Founder Focus: Storyteller, Ian Sanders

2016-12-01T19:13:46+00:00January 12th, 2016|Startup Culture|

Ian Sanders and I were introduced in November 2012, in the lobby of a swanky London Hotel. A freelance journalist at the time, Ian was on assignment from The Financial Times to write a piece on female startup founders. At the time, I was the founder of a startup accelerator focused exclusively on investing in gender diverse founding teams, and I was in London to speak at FT Innovate (because back in 2012, an investment strategy of only investing in emerging mobile tech companies started by women was innovative). Our lively 30-minute banter formed part of Ian’s Financial Times article—and more importantly, has been the basis of a great friendship from across the pond and every social networking site since.

Ian is a storyteller and creative consultant who helps people and organizations reconnect with their purpose, story and passion. He’s the author of four books (as well as being a contributing writer for The Financial Times Business Life pages from 2012 to 2014, writing about entrepreneurs, startups and trends) and contributed to Monocle magazine’s radio station Monocle 24. Ian believes that when people and organizations get fired up by reconnecting with their passion, their story and their purpose, they do their best work.

As Ian posted recently on his blog:

If we want to be happier and more productive in our lives, shouldn’t we inhabit organizational cultures that bring out the best versions of ourselves? I’m writing this in a buzzy coffee shop, sitting up at a bar. There’s music playing. For many tasks, this is my ideal workplace. If you put me in a sterile corner office I know I wouldn’t be as productive.

And yes, it seems appropriate to start an interview with a storyteller, with a story (plus it is rather fun to finally flip chairs and thrust Ian into the interviewee hot seat for a 30-minute interview).

Why is storytelling important? How is it different than a mission statement?

A mission statement can feel detached from reality – like something a management team devise behind closed doors in a boardroom one Friday and then reveal to the organization on a Monday morning. Storytelling holds a mirror up across the entire organization, it’s human, it’s real. Stories can bring an organization to life.

What are the elements of good corporate storytelling?

Let’s be clear. This is not about creating works of fiction. It’s not about the Disneyfication of a business’s purpose—it’s about holding up that mirror. When I work with client businesses I often spot a disconnect between what a business says it is and what it really is. I’ve found that crafting an authentic story can help bridge that gap; and also cut through the crap.

Can it be “too late” to craft the corporate story?

It’s never too late. Last year I’ve worked with clients from an early-stage entrepreneur just shaping his idea, through to a 200-year old organization. Often more established businesses recognize they need to update their story, or craft a new one, to make sure it is ‘fit for purpose’.

Why is storytelling an essential tool within organizations?

A client of mine headed up a strong team within an established organization. But he told me he felt like he was standing on the bridge of a ship not sure where he was headed. I worked with him to extract and capture the story so he could tell the team where they were going.

How does it help employee engagement?

A corporate story is like a magnet that pulls people together in one direction. It’s also a lifebelt for times of uncertainty—like when you hit stormy waters. A story rallies people around a common purpose so they feel like they are part of something.

How do you tell a story that is changing, i.e. an industry in transition or startup that is pivoting?

You update the story. The origin story (why you started) doesn’t change, but your future story (where you’re headed) might. Organizations change, but often they don’t update their stories. They tell the old story that’s not relevant anymore. There’s a disconnect. Standing back to capture and craft the real story is a great way to bridge that disconnect.

What are the ways to capture a company’s story?

Make a commitment to storytelling. You need a storyteller, whether that’s an outsider or an in-house resource. Someone whose job is to be curious, to ask questions, to look under the sofa and behind the curtains and share what they see.

As an advisor to businesses on how to tell their story, your focus is on people, not products. Why is that?

Storytelling is about leveraging emotions. It’s human. I’m not interested in products and services, I’m interested in how your business changes the lives of its customers. The same applies to your audience.

What are your 3 top tips for business leaders on storytelling?

  • First, make sure that the story you are telling your organization fires YOU up. Because if it doesn’t get your fist-pumped, how on earth do you expect it to inspire others?
  • Second, make your story simple. Don’t reach for the dictionary just because you’re telling a story in a business context. Speak in the same way you’d speak to your friends or family.
  • Third, keep it human. Your story should be about people, not products. If you want to change hearts and minds, make sure your audience can relate with the people in your story.

What are some innovative ways leaders can reconnect with their vision and purpose?

They need to get back to basics. They need to get out of the office and remind themselves why they joined or started the business in the first place. They need to rediscover what drives them. They need to ask questions of themselves—and the organization—they haven’t asked for a while.

In a deadline driven, constantly connected mobile world, most of us find our attention levels are maxed out and creativity is drained (just at the time we need creative problem solving the most). Any suggestions for how to get back on track?

Sure, it’s a familiar problem! Here is some advice for when the fuel tank is low:

  1. Go do something else. If your fuel is low, you won’t be in the right mindset to tackle your to-do list. So switch out of work mode! Go do something else for an hour or two. Come back when you feel better. Which brings me on to #2.
  2. Know what fuels you, and go do that. Those experiences when you feel in your element? Writing a blog post, going for a 40km cycle, playing the piano? Just go and do whatever that is, and as soon as you get into your stride, you’ll feel your fuel levels rise.
  3. Get fired up by someone else’s story. If your own fuel tank is empty, try looking somewhere else for inspiration. Read a book, listen to a podcast, watch one of The Do Lectures. Get fired up by listening to someone else’s story.

You’re a fan of side-projects. Why is that? Why is important for business leaders to have a side-project (or to encourage side-projects within their organization)?

I think a side project is a great way to stay grounded. A business leader can lose touch with what life is like on the frontlines, by spending too much time on the road or in the boardroom. A side project can deliver entrepreneurial and creative satisfaction. I worked with a banker recently who had experimented with a pop-up market in his neighborhood, selling drinks. His eyes lit up when he told me about it!

Let’s talk about your manifesto. How did the “5 Ways To Fire Up Your Business & Work Life” come about? How does your manifesto fit into your story? Should every organization have a manifesto?

I LOVE a manifesto! I think it’s a great medium to capture and communicate your values, story or opinion. I decided to turn this manifesto into a postcard (and limited edition poster). Putting these postcards ‘out in the wild’ is great. I got a new business inquiry recently from a startup who’d seen one of my postcards on a someone’s desk in Paris!

Anything else we should be thinking creatively about in 2016?

Yes, let’s get away from the traditional office environment! The best meetings I’ve had this year? Walking along the streets of great cities like Paris and London, and sitting in collaborative, lively spaces inspired by the day-to-day engagement that occurs in public spaces, like coffee shops. The best events? The Do Lectures in the middle of the Welsh countryside (ideas + energy = change). Why do we think the enclosed office with assigned workspaces is the only place fit for the purpose of doing our best work? Get out of the confines of the cubicle! That’s part of the reason why I’ve launched my Fuel Safaris, one-day walk-around-the-city workshops where I reconnect people with their story, passion and purpose. Changing up your workday or having access to a variety of workspaces is fresh air for your business ideas.

Ian Sanders