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The key to successful transformation? Share the true story behind it

Mark Stelzner, IA
Mark Stelzner
With more than 25 years of HR transformation experience, Mark Stelzner has spent his career fostering relationships through attention to detail, natural curiosity, and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Having served as Founder and managing principal of IA for the past 16 years, Mark offers unbiased and candid advice to C-level leaders in nearly all geographies and vertical market segments. A highly sought-after voice in the industry, Mark has been featured by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes, CNN, and NPR. Named a Top 100 HR Technology Influencer by Human Resources Executive®, Mark is also a member of the Forbes Human Resources Council.

I remember the first time I saw the movie Inception. From the initial scene of a man washed up on a beach, I was hooked. The imagery, the music, the themes, the underlying question as to whether Cobb was awake or dreaming at the end … it was all-engrossing. A complex story told on multiple levels that, at its heart, is about the ability to accept the truth of what needs to happen for a stuck individual to move forward with their life.

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Equally compelling, but for different reasons, was The Hangover. Funny, irreverent, and packed with quotable lines (most delivered by the incomparable Zack Galifianakis), I still laugh when I think about Mike Tyson playing air drums in a Vegas suite. But what always shines through is the story of a group of friends ushering someone through a major life change while embracing the addition of an unlikely new member.

Two very different stories—each told with skill and each told in a memorable fashion. So … what do they have to do with HR? More than you might think.

Too often when organizations approach transformation, they focus on the what and the how first, only later focusing on their why. Even when the why is identified, delivery of the message often fails to resonate with those impacted by the transformation, contributing to the high failure rate of organizational transformation. One senior business executive from a prominent athletic brand summarized her reaction to an initial draft of their HR function’s transformational story as follows. “When I go to a Michelin restaurant, I don’t ask the chef to walk through every step in her preparation. I don’t ask how the carrots were sliced and in what diameter, whether they were sauteed in butter or oil, and how long it took to prepare the plating. Instead, I go for a culinary experience. This is what I want to learn from our HR transformation.”

Transformation IS storytelling. While data and business cases are important for getting board approval, the story behind that data and what it can unlock in the future is what makes the case compelling. Behavioral science suggests that both data AND emotion are necessary to make change stick and that a personalized approach can make the listener feel both heard and seen.  Let us give you an example we shared during our Transformation 101 pre-Conference presentation at the recent HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas.

One of IA’s clients is a fast-growing diversified business with just over 7,000 employees. With great sponsorship for the transformation across the C-suite, the CFO was particularly keen on ensuring his payroll function truly matured its processes and policies as a key outcome of the journey. He couldn’t understand why they constantly worked weekends and holidays, the overtime alone costing a shocking amount of money and sheer human effort. So, IA mapped the current state and discovered that just the off-cycle payroll process was comprised of over 1,400 individual steps. That’s right, one thousand four hundred steps for every single off-cycle process. Printing this shocking image on plotter paper, we unveiled this process in the CFO’s office, the height extending well over the top of our project lead’s head. The CFO took one look, sat heavily back in his chair, and broke into tears. “I thought I had created a trusted environment. I thought my people knew they could come to me for help. I failed them. Each and every one of them.” Suffice it to say, he was a vocal advocate and shared this story across the enterprise, and we’re pleased to report that they’re on the other side of this emotional journey. But it was this data visualization, combined with knowledge of his heartfelt and truly human commitment, that turned this into a powerful story for his board.

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The power of storytelling to compel change was also prominent in one of the panels at the Women in HR Technology Summit, where the discussion focused on how to design a total rewards offering that was meaningful to women, and indeed, all employees. The panelists shared incredibly personal stories about how their organizations’ approach to providing care impacted their lives—whether it was IVF treatments or support when caregiving for aging parents. It’s one thing to read about how caregiving needs have increased in the United States; it’s quite another to hear someone share the impact it has had on their family. The panel audience responded to the open dialogue that focused not just on data—which was freely shared—but also on what that data looked like for the millions of human beings who live it. As one panelist shared, “childcare is literally a second mortgage payment” for her and her husband, a stark fact that led to another panel insight: “Single women without children are out-earning single men without children, which just goes to show that children can ruin your life” (to uproarious laughter). Personal. Impactful. Memorable.

We all need to remember that change is personal, so the more stories we can convey, the higher the likelihood of someone feeling included through the actions and outcomes of others. Although I’ve never implanted false memories through a multi-layered dream state or woken up with a live tiger in my hotel room, those images are vividly present any time I hear a passing reference to either movie. No matter what the goals of your transformation may be, the key to success is to share the narrative—not a purpose statement, not an OKR, not a board objective, but the story behind it. Make it compelling. Make it memorable. Make it stick.