What’s Your Story – Your Leadership Narrative?

“If you aren’t the author of your own story, you’re the victim of it.” ~ Jim Loehr 


Are you telling the story about your career and your work that you want people to hear? Are you telling it in a way that they can hear it?

People remember stories. When you tell stories around your accomplishments, you’re detailing the professional value you bring to an organization – your leadership narrative. Tying these stories together is the message of why you do what you do and how you do it. It is the essence of who you are professionally – and, I suspect, personally.

Regardless of where you are in your career – looking to achieve the next level, from tactician to strategic decision maker; or as a senior professional trying to show that you can provide value to an organization – you need to tell your leadership narrative – the story of your unique value – what you love doing and do better than anyone else.

So how do we tell a story that conveys value? This can be one of our most difficult challenges. What we do well, we do intuitively. We don’t think about it. We come into a situation, size up the challenge and act. While we’re often relying on past experience in our actions, we’re also influencing outcomes, that is, creating value.

Tell your story in a way that can be heard by your audience – your boss or a potential employer. First, it needs to be relevant to their situation. If you’re telling a story that’s not relevant, you’re not conveying value. Second, your story needs to be concise. Briefly outline the challenge; describe your actions to resolve the challenge and conclude with results – the impacts of your actions. Sometimes, these results are expressed quantitatively – revenues generated, cost savings, increased sales. Other times they’re qualitative results. Regardless, make sure you convey their significance.

From Technical Chops to Leadership Chops

About a year ago, I worked with a group of senior-level engineers who had been laid off from their company. All these guys (they were all male) had managed major global projects for their company, leading remote teams around the world and they had been in this leadership capacity for the past 15 to 20 years. When we began working together to build their narrative, every one of them identified as an engineer and listed their technical expertise as their main qualification.

They weren’t going to be hired in their next job for their technical chops; they would be hired for their leadership chops. There would always be someone younger, faster and cheaper in the technical realm – that’s a commodity role. But the ability to successfully run major projects with global teams – that’s an asset role – one of leadership.

This was a surprise to them. After all, they had been initially hired at their company because of their technical expertise as engineers. At the beginning, their narrative was one of technical engineering. As they progressed in their careers, that narrative changed. It was now one of leadership.

We worked together to build new leadership narratives for them; narratives that would be assets to other industries other than just the one in which they had spent most of their careers.

Last summer I had the opportunity to work with another group that had been laid off. This was a group of traditional “blue collar” manufacturing workers who had worked in a mill that was being shut down.

Again, these people saw themselves in terms of their technical or mechanical skills. They were welders, mechanics and machine operators. These were hands-on folks who fixed machinery and kept the mill running. They took pride in their mechanical skills. They also took pride in their work ethic – their reliability and punctuality.

As we talked, it became clear that they were more than mechanics. They were problem solvers (assets). They told stories of troubleshooting tough problems and rebuilding machinery in the mill to minimize production downtime, thus saving the company money. Their stories focused on working collaboratively with other teams to meet critical deadlines. So we rebuilt their narratives to focus on leadership roles rather than as commodities in a production mill.

Retool Your Narrative

The point is your professional narrative changes over time. Often your career begins with specific skills that position you as a commodity. Over time you progress to a more asset-based role, where your value is based less on your initial skillset and more on the leadership qualities you now possess. It’s important to “retool” your narrative to reflect this value.

So over to you…How has your narrative changed in your career? Can you tell a narrative that casts you as an asset or are you still telling one that keeps you a commodity?