How even small firms can apply the Steve Jobs touch to inspire their staff

Telling stories that bring the best out of workers will help any business.

By Donal Cronin Director, Carr Communications

STEVE JOBS FOUNDED Apple at the age of 21. By the time he was 30, his company was a global phenomenon. He was rich, he was famous, he was incredibly successful – and then he was fired.

He spoke in many interviews over the years about his time on the outside, saying that while it might not have felt like it initially, it was ultimately the best thing that could have happened to him.

From the outside, he watched as the company he had created and led lost its way and eventually foundered. And meanwhile, all the time, he was learning.

His triumphant return to Apple has often been described as the greatest second coming in business. When he returned to restore the fortunes of the ailing giant, he brought with him clarity and focus on what Apple should be doing – and shouldn’t.

He brought with him a relentless focus on the quality and beauty of the products that Apple should make.

He brought two additional things: his legendary vision, and his ability to articulate that vision in a most compelling way, to the world, but more importantly, to the people around him.

He had a clear vision of what he wanted Apple to be. He wanted to create products that would enhance every part of people’s lives. And he wanted these products to be the most aesthetic, most user-friendly and most beautiful products it was possible to make.

He was a master storyteller, not just a great salesman. He knew the importance of engaging people in his vision. He knew the importance of painting a compelling picture of what the future would be.

He knew its importance for consumers, who would ultimately buy these products because they would want them. And he knew its importance for staff – the people who would deliver on that vision for him.

Stories work, in a way that other forms of communication do not. When we’re told stories, other areas of our brains light up on MRI scans, like sensory areas for smell for words like lavender, or the areas associated with unhappiness for stories about pain.

Stories create empathy and stimulate complex brain responses. How you then ‘frame’ those stories is vital. While Steve Jobs may not have used the specific word, he was a master at what behavioural economics calls ‘framing’.

George Lakoff, the ‘father of framing’, says frames shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, and the way we act. Either Steve Jobs was familiar with the research, or he knew all of this intuitively.

What SMEs should learn

The difference between large organisations and SMEs is that larger firms understand the importance of getting this right. That’s not to say they always succeed – but they spend time and resources trying.

Counter-intuitively, getting this right in an SME is even more important than it is in a larger organisation.

You have smaller numbers of people. You rely even more on the input of each person. One person in a team of 30 or 40 not pulling his or her weight will have a greater impact than this would have in a large company.

You want people giving not just 90%, you want them willingly giving 100%.

This is ‘discretionary input’ – the extra 10% someone is capable of giving if they are energised by what they are doing, if they love it, if they enjoy it, if they are immersed in it, and if they feel connected to it.

In one study, it was found that students who understood how information related to them were willing to invest more in the task.

In addition, by exposing people to information about themselves and where they fit in this picture, it creates a ‘perceived competence’ such that they are more convinced of their ability to succeed.

You also want that energy in your company because it is vital for recruitment. You need good people wanting to join your organisation because they can see that it is an interesting place to work – a place where they believe they could make a meaningful contribution, and grow and develop.

Startups typically have an energy that it can be difficult to replicate or re-create as the company becomes more established because people are busy doing what they do.

Therefore, creating that energy relies on you as a manager. It relies on your ability to create that vision, to tell that story.

What are the steps?

Tell stories

First, get clear on your big idea. Connect your stories to human benefits. The closer you bring reality to the individual, the more concrete and granular, the more likely they are to act on it.

Even more so, tailoring stories to the individuals you’re dealing with, making them part of the story and carrying them on the journey will be far more effective in motivating and getting the best out of them.

Mind your language

Use compelling language, language that creates the associations that you want people to make. This comes back to framing and its power to shape perceptions and motivate individuals.

Two of the founding fathers of behavioural economics found that framing a problem about a cure for a disease in terms of lives saved rather than lives lost changed people’s risk preferences around the cure.

Another study demonstrated that exposing individuals to words associated with achievement made them more likely to perform well on assigned tasks and more than doubled willingness to keep on working at the task.

Show how you are helping

Show your staff positive outcomes by getting them to meet some of the people who use your product or service. Help them connect and acknowledge their contribution, personally.

One of the best examples of this was Doug Conant, a former CEO of Campbell’s Soup, who during his time in charge, wrote more than thirty thousand handwritten thank you notes to staff.

This personal acknowledgment adds a level of meaning to people’s work – that they are a part of something far bigger than themselves and can have a positive impact on the world around them.

Give calls to action

Make it clear what you want people to do in light of your communication. People need guidance and direction. You cannot just assume they will know what steps to take next.

Donal Cronin is a director at Carr Communications, which recently launched a behavioural economics and sciences unit.

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