“You can change an organisation one story at a time.”

The greatest tool in a leader’s arsenal is a good story.

Prof Howard Gardener, Harvard University


Many organisations are good at recognising success, just not replicating it. The key is imitation. The most powerful learning human beings do is through modeling. Underperformers have simply imitated poor behaviour. If you want to unleash their potential, you could pair them up with your star performers. This is effective, but it only gives one person at a time the chance to learn from your stars. A better option is to get the stories about how your top performers do what they do and spread them through the organisation. This enables everyone who hears the story to emulate the star’s behaviour.

Of course, it’s not just the star performers who exemplify greatness. Every day in every organisation there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Most of these everyday heroes go unnoticed. There is a basic principle of learning: what gets rewarded gets repeated.When you tell these stories, not only are you recognising excellence, you are linking that recognition to a specific behaviour, ensuring that it happens again.


Stories are also a great way to bring corporate values alive. In most organisations, values are forgotten almost as soon as they’re created. Even if they’re remembered they seldom change behaviour. When staff tell stories about how they or their colleagues have lived those values, people see how they themselves can put them into action.


To get these stories, I help my clients set up “story time”. Instead of spending meetings purely on policies and procedures, they start off with each person sharing a story about how they or someone they know has lived a value, delighted a customer or made a breakthrough. You should feel the spirit in the room. It’s an amazing thing: no one ever leaves an organisation because there was just too much praise and recognition! More than just recognition, each of those stories gives the rest of the team a model of excellence that they can emulate in their own lives.


Another opportunity to tell stories is award events. In many organisations when someone wins an award most people know what they did (increased sales by 30%), but not how they did it. To discover the specific behaviour of the star performers, you need to get their story and share it at the event so that everyone learns how they can do it too. You could interview them on stage or get your emcee to research and tell the story.


Some of my clients produce inspiring short videos of their top success stories, to check them out go to www.biglittlestories.com Otherscompile their stories into an “Organisational Bible” which gets used in induction programs and for on going training and development. These stories become a blueprint for “the way we do things around here”.


But just why are stories so powerful? Perhaps a story will illustrate. Have you ever got on a plane and wondered if the pilot is a first-timer? You think to yourself: “Hey, if he’s flying this Boeing 747, he must be a bright guy, but what if this is his first time?” You remember the first time you walked, you fell; first time you cycled, you crashed; first time you drove a car, you stalled. You don’t want to be uncharitable, you know, everyone’s got to have a first time, just why does it have to be with you on board! Then you remember that documentary you saw about flight simulators. The pilot has already had his first time, he’s had his 100th time in a computer simulation so real that if you were sitting in it you wouldn’t know the difference. A pilot learns to fly in a flight simulator. We learn to live in a lifesimulator. When you tell someone to give good service, it’s like teaching them to fly by telling them to have a good take-off. When you tell them a story about good service, you put them inside a simulator. The greatest gift that a story has to give is the lesson of a life that we didn’t have to live.


Justin Cohen is an international speaker and author of four books and seven audio books. This article is based on The Astonishing Power of Story. For more information please go to www.justinpresents.com