Karen is a passionate and experienced leader with over 20 years of experience at companies like HP, Deloitte, and General Electric. Today Karen is the CEO at Eber Leadership Group, where she teaches leaders in all capacities how to harness the power of telling an impactful story.
Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn how to become a consistent, charismatic leader that captivates crowds with unmatched stories.
1 Who has been your favorite or most memorable boss?
When I think back to my corporate days, there was a person that really helped me define my strengths and it was the best situation because she saw a need in helping an organization shape culture that was facing some real challenges and she saw that I could do it and came to me and said, I want to build this for you and give you the runway to make this happen. She had so much confidence in me and reassured me that we were going to do great things together.
2 When did you first start leading a team and what were some of the early mistakes that you may have made?
I went to graduate school right after I finished my undergrad and that’s when I started my leadership journey. I ended up in charge of this team with people that were my parent’s age and I struggled with a lot of the things I think people normally do like managing with detail and learning how to harness their skills and giving them the proper space to flourish. Fortunately, they told me right off the bat that there were ways I could improve or do things differently and I was able to learn and make shifts and recognize that managing isn’t what’s most comfortable for you, it’s about what’s best for you, your employees, and your teams.
3 What should be considered before delivering feedback?
When delivering feedback, we never want to hurt someone’s feelings. Feedback should never be about the person, but rather the work. I tend to look for ways that I can deliver feedback in the least awkward way possible. Oftentimes leaders avoid these types of conversations because they don’t know how to navigate the conversation and then end up defaulting to what feels more comfortable to them.
The first thing you should do when determining how to deliver feedback is think about what the person really needs to hear and learn how you can frame it as your experience of their behavior and then think about how you can deliver it in the most helpful way. If you start out by identifying what they need to hear and unwind the conversation from that point it will ultimately be a more successful conversation.
4 Why do you believe that leaders tend to be allergic to storytelling?
It’s similar to feedback. If you’re not used to storytelling or building your storytelling muscles, and you see someone tell an exceptional story, your immediate reaction would be to think that this perfect story came out of nowhere and they haven’t done anything to work on it and that can feel very intimidating or overwhelming.
Storytelling is a skill. You take ideas and fragments and prompts and you put them together to follow a formula and a structure and follow what we understand in neuroscience to engage the audience and you can learn how to do that. We tell stories with empathy and trust and it leaves a lasting impact. Storytelling is a little bit of skill and knowledge and it’s a bit of a misconception that our credibility comes from different places.
5 Do you believe that storytelling is a skill that people are naturally born with?
I believe you can learn it and I’m actually in the process of writing a book on the process of learning it. A story can take you through the process of understanding anything. Just like the way you would put extra effort and time into developing great slides for a presentation, you should implement the same amount of leg work when it comes to crafting your story. You have to work through the process of building the idea and identify what you want your key takeaway to be and you have to do it while taking neuroscience into consideration. You have to learn to build and release tension while capturing your audience’s attention. Anyone can learn how to do this and anyone can do it.
6 How can you tell a story while taking neuroscience into consideration?
If you tell a great story which is a story that builds and releases tension and stops the brain from anticipating and filling in gaps, while building an idea it’s going to build a sense of empathy within the listener. If you tell someone a good story, they are immediately going to have more empathy for you even if it isn’t a personal story because you’re sharing something and presenting vulnerability. By listening to a great story, we gain empathy, and neurologically oxytocin is released in our brain which is the bonding chemical. The more oxytocin that is released, the more trust is built between two people.
7 How often are you telling stories as a manager or leader?
People often feel as though they’re overusing stories but I have never come across someone that has overused stories. There are definitely people that are telling stories that are about themselves, and don’t factor in the audience or poorly told stories in a corporate setting and that isn’t helpful but apart from that, you should really try to tell a story during any moment that you feel like a story would provide a greater sense of understanding. It could be in a presentation, it could be when your business is going through a change, or when you’re trying to capture someone’s attention. You can essentially look for any moment where you can connect with your audience and build an impactful story around that moment.
8 Can you provide us with an example of how a story has helped to cement certain values?
There are always folklore stories of the people that did amazing things or achieved amazing things within any company. Cultures can reinforce what is valued by telling stories about what great leaders do and what great behaviors are about or what the different values are that you’re upholding. The values that are in your lobby are not what an employee experiences today, it’s the day-to-day experience of them that you share through stories that give a good flavor of what the culture is within the company.
9 How can someone become a leader that people want to follow?
We all choose to follow different people at different moments. When you identify with someone and choose to follow them it’s because you’re inspired by them, or you feel aligned by your values and the moments when you choose not to follow someone is often because you witness a demonstration of values that you don’t like or don’t align with. The leaders that become the one that others want and choose to follow are consistent in their behavior and their values.
Research suggests that the worst kind of leader isn’t the meanest leader or the leader that yells and screams. The worst kind of leader is the inconsistent leader and it relates to neuroscience because our brains can’t rest and we don’t know which version of the leader is going to show up that day. With an inconsistent leader, all the energy goes into anticipating how the work is done instead of just doing the work and that’s ultimately what’s going to lead to burnout and exhaustion. Leaders that people choose to follow are consistent, and the way they show up each day makes it easier for people to know what to expect.
10 How can you become more consistent?
One of the biggest challenges I see amongst leaders is that they don’t build time into their weeks or schedules to stop and reflect on what has happened this past week, this past month, or past quarter. They don’t take the time to identify what they’ve learned, what they can do differently, or some of the patterns they may be seeing. Until you become self-aware and start to take the time to step back and reflect on what you’re doing you won’t be able to consistently make improvements. If you aren’t already, consider setting time aside every week to reflect and set future intentions.
11 Does everyone have to explicitly write out their value system?
No, but you don’t have to understand what’s important to you and you do need to identify a list of words that are most meaningful to you. Every manager or leader should have a good understanding of who they are, what they’re doing, where they are challenged, what their employees are experiencing, and what they want their employees to experience. As leaders, we have to pause and step back and really think about where we want to be.
12 How can we make sure that those around us know that we value and appreciate them?
Sometimes we want to communicate value and recognition and we may do it through what is meaningful to us and then it falls flat because it isn’t what is meaningful to that person. Some people want the spotlight or public recognition and other people may want a thoughtful email or a meaningful conversation so I would recommend starting out by identifying what meaningful is to you and everyone else around you. It’s as simple as identifying what your best day looks like, or what gives you energy or inspiration and doing the same for the people on your team.
We don’t always tell people what we think they’re great at because we assume they know and simply making a comment like that can be all it takes to turn someone’s day around. Make sure you understand what’s important to the person, get curious about what they enjoy and what they’re interested in and make a point of having those meaningful conversations.
13 Do you have any tips, tricks, resources, or words of wisdom for managers or leaders that are looking to get better at their craft?
Something that I always find really interesting for leaders is thinking about how you can get your employees to give you more calories per hour. We always think of time as a finite commodity and it’s not. Its energy. If we’re feeling burnt out or uninspired or not motivated, it becomes much harder to go through the motions. Getting curious and really leaning into your best days and harnessing your employee’s strengths can be super powerful.