CEOs Must Be The Chief Storyteller: The Mistakes + the Fixes

Forbes Magazine recently published a post called CEOs In Competitive Categories Must Be Their Brand's Chief Storyteller

I love the title of this article. But the rest? Not so much.

Why? Because while I applaud the sentiment, the story shared is mediocre. The Forbes article is about the CEO of Ace Hardware. The point of the article is how the CEO -- with a story -- positioned Ace against competitors like Lowe's and Home Depot in an interview. The author wants to make the point that CEOs need to tell the company story to share its unique positioning.

Agreed. But the story doesn’t work very well. Let me show you how to fix it.

When talking about how Ace is different from its competitors, CEO John Venhuizen says,

"They are large-box, low-price leaders. We are more of a specialty retailer. Whereas they are more about home renovation—if you’re going to plunk down 40-grand on a kitchen remodel and granite countertops you’ll probably end up there—we're more about home preservation: fix, repair, replace. What’s fueling our growth is paint, power equipment, and outdoor barbecue."

Not bad, but it's not memorable or sticky. It could be way better.

Here’s what could have happened instead to make it more of a story:

REDO (changes in bold): "They are large-box, low-price leaders. We are more of a specialty retailer. Whereas they are more about home renovation. If you’re going to plunk down 40-grand on a kitchen remodel and granite countertops you’ll probably end up ther. We’re more about home preservation: for a customer like Dan to fix the cabinets, repair the faucet, or replace the countertop. What’s fueling our growth is Mary buying wall paint to redo a room, Darren adding power equipment to his home shop, and Jose upgrading his outdoor barbecue."

Vehuizen continues:

“Like all retailers, we invest massively in our digital presence. Online sales are up 35 percent year to date…but for us it’s still a relational, people-oriented business even with the digital investments. The world seems to be fawning over technical, impersonal, artificial, faceless interaction. At Ace, we bet the farm on a timeless principle—human relationships and human connection will always have the potential to stir the soul. That’s why 92 percent of our online orders are picked up for free at the local store.”

OK, let’s make a small story upgrade to this paragraph:

REDO (in bold): “Like all retailers, we invest massively in our digital presence. Online sales are up 35 percent year to date…but for us it’s still a relational, people-oriented business even with the digital investments. The world seems to be fawning over technical, impersonal, artificial, faceless interaction. At Ace, we bet the farm on a timeless principle—human relationships and human connection will always have the potential to stir the soul. That’s why 92 percent of our online orders, from neighborhood customers like Joan and Victor, are picked up for free at the local store.”

What did I do with these paragraphs? I simply added the human element and a few images people could imagine. I did this by using people’s names. When we use people’s names in our stories, it not only humanizes them, we relate much better to the story, and it makes them more memorable. We don’t relate well to the generic ‘people’ or ‘group’. This is well documented in research.  Remember – no nameless, faceless people!

In the first paragraph, I also connected the words fix, repair, replace with images of cabinets, faucets, and countertops. Using both devices I’ve now moved the business speak and concepts into lived experiences we all can relate to.

It's easy to make these quick changes to the existing text, and it doesn’t lengthen the story one bit. It simply makes it clearer and more relatable. The story now does a much better job distinguishing Ace from its competitors. If I was working with Vehuizen as a client, I'd actually recraft the entire story so it would make a more powerful difference in positioning during his next interview.

But hold on -- there’s an even bigger issue here. Ace’s 7 core values, as shared on their website, are:

Winning, Excellence, Love, Integrity, Gratitude, Humility, Teamwork

OK, but I don’t see where human relationships and human connection directly show up in these. I could guess, but I don't want to because I'm likely to be wrong. Don't make me guess.

The remedy? Share using visual language how these values express human relationships and human connection. For example, Gratitude – we appreciate being able to shake customers hands, listen to them, help them, and see them again soon. 

Or share the two or three values that are all about human connection and relationships and what each of these values means to you. Then share through stories, how you live these values. Otherwise, the company is just blowing a lot of smoke.

Then another issue pops up that's a huge disconnect. Ace’s website says "The Brand is dedicated to the 3 core values of service, convenience, and quality for its customers." Well, that’s confusing! Isn’t the Brand actually the company? Why are there separate Brand values? “Oh, there’s the Brand, and then there’s the company????” I just don’t get it. All I can surmise is that Ace couldn’t make the decision to refine their core values down to a very focused list. So they have a little bit of everything. In the end, it makes them feel both muddled and disingenuous.

And I love my local Ace Hardware. I want them to win! But it’s time to upgrade these leadership storytelling skills to bring that human connection front and center, distinguish yourself even more strongly from competitors, and enjoy even greater success.

RECAP OF THE STEPS TO TAKE:

  1. Add people's names in your stories

  2. Link concepts to real images to make the story real, memorable, and sticky

  3. Describe each core value so we know what it uniquely means to you

  4. Have one short core values list (no more than 7; 5 is best)

  5. Share Values In Action stories internally and externally, demonstrating how those values are actually lived by staff