate the often murky waters of what story is told and to whom; (2) sense-making—helping leaders understand the importance of both informal and formal stories in an organization and its networks; and (3) influence—helping leaders find their authentic voice, truly hear the voices of others, and connect these voices to create a shared narrative people can get behind.

For leaders in finance, this often requires them to shift from merely conveying data-based information to (1) providing meaningful, actionable insights, (2) creating a positive impact in the moment, and (3) influencing and implementing the best outcomes. When it goes well, people can more fully contribute to the organization’s success. When any of these elements are missing, their efforts are splintered.

Graphic for narrative coaching story.png

The graphic is one of the tools we use in our programs. It is a simple way to plan an important communication, starting with the key insight around which the rest is built. It is an iterative process in that as your understanding of any of the four elements deepens, it affects and enriches the others. I recently used this frame with the CEO and over 300 leaders and change agents at a major bank to help them communicate a dramatically new corporate vision.

Sandy Lurins