Ten years ago I was invited to teach a course on “Innovation and Business Growth” at GE’s Crotonville Management Development Center for 75 high potential, business superstars of the future.
The GE executive who hired me was a very savvy guy with the unenviable task of orienting new adjunct faculty members to GE’s high standards and often harsher reality.
My client’s intelligence was exceeded only by his candor as he proceeded to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that GE gave “new instructors” two shots at making the grade — explaining, with a wry smile, that most outside consultants were intimidated the first time they taught at GE and weren’t necessarily at the top of their game.
I’m not sure how you say it in Esperanto, but in English what he said translates as “The heat is on, big time.”
I knew I would have to raise my game if I expected to be invited back after my two-session audition was over.
And so I went about my business of getting ready, keeping in mind that I was going to be leading a 6-hour session for 75 of GE’s “best and brightest” flown half way around the world — high flying Type A personalities with a high regard for themselves and a very low threshold for anything they judged to be unworthy of their time.
I had five weeks to prepare, five weeks to get my act together, five weeks to dig in and front load my agenda with everything I needed to wow my audience: case studies, statistics, quotes, factoids, and more best practices than you could shake an iPhone at.
I was ready. Really ready. Like a rookie center fielder on designer steroids, I was ready.
Or so I thought.
The more I spoke, the less they listened. The less they listened, the more I spoke, trotting out “compelling” facts and truckloads of information to make my case as they blankly stared and checked their email under the table.
Psychologists, I believe, would characterize my approach as “compensatory behavior.”
I talked faster. I talked louder. I worked harder — attempting in various pitiful ways to pull imaginary rabbits out of imaginary hats.
Needless to say, GE’s best and brightest — for the entire 45 minutes of my opening act — were not impressed.
Clearly, I was playing a losing game.
My attempt to out-GE the GE people was a no-win proposition. I didn’t need new facts, new statistics, or new quotes. I needed a new approach — a way to secure the attention of my audience and help them make the shift from left-brained skepticism to right-brained receptivity.
And I needed to do it five minutes, not 45.
The next few days were very uncomfortable for me, replaying in my head — again and again — my lame choice of an opening gambit and wondering what, in the world, I could do to get better results in much less time.
And then, like an unexpected IPO from Mars, it hit me. The martial arts!
As a student of Aikido, I knew how amazing the martial arts were and what a great metaphor they were for life.
Fast forward a few weeks…
My second session, at Crotonville, began exactly like the first — with the Program Director reading my bio to the group in an heroic attempt to impress everyone. They weren’t.
Taking my cue, I walked to center stage, scanned the audience and uttered nine words.
“Raise your hand if you’re a bold risk taker.”
Not a single hand went up. Not one.
I stood my ground and surveyed the room.
“Really?” I said. “You are GE’s best and brightest and not one of you is a bold risk taker? I find that hard to believe.”
Ten rows back, a hand went up. Slowly. Halfway. Like a kid in a high school math class, not wanting to offend the teacher.
“Great!” I bellowed, pointing to the semi-bold risk taker. “Stand up and join me in the front of the room!”
You could cut the air with a knife.
I welcomed my assistant to the stage and asked him if had any insurance — explaining that I had called him forth to attack me from behind and was going to demonstrate a martial arts move shown to me by my first aikido instructor, a 110-pound woman who I once saw throw a 220-pound man through a wall.
Pin drop silence.
I asked our bold risk taker to stand behind me and grab both of my wrists and instructed him to hold on tight as I attempted to get away — an effort that yielded no results.
I casually mentioned how the scenario being played out on stage is what a typical work day has become for most of us — lots of tension, resistance, and struggle.
With the audience completely focused on the moment, I noted a few simple principles of Aikido — and how anyone, with the right application of energy and the right amount of practice, could change the game.
As I demonstrated the move, my “attacker” was quickly neutralized and I was no longer victim, but in total control.
In three minutes, things had shifted. Not only for me and my attacker, but for everyone in the room.
That’s when I mentioned that force was not the same thing as power — and that martial artists know how to get maximum results with a minimum of effort — and that, indeed, INNOVATION was all about the “martial arts of the mind” — a way to get extraordinary results in an elegant way.
PS: I was invited back 26 times to deliver the course.
Every day, no matter what our profession, education, or astrological sign, we are all faced with the same challenge — how to effectively communicate our message to others.
This challenge is particularly difficult these days, given the glut of information we all must contend with. The amount of information available to us is doubling every ten years! Yearly, more than one million books are published. Daily, we are bombarded with more 6,000 advertising messages and 150 emails. As a result, most of us find ourselves in a defensive posture, protecting ourselves from the onslaught of input.
What I’ve discovered in the past 25 years of working with some of the world’s most powerful organizations is that if I really want to have get my message across, I’ve got to deliver it in a what that gets past the “guardians at the gate” — the default condition of doubt, disengagement, and derision that comes with the territory of life in the 21st century business world.
My rite of passage at GE was a microcosm of this phenomenon.
Indeed, my presumptive effort to “win over my audience” by impressing them with data, case studies, and best practices was a losing game. Not only was I barking up the wrong tree, I was in the wrong forest.
The key to my breaking through the collective skepticism of GE’s best and brightest wasn’t a matter of information. It was a matter transformation.
They didn’t need to analyze, they needed to engage — and it was my job to make that easy to do. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi so deftly put it, I had to “be the change I wanted to see in the world.”
I had to do something that invoked the curious, playful, and associative right brain, not the logical, linear, analytical left brain — tricky business, indeed, especially when you consider that most business people, these days, have a very low threshold for anything they judge to be impractical
Which is why I chose the martial arts as the operational metaphor at GE, my attempt to move them from the Dow to the Tao.
Impractical? Not at all.
Bottom line, whether we know it or not, we have all entered the “experience economy” — a time when being involved is at least as important as being informed.
Information is no longer sufficient to spark change. Data is no longer king. Thinking only takes us part of the way home. It’s feeling that completes the journey — the kind of feeling that leads to full on curiosity and the kind of engagement that opens the door to exciting new possibilities.
Which is exactly what happened at GE when I made the shift from marshaling my facts, to marshaling my energy — and by extension, the energy of 75 of GE’s best and brightest.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: What message have you been trying to deliver (with too little impact) that might be communicated in a totally different way — a way that more successfully engages people and leads to measurable results?
Excerpted from Storytelling at Work
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