EMBRACE THE NARRATIVE ARC. Work is nothing more than people on a collective quest. Understanding the four predictable cycles and four ingredients of any story — that also hold true for any project — is what will make you the leader you were meant to be and keep you moving forward.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Burns.
Deborah Burns’ story has always been about invention and reinvention — she’s lived those two keywords throughout her career as a women’s media Chief Innovation Officer and award-winning author. The experience of writing her memoir, Saturday’s Child, illuminated the path to her second book, Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life. Now, Deborah combines her strategic business and creative expertise with workshops that help teams improve results — learn more at: https://www.deborahburnsauthor.com
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was the only child of a larger-than-life, unconventional mother and because of the dynamic of that core relationship, I’ve always been fascinated by women and their stories. I grew to be a journalism major in college with the dream of being a reporter, but entered women’s magazines instead and lived a media career that took me places I never imagined.
One of those places was England, where I found myself staring at portraits of unconventional women from history in a London museum. I suddenly knew that I had to learn more about them — and then write a book about my mother. Although I never had imagined myself as an author, it was a lightbulb moment that kicked off a seven-year creative journey. Ultimately, Saturday’s Child was published and then another unexpected thing happened. The experience of writing that book — which took me deep into a literary world filled with wisdom that also applied to the world of work — gave birth to my second book, Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life. Now, I show teams how to level-up through better business storytelling. At work, whoever tells the best story wins, so helping non-writers shape their stories for success advances careers and ensures that everyone lives up to their potential.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When magazine publishing was flush, it made for a fascinating career. I was surrounded by smart, accomplished people, and lived in a world of creative ideas from one end of the globe to another. But suddenly, magazines looked their digital future in the eye and didn’t quite know what to say or do next. Digital upended the business model for publishing companies, and everything needed to be reinvented. I went from being a brand leader to becoming the Chief Innovation Officer charged with inventing whatever was next. But nothing could make up for the print advertising revenue that was being lost, and I quickly realized that I was also going to have to work just as hard to reinvent myself — or else. Even though watching my career implode and overhauling myself was incredibly challenging, I never thought about giving up. I think my drive comes from always staying open to possibility and the plot twist ideas ahead. The second before my best ideas hit, they weren’t there. I believe that they appear because I’m always in discovery mode and open to developing the sparks that come my way. When you are constantly inhaling what’s around you, you can exhale new ideas that will ultimately contribute to your growth and success — just as I did with my first and second books.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I tend to literally trip and fall hard with some frequency. There have been four or five doozies in the last decade — ice on the sidewalk got me twice, once splitting my lip and the second time slashing my eyebrow. I once took a fall UP the stairs that broke my nose, and another time I tumbled over someone’s roller-bag and broke my knee. My friends and family like to tease me about this — they find it funny that a woman who helped media empires and who earned a prime seat at the boardroom table can be completely undone by a slippery street.
But when I looked back at all of these incidents, I realized that they had one thing in common: in every instance, I fell forward. Not backward, not sideways, but somehow always forward. And it occurred to me that falling forward equates to something even larger, something critically important to any success I’ve had — I fail forward too.
Throughout my career, I never side-stepped the possibility that I might fail at work, that some grand vision of mine might not come to fruition, or that I might be dubbed foolish or inept. Instead, I took chances, I learned, I iterated, I pivoted. When I jumped in, I was all in. Many ventures in my corporate and consulting days ultimately didn’t work — the new magazine that didn’t find its audience, the new video technology that didn’t catch fire, the breakthrough subscription model that didn’t break through anything — but throughout them all, I learned and remained in forward-mode. I’m naturally wired, it seems, to get further than I did the day before. So when failure pops up as a part of your storyline, don’t run from it, own it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In the same way writers must differentiate their characters so that readers and viewers can tell them apart, we all must also distinguish our companies so they stand out from the pack.
