As we continue our series of interviews with great business and entrepreneurial minds, our People Management Partner and executive coach, Marianna Krell, talked to Paul Bourne, Cambridge University Fellow in Creative Engagement and Theatre Director, to discuss how creativity and storytelling help entrepreneurs succeed.
Paul Bourne is a theater director, business storyteller, entrepreneurship teacher, and corporate and startup consultant. He is the Artistic Director of Menagerie, a Cambridge-based professional theater company that creates and tours theater productions worldwide. As a personal coach, Paul works with many companies and individuals worldwide, including Lloyds of London, Procter & Gamble, TTP, and Nike. Paul is also a storyteller-in-residence at CARBON13 Cambridge, where he works with over 100 venture-builder startups focused on developing new carbon reduction businesses. Paul teaches enterprise, entrepreneurship, and creativity programs at St Andrew’s University, the Cambridge Judge Business School, and the Stockholm School of Economics.
Marianna Krell is a people management partner at Embria. She is a Certified Change Management Practitioner (PROSCI) and an executive coach for teams and executives (ANC, ICTA) with a focus on enabling and delivering organizational transformation and team performance. She has designed over 20 successful transformation programs. Marianna is the author of multiple papers on transformation and people management and a regular speaker at international conferences such as TEDx.
Marianna: Paul, it's been years since I last saw you in person at Cambridge Junction for the epic training on business presentation skills. Let's catch up. Please tell us more about yourself, so our audience can get to know you better.
Paul: It's great to see you, Mariana. I'm still teaching at Cambridge in the Business School, where we're looking at creative processes and how people build their business ideas, particularly startups. The Cambridge Junction that you refer to is the theater where I work. One of our unique approaches to training and development is to work with artists, actors, and writers to be able to look at how you tell your story and how you get your ideas across most effectively. The Junction is a point where creativity and storytelling meet in real life, where people then use these skills to tell stories about how they work and how they want to move forward in their lives.
Marianna: I know you as a successful executive coach and as someone who works with people in business. Being an artist and a theater director, how do you combine those two worlds?
Paul: Having spent 25 years as a theater director and working in the business sector, both in the corporate and startup worlds, I also picked up a lot of practical fuel in addition to what I call “emotional” fuel.
As a theater director, I'm not going to put you, my client, in a costume and make you sing a song. I'm going to ask you, “How are you putting together your story?” "How are you talking about what you do?” Of course, you need to add your business experience to that.
You may be very strong technically and you may have a very good business background. That's great, and that's your “credible” element. But your “incredible” element should primarily be your performance. I'm not asking you to put on a mask. I'm asking you to borrow from your own skill set. The knowledge is within you.
Let’s say you’re pitching for some money for seed rounds. You need to be able to tell the story of your idea. It is an essential part of your required skill set. You may be very strong technically, you may have a very good business background, etc. That's great, and that's your “credible” element. But your “incredible” element should primarily be your performance. I'm not asking you to put on a mask. I'm asking you to borrow from your own skill set. The knowledge is in the room. The knowledge is within you to be able to see you at your most confident, your clearest, your most structured, and your most framed. You work through frames of ideas so that we can see what is contributing to our story's narrative at each stage.
When you click into the idea, you think, “Oh, that’s why it’d be great to work with the theater director.” Because what are we doing? We're bringing stories from the page onto the stage. We are creating those narratives. They have to be delivered. They have to be clear and dynamic. We can go on forever about what makes a great story. But for me, it's to fall in love with the story and the storyteller, somebody whose skill set is really powerful in moving our business forward.
To me, that builds up your confidence for you to be able to tell your story, to share it with your colleagues, your friends, and your family, and to be able to say, “This is me.” "This is how I want to get here so I can articulate my ideas.”
Marianna: That sounds very interesting in terms of pitching and raising a round. Talking about startups and creativity, I think a startup is a mixture of creativity and the fight for survival. According to some studies, it is impossible to be stressed and creative at the same time. So I wonder, how can this balance be maintained? How do you build a creative culture that will not die under survival pressure, operational routine, and, you know, fighting for money and KPIs?
Paul: Fundamentally, you're on a journey where you see something that no one else sees. It's a new way of doing things better, faster, and cheaper, or you'll be venturing into uncharted territory. That becomes your journey, and it requires these practical and emotional fuels to get through that journey. The key is who you will take on that journey with you.
Creativity does not always emerge from this sedentary blank sheet of paper. Different points and elements come together to cause a conflict of thinking to get us to think slightly differently, which can happen at different stages and times.
