From a very young age, our elders tell us what to believe about ourselves. Teachers, parents and adult relatives weigh in with their views, and we accept them as the truth because of the positions of authority that those people occupy in our lives. Even if those opinions are deeply unkind or diminishing, we live by them – because we think they define who we are.
As a young Roma boy growing up in Poland, I was bullied relentlessly. The amount of discrimination, abuse and violence I went through as a child was horrific – in fact, my wife says that if my life were a film, you’d turn it off within the first two minutes. On top of that, in my formative education, one of the biggest things that my teachers told me was that I wasn’t smart enough – and I really believed them. As a result, my opportunities and vision of the future felt completely limited. I was convinced that I was stupid – that I was never going to achieve anything and that I’d be helpless in the world I was living in.
But as I got older, I found that I had great people skills. It was like discovering a superpower. And over the past 18 years of delivering various different coaching programmes, it’s become clear to me that if you believe in people, and give them the tools and encouragement to believe in themselves, you can help them unlock their inner genius – and that will empower them to achieve anything.
One of the most powerful methods for guiding people to that place is storytelling. And that begins with a focus on the individual.
What can you create?
In society, we are constantly taught to fight against other people – whether that’s on the battlefield of looks, lifestyle or keeping up with the Joneses. But one of the main tenets of our coaching work is that everyone pays a price for their human traits – even for attributes we may consider enviable. Once you understand that everyone has a journey and that, somewhere along the line, they’ve paid a price, you no longer feel jealous or envious towards them. You no longer dislike or hate them because of who or what they are.
As such, my coaching process begins with treating everyone as an individual. Sure, you may be part of this big group called a business – but fundamentally, you’re a unit of one. So, what are you capable of, as a person in your own right? What can you create? Not anyone else – I’m talking to YOU. What can you do? What can you change? What can you lead? That all depends on you – and you have a talent that no one else has. That’s why empowering individuals is so important: it unlocks and releases inner genius.
We run activities and challenges that provide people with a chance to discover who they are, and what they love to do. Put anyone in a position where they’re doing something they love, and they’ll work at it ten times harder than someone who’s just going through the motions. That also has a huge effect on group morale. If you’re working with people who are happy, because they have a genuine connection to their work, that will rub off on you. Being in the company of productive people will make you more productive. But people who are doing something they dislike will give only 20%.
It’s vital to empower organisations to put people in the right places, determined by their strengths and inner genius – especially when it comes to leaders and managers. If a business has managers in roles that are leaving them stressed, fatigued and uninspired, and each one is supervising anything between 10 and 50 staff, how will that affect those teams? Most likely, they will also be caught in a cycle of tiredness and frustration - especially if their managers are short-tempered, curt and constantly talking about numbers not achieved.
Stories are tools for changing people’s hearts and minds. Once those changes happen, they change the whole world – and anything is possible. The more you empower individuals, the more they will be able to change their businesses, families and entire communities.
When you hear a true-life story from someone who was actually in the middle of historic events, three things happen. First, you’re shocked. Second, you’re mind-blown. And third, you understand what fuels real action. Most people have heard about the achievements of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. But very few people have heard direct testimony from someone who was there at the time. When you do, the effect is mindblowing – and shows you the full capacity of one person’s power to create massive change. So, inspirational stories are really important. They have a major influence on our development. And because of that, we listen to them so much harder that we’ll ever listen to lectures.
Some employees work in the same booth for more than 20 years and don’t even know each other’s wives’ or kids’ names – or even which type of car each other drives. So, when we’re delivering our workshops, the first thing we do is break down all of those imaginary barriers. People have to be brave and willing enough to share their stories of who they are – and that’s where I come in. Being open about my background is how I encourage the people around me to share their own experiences.
In the last workshop I held – a training session on diversity and inclusion for several companies – 12 of the 63 people who attended approached me afterwards for a separate chat in the next room. One guy stood up and said, “Toby – you’ve really helped me. You’ve broken down every myth I’ve ever had in my mind about Gypsies and refugees and so many other things about race. When I was at school, I bullied two Black kids every single day. After listening to your story and hearing about what people have done to you, I’m so ashamed.” I said, “I don’t want you to feel ashamed – I’d like you to let go of that. But I do want you to do something about it. Yes, you’ve been inspired, and you’ve changed your heart and opened your mind – but what are you going to do now?” He said that he would find those two people on social media and message them to apologise. I asked, “What if your apology isn’t accepted?” And he said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to apologise, no matter what.” That’s where it starts. When you make a change inside, the whole world changes.
To process is to progress
As human beings, we spend a lot of time internalising things – especially in a work context, and even more so if we’re in a management or leadership role. If a project doesn’t work out as well as we’d expected, we feel shame and guilt, and carry a burden of blame for that outcome. But internalising those feelings prevents us from processing all the issues around what didn’t go according to plan. And that means we don’t get a chance to learn or grow from things that haven’t gone right. Storytelling enables us to externalise our misgivings and put them out in the open, with an eye on how WE – as in, the whole team – can do better when faced with a similar challenge.
Focusing on what’s going on outside yourself is also an important approach for building trust in leadership. To lead means to be upfront and prepared to help out on the ground – not to stay behind your desk. When a workforce sees that you are more than willing to engage with the same type of work that they are doing, they will attack that work with massive energy and give it everything they’ve got. But if you just stay behind your desk and complain at them, they’re going to do the bare minimum – because they don’t appreciate or respect you. If you look after your team, they will look after you.