What differentiates my business now is actually everything that I’ve ever done before. We all have the unique building blocks from our lived experience that can be re-configured into something new. My journey bestowed a particular expertise on both the business innovation front and the creative front, and that’s what I leverage to separate my professional development workshop business from others. I don’t stop at translating wisdom about story structure to motivate and create more dynamic teams. I also can roll-up my innovation sleeves and help those teams find new solutions for the problems they face. That unique combination presents great value to the companies I work for and cannot be easily replicated by another entity.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Writers plot multiple storylines to add dimension to the central story and help it to go from good to great. These subplots enrich and enliven the tale, reveal more about the main character, and support the high-level story. There’s no burn because writers don’t balance the storylines, they integrate them.
A standard writing formula is to have three distinct plotlines — the master storyline A with the protagonist, then B and C which all come back around to support, in some way, the master. If a writer tries to balance them, they would all get equal weight and throw the story out of kilter. So writers integrate their storylines instead so all the action connects and continues to move the central story forward.
Likewise, we tend to burn out because we try to weigh and then balance the parallel storylines of our lives rather than integrating them. But because everything is in a story for a reason, all your own story threads will contribute to your forward motion by merging, not balancing. It’s a subtle but meaningful shift that will ease stress and burn out.
To apply this to your life, let’s imagine your three concurrent storylines as Family/Friends, Career, and Experiences. Do a little self-inquiry and ask: How do they relate to one another? Are they connected and aligned or are they unrelated and disconnected? What is my highest-level story and how can my storylines support my main story? Reflecting on your answers will help you make the right choices.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been fortunate to have had so many influential and inspiring mentors/advisors throughout my career that there’s no way to narrow it down to one! I’m grateful to them all, and can only hope that I’ve managed to convey how important they are to me IRL.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
In the same way a good writer is easily differentiated from a great writer, what separates the two definitions is vast. To rephrase author Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line about families in Anna Karenina: Happy great companies are all alike; Unhappy good companies are unhappy in their own way. In other words, certain principles are lived by every great company. And because good companies don’t apply them, they all mess up in their own unique way.
For all the good companies out there, have no fear. If you aspire to greatness, all you need to do is adopt a writer’s mindset, adhere to their principles, and you too will have:
- PERSPECTIVE. Strive to see all sides of any situation, focus on the greater good, understand who you serve, and anticipate unintended consequences.
- CLARITY. Understand who you are and articulate what you want in a way that others — your customers, constituents, employees, vendors, and partners — can absorb.
- DISCIPLINE. Have a diligent, continuous improvement outlook, work hard, and face the blank page every day in every way.
- CURIOUSITY. Spot important trends and marketplace shifts, and stay mindful of new needs and voids that you might be able to fill.
- STYLE AND SUBSTANCE. Develop a unique voice and product, and have the depth, intelligence, and awareness to know that everything is in a constant state of change which requires re-assessing all along the way.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
I would have been a more effective leader earlier in my career if I fully realized the storytelling lessons my journey crystallized for me. So here are the five foundational principles that will help leaders be more successful and go from good to great:
- EMBRACE THE NARRATIVE ARC. Work is nothing more than people on a collective quest. Understanding the four predictable cycles and four ingredients of any story — that also hold true for any project — is what will make you the leader you were meant to be and keep you moving forward.
- UNDERSTAND YOUR CHARACTERS. The greatest forces affecting the quest for greatness may be other people, and that’s a fact that plays out dramatically in your work life. Human nature and needs are the drivers of everything, and unless you grasp individual and group dynamics, you cannot lead or succeed as well as you might. And within that mix, the character you most need to understand is yourself.
- WELCOME CONFLICT. A story without conflict is a giant bore. Bumping up against an external challenge and finding your way around it not only keeps things interesting, it also builds resilience. Without conflict, results at work would be unimaginative and unproductive. No matter how annoying, we all need stressors to take us to from good to great. So, embrace conflict and confrontation (within reason, and civilly), and learn how to leverage it to win.
