How to Get the Story Learner’s Edge

Apr 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: Business Start-up Strategies

By Steve Farber

I’ve never met anyone who said they left a company because they were

recognized too much, and, I would guess, neither have you. We crave for

others to notice our work, appreciate our accomplishments and recognize our

contributions.  Leaders make a practice of doing just that.

The most impressive leaders-the Extreme Leaders-go way beyond recognizing

and rewarding others.  What they have, in fact, is a boundless fascination

with and gratitude for the people around them-colleagues and customers

alike. They notice others’ accomplishments, to be sure, but they also learn

their stories, understand their challenges, and absorb their hopes, dreams

and aspirations.

Why?  Because they love the human drama (and comedy) and are driven by a

desire to help, to make a difference, and to hold on to the very things that

make us human. Extreme Leaders are awake, attentive, and observant to and

about the lives of others while they simultaneously strive to make the

business more productive and profitable.  And, most important, they

understand that a fulfilling life and a thriving business are not mutually

exclusive ideas.

Consider Dick, a mid-level vice president at a formidable national bank.  He

ran the check processing operation in the bank’s corporate facility.  It was

the closest thing a bank has to a manufacturing operation and it had an

ethnically diverse, primarily blue-collar employee base.  Dick beamed with

pride and enthusiasm whenever he would tell story after story of

unprecedented productivity increases and skyrocketing employee morale.

Dick rarely used the pronoun, “I,” as in, “I’ve done this; I’ve accomplished

that.”  He also rarely used the word “we.”  Instead, he told story after

story about individual people and how they’d risen to conquer one enormous

challenge after another.  And he told many of those stories with the hero

standing right there.  Some appeared embarrassed by the spotlight, but every

one of them, without exception, expressed some variation of a glowing “thank

you” before scurrying back to work.

It’s not as though Dick didn’t have an ego.  He could puff out his chest

along with the best of them.  But he always brought it back to one central

theme: his deep gratitude for his employees’ spunk, imagination,

personalities and drive.

Simply put, Dick loved the individuals on his team-even the ones he

eventually had to let go.

Several years later, after his promotion to Sr. Vice President (which was

essentially deity status at the bank) surviving a merger and moving to

another division, Dick was charged with conducting what some euphemistically

call a “reduction in force.”  Over a 12-month period, he culled his division

from 1500 people down to 175-mostly through outsourcing.  During that same

period, however, employee satisfaction percentages went from the mid 70’s to

the high 80’s, raising steadily all throughout the process.  That was-to put

it mildly-counter-intuitive.  And it wasn’t because the survivors where

happy to still have a job (which they were), but anyone who’s ever been

through a lay-off will tell you that the event is usually characterized by

increased stress, cynicism and even paranoia.  That was not the case in

Dick’s domain.

When asked him how he accounted for the amazing spirit and morale even as

people were jetting out the door, he said, “Two things: I kept everyone

involved, and I continued to let them know I cared-every freakin’ day.”

And that’s really the whole point: he knew their stories because he cared

about them, and they knew he cared because he knew their stories;

consequently, even through the most difficult of times, his team put their

full effort into everything they did.

Can you say the same about your team?

The good news is that Dick’s “story-learner” ability wasn’t genetically

encoded in his DNA.  He learned how to do it by making a practice of

fascination and gratitude and so can you by following these steps:

1. Write down the names of one or two key people internal to your business

(colleagues, employees, staff, managers, partners, associates, etc.) and one

or two key external people (customers, vendors, suppliers, etc.)

2. List everything you know about each person-beyond the “function” he or

she serves. Assess how much you know or don’t know about each as a human


3. Ask each person to tell you one important story or event from his or her

life. Or look for an opportunity to find out more during your next

conversation. Ask each to share with you his or her number one business


4. Ask if there’s some way you can be of service-something you can do to

help with each person’s challenge. Even if that person declines your offer,

he or she will always appreciate your asking.

5. Pick one or two more people and do it again.

6. Repeat until you run out of people-for the rest of your life, in other


For some, this practice may be awkward-even difficult-at first.  Like

anything else, however, being a “story learner” becomes easier with

practice.  And the payoff you’ll receive in your employees’ morale,

engagement and productivity will be well worth the price of any initial

discomfort you may have to invest.

About the Author:

Steve Farber, author of “The Radical Edge,” is president of Extreme

Leadership and is a highly sought after senior-level leadership consultant.

His previous book, “The Radical Leap,” was a recipient of Fast Company

magazine’s Readers’ Choice Award and was named one of the ten best business

books of 2004 by the on-line resource, CEO Refresher.   He had worked with

companies across the country, including Sun Microsystems, Intel, Kraft

Foods, Walt Disney Imagineering and Eddie Bauer.  For more information,

please visit


One Comment to “How to Get the Story Learner’s Edge”

  1. Hennie says:

    Wonderful article. Wonder how many people are actually applying this? This is a philosophy that I have applied very casually, but I agree, it makes a lot of sense.

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