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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

A Storied Leader: How Nancy Duarte Built a World-Class Company

Nancy Duarte is perhaps the world’s leading expert on telling stories. A specialist in persuasion, she's cracked the code for incorporating story patterns into business communications effectively, and she's since given a popular TED talk and authored three books on the subject.

In addition, Duarte's communications firm, Duarte, Inc., has created over a quarter of a million presentations for companies like Twitter, Cisco, and HP in the 15 years since its launch—establishing itself as the global leader behind some of the most influential visual messages in business and culture.

Today, we asked Duarte share a bit about her experience on both fronts. Read on for her insights on building and running a world-class organization—as well as how stories have helped her along the way.

How do you create a company culture that nurtures creativity and collaboration?

It’s funny. I have two “life verbs:” to liberate and to conquer. I worked through exercises with my life coach to find these verbs, and when I did, I was upset that I resonated with such aggressive language.

But what I learned that makes the verbs (a bit) more palatable, is that I do them on behalf of others. For example, I work hard to create an environment where my creative team won’t worry about where the next project will come from and where the culture is safe and loving. That’s what helps the creative team do incredible work. And collaboration is a natural outgrowth from a safe and creative environment.

We also try to weed out arrogant, aggressive candidates in the interview process. If someone who creates a threatening environment accidently gets in, the organization forms some pretty significant antibodies against them. It’s important to nurture an environment where creative people feel like they can take risks without judgment or consequence.

How do you inspire your employees to follow your vision for the future?

This has been tricky over the years. I obsess over the future, so my heart and mind tend to be farther out in the future than my organization wants to go. The main key for me has been to work on my own communication skills for my internal audience (the employees). We prepare vision meeting presentations as if it’s one of the most important presentations we do each year. I finish my slides early and then rehearse for a couple days before. It has made a big difference to communicate the longer vision carefully and well, especially to an audience of world-class communicators.

What are some of the challenges you face as a growing private company, and how do you overcome these challenges?

The Silicon Valley is an expensive place to do business. Our organization is bootstrapped and self-funded. Fortunately, we’re fiscally conservative, so we always make sure that we have the cash to make important aggressive moves.

Also, for years, we didn’t have a significant competitor. When we released our own IP that had a distinct creative process, our business grew significantly, but it has also spawned multiple competitors on a global scale. So now, we need to make aggressive offensive and defensive moves.

How do you preserve the culture as you add employees and management layers?

We love the employees to own the values. We have a list of values and each value has an historical story and a current story that demonstrates how we still live that value. Many organizations give lip service to the values, but we actually live them.

We recently had a season where the culture was strained and values questioned by the employees, and we’ve gone into high gear making sure to take as much care in managing the culture as we do all of our other operational functions.

You’ve spent a significant amount of time studying the concept of story. What insights have shaped you as a communicator?

It’s impossible to study story and not be changed yourself. Stories are about transformation and we love to observe how characters change as they go through their adventurous journey—past their roadblocks to a place where they emerge transformed.

For me, life is a lot like that. As I’m faced with my own obstacles, the structure of story reminds me that if I endure, I’ll move from the middle of the story where the difficulty is to a place where I will eventually emerge transformed. So I use story not only to communicate at my shop, but also to help me cope when I’m going through a tough season.