- SEEK THE UNCONVENTIONAL. The world is accelerating so quickly, and technology is changing so dramatically, that the familiar or historically significant is no longer enough. Since new situations can’t best be solved by doing all the same old things, think differently by searching for unpredictable and unexpected plot points everywhere. The unconventional will turn things around, open new doors, and deliver the surprising endings that amp-up success.
- STEP INTO THE UNKNOWN. All writers know that it’s not really a story unless there’s venturing into uncharted territory. We all must leave the known behind and tiptoe into the foggy unknown because that’s where what’s next awaits. Although it’s never easy, without discovering the new — and all the challenges that the unfamiliar brings — advancement isn’t possible. Anyone’s path to greatness begins with that first step into the unknown.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
At its most basic level, all businesses should be purpose-driven because they are solving a problem for their end user. And when you put your customer’s needs first, you’ll also gain knowledge about what drives human nature overall, including the need for purpose and meaning. Anytime you can make a consumer feel extra good about a purchase, you’re helping your company. And a pay-it-forward social impact angle extends that feeling.
That said, when you take action be sure that the story you’re telling connects to your brand story so that your chosen initiative is aligned for the best outcomes. And be sure to keep style and substance in mind as you decide — this will help you to avoid superficial or irrelevant impact angles that won’t serve your vision or will just make you one of many clamoring for attention.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Once more a writer’s mindset is a must. Because everything is in a constant state of change, re-assessment must be a healthy part of any mix — being at a sudden standstill is a reflection that re-thinking has been absent. Here’s how to translate what writers do to energize flagging stories to your world at work:
- INTRODUCE. The easiest fix is to bring something new into the equation, the way a writer may insert a new character or plot twist at this point to shake things up. Consider inserting something fresh into the process to keep your company story moving forward. Perhaps an additional team member with a missing skill set can be added or brought into one meeting as a guest. Or maybe you can bypass a roadblock by changing lanes to work on a different aspect. Or you can try to incite action with a spontaneous brainstorm, a fun incentive, or an anonymous survey of employees to collect insights that they may be unwilling to say aloud.. Since we can never know everything, ask yourself if something has been missed, if you’ve been misdirected, or if you’re operating on assumptions that could be false. If you think this might be the case, introduce a new piece of information through a social media poll or informal focus group to see murky aspects of your project more clearly.
- ISOLATE. Sometimes it is best to identify the result or outcome you would like and then detach from it. The best endings can just appear, so after you isolate the outcome you would like, don’t be afraid to take your eye off the finish and make the most of the process along the way. Of course, it’s important to be clear about what you want to happen — vague end goals can sink a company or project before it starts — but you should always keep your options open to what might happen. There’s power in detachment because holding on too tightly can impede progress — if we’re too attached to the results we want, we can miss an important discovery along the way. The best solution may be entirely different from what you imagine — in fact, you may find a bigger, better problem for you to solve.
- INNOVATE. When facing uncertainty, it’s time to recharge and re-envision. By definition, innovation implies an arrival in unknown territory, so the first thing you need to do to conceive something new is to step into the empty space. Then, to harness your innovative mindset — the one that is laser-focused on actively creating rather than on just reacting — identify the new problems in front of you. Then let your imagination run wild. Create a writer’s storyboard to visualize the problems as “scenes,” and ask: What plot twists can fix this and how can I make them happen? to shake up your workplace and any daily routine.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
There are three levels of action that require your conscious attention daily to make your company great. Think of them as simultaneous, integrated storylines in the same way a novelist has multiple plotlines. Devote yourself to each and you will shine as you propel your company’s quest forward:
- QUOTIDIAN. Diligently execute your day-to-day job responsibilities that keep the business humming, working smarter as you continuously improve. This should take up fifty percent of your time.
- INVENTIVE. For those daily responsibilities, formulate new approaches, strategies, and tactics that will lift the bottom line. Think about Amazon offering same-day delivery — what needed to change for them to make this promise real? Steady improvements to what you are responsible for should take up thirty percent of your time.
