Storytelling helps drive home your business vision

When I spoke with Samuel Conway this month about the Anthrocon event for Uniquely Pittsburgh, I was drawn in by his storytelling skills as he described how their event came to be hosted in Pittsburgh. His interview was one of the most memorable I’ve had in awhile.

But what is even more impressive is when you visit Anthrocon’s website, you can find that Conway tells that exact story in a video that is several years old. He used a lot of the same phrases in both instances.

This is probably a story that Conway has told again and again, but it didn’t feel rehearsed when I heard it.

Storytelling in business

This got me thinking about how often business leaders have to share their mission and vision for the company again and again to their stakeholders — board members, employees, clients, etc. In fact, one of my CEO columnists recently wrote that when you’re tired of telling your message, the audience is just beginning to hear it.

If a CEO had just a portion of Conway’s storytelling skills, it would make sharing that vision so much easier.

When you can convey your message consistently and memorably, that’s when you start creating believers, and getting employee and client buy-in. Those employees and customers in turn will help spread the message even further.

Mastering a good story

So what makes a great storyteller? I turned to Google for some inspiration, and came across an interesting Forbes article by Nick Morgan on a 2008 TED Talk from storyteller and children’s author Carmen Agra Deedy.

Here are a few of his tips:

  • Be concise and pick your details; focus on the turning points.
  • There must be conflict. A personal story must show you in an honest and probably less than flattering light.
  • A great story is not an anecdote; instead it’s a tale of struggle leading to change. (Doesn’t that sound a lot like what you do in your business every day?)

To learn more, watch Deedy’s TED Talk at www.ted.com/speakers/carmen_agra_deedy.

Do your homework, before the deal goes through

This month Smart Business is hosting its inaugural ASPIRE Conference in Cleveland — bringing together entrepreneurs, business owners, deal-makers, investors and advisers for a daylong conference to discuss issues in the M&A and business investment world.

Dealmaking is a huge part of business, and that’s why I wanted to put some focus on it here in Smart Business Pittsburgh.

Several of our columnists shared their thoughts on the topic, and I specifically sought out companies with M&A experience for the feature and cover story. (For a little lighter reading, be sure to check out the Uniquely Pittsburgh on PNC Park.)

Interview both ways

John Degory of Knowledge Center Enterprises LLC didn’t have much experience with private equity but now he’s a huge fan.

He discovered that having the right ownership structure, and investors, is key for growth. You can’t grow if you don’t have the right resources to invest in your organization.

One interesting thing I learned from Degory was that he wanted a true private equity partner. He asked just as many questions of his potential private equity investors, as they asked of him.

He also read between the lines, based on the types of questions he got, to infer what were the private equity firm’s priorities.

Get into the nuts and bolts

John Stanik, on the other hand, has acquired a handful of companies in his time first as CEO of Calgon Carbon and now at Ampco-Pittsburgh Corp.

Like Degory, he advocates doing your homework by getting details upfront. He says this helps you eliminate the potential surprises.

Stanik uses the interview process and meetings with the management group to gauge their leadership style.

“You can get a good feel by that interview process or that meeting process to understand the culture, to understand what the company believes, its position in the market, what its strengths are, what its doing, what its strategy is,” he says.

When you’re got your short list of candidates, you can go even further in the due diligence process.

“Now you can really get into the nuts and bolts and the details of the company and get a very good feel for how easy or how hard or how short or how long it will take to move these two entities together into one.”

Women’s initiatives take center stage

This month’s magazine has a focus on women in business and women’s initiatives. The stories are about female executives, the columnists put thought into issues that affect women and the Uniquely Pittsburgh is about one of Pittsburgh’s most famous women, Rachel Carson.

I had fun putting it all together and I hope you enjoy this issue.

Finding a balance

When I spoke to Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, I asked her if she faces unique challenges as a female CEO. She laughed and said that it’s hard for her to judge since she’s never been a male CEO.

But Gabriela Isturiz, co-founder, president and CEO, of Bellefield, had a lot more to say on the subject.

Women in business are something that Isturiz is very passionate about, especially as she works in the male-dominated tech industry.

Although Isturiz says women have come a long way, she still finds that they have to make more compromises than their male counterparts.

“There’s an understanding that for women to be able to succeed and go high on the ladder, you have to be superwoman — and it should not be that way,” she says.

One of the most challenging my components is the social environment.

When you’re running a company, you’ve got to be out at the social activities like trade shows, cocktail parties and events in order to network with other CEOs, Isturiz says. Those are the types of things that you cannot delegate.

That means a balance, which can be harder for women to find than men, as they juggle family obligations and their children’s events, too.

