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Leaders are chief storytellers

  • Published at 06:32 pm March 11th, 2014
Leaders are chief storytellers

We’ve had a busy start to the year all over Asia. We have ambitious targets, and most BUs have come off to a great start. Wherever I go, I see passion and energy. 2014 is going to be a year of high performance!

Two events last week got me thinking about what makes Telenor Group sustain its success. One was when we met a group of senior Norwegian business leaders in Yangon last week. I think this group came to us thinking they would be presented with a set of technical strategies, numbers, and estimated growth curves for Myanmar, along with historical performance data for Telenor in Asia. Instead, Petter Børre, the CEO-designate of Telenor Myanmar, and I told them how Telenor Group has built a culture of passion and high performance into a competitive advantage.

I shared my experiences from working across all our Asian markets over nearly two decades. Some of you will have heard it before: We came here with a fundamental belief that mobile communication is for everyone. Our experiences to date are what will enable us to bring Internet for All, both in Asia and Europe. (Of course, we did share some numbers. We talked about our size: Our 143 million subscriptions in Asia, the fact that almost 50% of Group revenues and 60% of our workforce are in the region. We also talked about our contribution to the societies we operate in: Massive infrastructure investments, employment, opportunities, accelerated growth, along with taxes and fees.)

Petter Børre, on the other hand, told them about a trip he recently took to a small, secluded village in northern Myanmar together with his company’s employee no 1, Mr Min. After nine hours by night bus, three hours by local buses, 30 minutes by motorcycle, and a short boat trip, they reached his village: An idyllic place where his parents and his family have lived all their lives. A place completely cut off from modern communication – including roads and telecoms. Min is responsible for the travel desk in Telenor Myanmar, and the company he works in will soon bring a communication revolution to villages like this across his country. A great story that really gets you thinking about the impact of our services.

The second instance that got me thinking about the power of storytelling, was when I visited Dhaka for the celebration of the best-performing region in Grameenphone last quarter. 1,000 sales staff were gathered at GP House, and CEO Vivek Sood delivered a strong and personal account of what Telenor’s new vision, “Empower Societies,” means to him and to the people of GP.

I followed up recounting how I have experienced Grameenphone over the past year. Propelled by a newfound energy and a war cry – “Let’s Win!” – our Bengali tiger got up and started moving – fast. In 2014, I see GP become an agile and lean tiger, competing fiercely for market share in the internet space.

Telling stories is an incredibly powerful communication tool. Theories are debated, stories are shared. Stories unite. That’s why I maintain that for leaders, storytelling is not optional. It’s a necessity. Leaders are the Chief Storytellers of any workplace. Stories need to be visual, visceral, and illuminating. You need to paint the big picture, but don’t talk about big visions without making it relevant, in an everyday context: What does it mean to you and me?

Just think about the young guy in Gorakhpur in India, the guy smilingly holding a gulak – a piggy bank – with Uninor’s tagline “Sabse Sasta” (“the cheapest”), whom we profiled at the launch of our Internet for All program. Remember him? He had just gotten his first mobile phone, and with Uninor’s competitive prices he was able to afford talktime and a data package that enabled him to go online for the first time.

He could go on Facebook, connect with friends and surf Wikipedia. We enabled him to connect with the rest of the world. This isn’t just a story about one guy. It’s a story about millions of people and all of us as well. It’s about the work we do to empower the millions like him. To me, this picture says a lot about our ambition and leadership in Asia: leading the way in bringing Internet for All.

I still spend three days a week in my “Chief Storyteller” role. Going out into the field to tell the stories of our company – like this one. To learn who we are, what we do, and whom we serve – directly from the leaders of this company and directly from the leaders of your teams is a powerful thing.

Over the past two decades in Asia, I have learnt a lot from working in different cultures and with different people. Today, we have 20,000 employees in the region, and I continue learning from and with you every day. I’ve gathered my experiences into seven rules that I try to follow in my work as a leader, and that I encourage leaders at all levels in Telenor to consider.

My rule about storytelling is the first one, and over the next weeks I will share a total of seven such rules that I live by. I believe they have become a part of our culture and of who we are as a company. And our culture is essential in sustaining our success.

Help us tell the stories that make us proud to be who we are. What stories do you tell your team mates and colleagues to motivate and drive performance?