- VISIONARY. Creatively brainstorm entirely new plotlines (i.e.: business opportunities, possibilities, collaborations, and ventures) that blend your expertise with all of the new information flowing in from the world around you. This should take up twenty percent of your time.
From the CEO to the entry-level employee, if everyone thought this way, any company would be great practically overnight!
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Underestimating the importance of any area — whether it’s manufacturing, IT, marketing, distribution, or any other — is a critical error. Like subplots, all areas are inter-related and contribute to the whole. That said, there is one area that tends to be underestimated or cut when budgets are tight — customer research. And not understanding your end user is the biggest mistake of all, especially in the transitioning times we’re in now. The new normal affects every person and every business decision, so extra attention here will reveal new opportunities.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
The author is not the hero of the story they create, their protagonist is. Likewise, leaders of great companies know that their customer is the hero of their company’s story, not the company itself. Any leader who thinks they are the hero, does so at their own peril. So, keep this Authorize It! writing tool in mind for clarity and simplicity:
- E = Explain the character you serve (the customer).
- D = Describe their problem.
- I = Illuminate the solution you provide.
- T = Tell how your solution will make your character better.
If you complete this core edit for your company and begin to use it as a filter for how you position your messaging, your conversions will improve because you tightened your focus.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
You can’t earn a reputation as a trusted brand if you’re misaligned. So, it all comes down to actually doing what you intend and then demonstrating it. Like a writer who must show not tell, all leaders of great companies know that they must show how they solve the customer’s problem. When you consistently deliver on every touchpoint around that, you will be trusted, and satisfied customer stories will showcase your trustworthiness to others.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Like a writer getting into the heads of their characters, the most important perspective-shift is to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. Live their experience yourself. We’ve all been shocked by bad customer experiences in our own lives, from an automated phone call that goes nowhere to trying to open an unopen able product. It’s shocking but proof that not enough employees are living the entire set of customer touchpoints and fixing what’s not working — doing so will get you to WOW!
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Just as with any tale, the protagonist’s response to the action throughout is what moves the story forward either positively or negatively. As the leader of a great company, your response to the plot points in front of you is one of the most critical aspects in shaping your success.
In other words, how you choose to respond — especially when bad things happen, and especially on social media — will help or hurt you. Modulating your reactions — that is, adjusting, tempering, and finetuning how you engage — makes the process of reacting active rather than passive. When you are intentional in your responses, you’ll have a better chance of winning the long game.
For the best outcome on social media, keep this DO and DON’T in mind:
DO be a non-judgmental, uber-observer like a writer. There’s always more to the story — part of the iceberg is always hidden below the surface and the true meaning of events is often not readily apparent. Make sure you look hard, read between the lines, and look behind the scenes to best decipher the real story before acting.
DON’T be reactionary and jump in just because others are. Use restraint and focus on the possible unintended consequences of any action you take. As a great leader, your reaction must serve both your customers and your responsibility to the company’s employees and their families.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Remember my prior answer about the author not being the hero of the story they create? It is the same with every founder. True, they are the hero or heroine of their own lives but at work — at the company they founded or are running — they, along with the company itself, are supporting characters. The most common mistake is when they make themselves — their mission, their vision — the hero of the story instead of their customers.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In this moment, I would inspire the #thinklikeawriter movement. Great writers have characteristics that we would all be wise to adopt:
- WRITERS HAVE PERSPECTIVE. They are non-judgmental, uber-observers of life because they must write authentically. And to get at the truth, they need the perspective that only taking in all sides can bring.
- WRITERS ARE QUEST-CENTRIC. They first understand the story problem and then focus on the solution — the quest. This helps them to move their stories forward because they must always be for something rather than just against something.
- WRITERS ARE ALWAYS EDITING. They have a continuous improvement mindset and realize that nothing is ever really finished. The concept that everything can be made better with consistent re-assessing and finetuning will make everyone more successful at work.
- WRITERS ARE SELF-DIRECTED. They face the blank page every day in every way. If they don’t write, nothing happens — a powerful reminder that the reins of our careers are always in our own hands.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!