“Understand that you cannot do it all, because something’s got to give,” she says. “You cannot do it all; you cannot be everywhere, every time. So, prioritize — what will be the best cost benefit? Go for that, and let the others go.”

A package deal

If you feel strongly about women’s issues, like Isturiz, you might try something else that she does.

She mentors startups through the University of Pittsburgh, and she says that one of her requirements is that she wants to mentor women and teams with women representation.

If you feel strongly about a certain issue — women in business or otherwise — why not make that part of your requirement as you pass along your expertise?

The Fred Rogers Co. fulfills the legacy left by its founder

For 48 years, the iconic childhood television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was The Fred Rogers Co.’s only show. That is, until the nonprofit decided to take a chance and pursue productions. The result: hopefully another 50 years of entertainment.

Take a look at The Fred Rogers Co. and the new offerings it hopes will engage children for generations to come in our enhance digital edition of Smart Business Pittsburgh.

In addition, check out a few business lessons from the iconic production company.

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Two business lessons, Fred Rogers style

Like so many others, I grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and my favorite part was the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. That’s why I enjoyed learning more about The Fred Rogers Co. for this month’s Uniquely Pittsburgh.

It was interesting to hear about the journey of how the nonprofit has become the most prolific production company on PBS today, and in true Mister Rogers’ fashion a few business lessons revealed themselves along the way.

Lesson 1: Remember your audience

Paul Siefken, vice president of Broadcast and Digital Media at The Fred Rogers Co., says they work hard to be disciplined in the stories the company’s shows tell, especially those geared to very young children.

They might have a story that has a great joke, but he says they’ll choose to not do that scene, because while it’s really funny to adults, a 3- or 4-year-old — the audience — won’t get it.

“Any moment when you’re not engaging the child, who you really want to be talking to, is a lost opportunity,” Siefken says. “Making animation is an expensive endeavor, and we should take every moment that we’re spending our time and our money on to make sure that it’s dedicated to the mission.

“And that means doing things at the proper pace for children to understand it,” he says. “Doing things with the proper contextual elements that kids can relate to without trying to be too sophisticated or go too fast or tell jokes that parents might enjoy but kids won’t understand.”

In writing it’s called “killing your darlings.” Sometimes you have to cut away something that might be great if it doesn’t fit into the mission of what you’re trying to do and what your audience needs.

Lesson 2: Push the limits

“Daniel Tigers’ Neighborhood” pushes the limits with its Flash animation software.

The software isn’t known for depth and texture, but they find ways around that by scanning in fabric from a sweater to make Daniel Tiger’s sweater or scanning in images of carpet to create grass.

Don’t just accept the status quo of what has come before. Push the limits to get the results you need.

Examining entrepreneurs and managers

I’ve been speaking with business leaders recently about the difference between entrepreneurship and managing a company. It’s funny how the two are often conflated when they aren’t the same thing at all.

Yes, many entrepreneurs successfully manage their businesses, and the consummate manager has been known to come up with a brilliant entrepreneurial idea.

At the same time, we all know serial entrepreneurs who move on to the next startup as fast as they can possibly sell their current company. And, many business leaders make a career of finding troubled companies and straightening them out.

Gauging the differences

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an “entrepreneur” is a) a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money, and b) one who organizes, manages and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.

It’s interesting that “risk” shows up in both definitions. Maybe that’s the beginning of the true difference — an appetite for risk.

Last year, I spoke with a serial entrepreneur who said that true innovators operate like they’re trying to get to the hospital to have their firstborn child. They’ll switch lanes rapidly in order to get through a green light, and generally take risks that would make the corporate world balk.

(And on the topic of risks that make you balk — don’t miss this month’s Uniquely Pittsburgh on the Andy Warhol Museum. Andy Warhol is one of the best examples of a risk taker you can think of.)

Other people who identify themselves as entrepreneurs have told me they have trouble taking advice. The same drive that lets them throw everything behind an idea makes them believe they always know best, especially when it comes to their “baby.”

When I looked up the definition of “businessman” (or woman), risk was nowhere to be found. It is defined as a person who works in business, especially in a high position, who is good at dealing with business and financial matters, and who transacts business.

This seems to suggest stability and a caretaking ability.

A need for both

In any organization’s lifespan, it goes through stages that call for different types of leaders. To be successful, you definitely need both personalities, even if one may be more important than another in a given year or phase. In fact, some large corporations create separate divisions that mimic startups in order facilitate idea generation and innovation.

There are no right answers to how founding CEOs and professional CEOs should act, but it is interesting to keep in mind that they aren’t the same thing at all.