You start the story with the vision, with the idea of a journey toward a goal, and then you put together the team to help you deliver on that. There's an adage that you should always recruit people who are better than you at their particular job. That team should be coming to challenge you. You don't get the team that will dominate you but one that will help you along the way.
That process then leads to a constant feedback loop: “Are we still thinking in the right direction and the right way?” It’s, by definition, a management skill to offer opportunities for people to be at their best. How do we do it? People are motivated by so many different things. Make sure that they're part of the story, part of the narrative, part of the company, gaining equity, or simply doing something they enjoy, feel valued for, or believe they're good at.
There's an adage that you should always recruit people who are better than you at their particular job. That team should be coming to challenge you. You don't get the team that will dominate you but one that will help you along the way.
It can be an extremely creative time. Creativity does not always emerge from this sedentary blank sheet of paper. Different points and elements come together to cause a conflict of thinking to get us to think slightly differently, which can happen at different stages and times. So it's almost like creating the opportunity for those moments to happen where you have the right people in the right place and the right resources to make bold and creative decisions and say, “This is where we want to go.” That doesn't mean you have to change direction. It means that you are moving forward, hopefully in the right direction.
Marianna: Paul, please share two-to-three ideas about how to keep a healthy dose of creativity in the life of a busy top manager or busy co-founder of a business that is always running between finances and KPIs.
Paul: There are a few different answers to that. One, which I’m always amazed by, is where people just say, "Right." I'll take a step back and take control, whether through my coach or my strength. I will give myself time to explore, whether through yoga, riding my bike, taking a walk, or spending time with my family. "I'm making a conscious decision.”
For example, I can't dance, but I would love to go on a dance. It would be fantastic to attend a beginner's dance class just to have that experience. That's a very conscious decision to be able to explore something that in itself doesn't necessarily have to be a course on creativity, but is a conscious decision to come off the beaten track.
I suppose that's the first thing, and it takes a certain maturity because we're scared that if we take a foot off the pedal, things will drop. That's why I think that's a very brave thing to do. People make conscious decisions to be able to say, "Right. I'm going to focus on some type of self-development.”
Then, within a culture, there are events or opportunities for people. We have team-building activities, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don't. But you know, we do know that there is great value in people. We are dealing with people who have become disengaged. We're trying to find a way for people to reconnect, not necessarily always in the meeting room. Can we create opportunities for people to connect by bringing people back into the office or sharing environments for some time? We're consciously thinking, "What can we do to keep people connected?" When working on a production, I am looking for social opportunities for the team to connect. I also try to bring in some people who may be our new voices.
And then I suppose coaching is a good thing. Maybe that goes into the self-development part. But certainly bringing in people who connect with people who don't think the same way as you.
Marianna: So, to summarize, you propose that people can maintain their creativity by learning new things and venturing outside of their routine and comfort zone to participate in other activities, such as changing roles. For example, if you are a director, and here you are, a beginner dancer. It's a huge change. You don't know what to do. You say, “I don't know where to put my leg.” "What do I do next?” And I believe it has the potential to help the person gain a new lens, reinvent one's self-confidence, and generate new ideas.
Paul: I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s a really valuable thing to do.
Marianna: I think that gratitude and trying to see what other people are talented at are also steps to creativity. If we look at our teams not from the perspective of “Okay, you are a designer or you are a manager, so what?” but start answering your question, “What is so special about you?” "What is the talent that you bring to our startup, our communication process, that makes it unique?” Maybe that also unlocks creativity because when people work together for a long time, they get used to each other and might even think, “Okay, we don't need creativity.” We have all the processes set, and our business is regular. We won't raise the money in the next six months, so we don't need creativity. "We just need to follow the roadmap.” And it could be a killer of creativity.
Paul: Well, yeah. I think we have to be slightly careful about using the word "creativity.” I call it fuel, or thinking outside the comfort zone, or just taking different perspectives, which is a creative exercise that allows you to use this emotional fuel. This idea of the incredible nature of what you're doing is a creative process, but it's also the fuel that drives you emotionally toward your goal. So we don't have to say, “This person is creative” and “That person is not creative.” I'm much more interested in the fuel that you are bringing with you.
For me, the creative process is that disruptive element from different perspectives, opinions, and systems of thinking that allows us to really move the story forward with that particular new fuel. And for this reason, psychological safety and a safe and trusting environment are fundamental.
You create an environment where it's not all happy families all the time. I don't mean people have to be arguing, but you don't want to get into that very dangerous environment where people just agree with everybody. I think there are other areas of art and artistic processes that, by definition, are in the creative arts. But for me, the creative process is that disruptive element from different perspectives, opinions, and systems of thinking that allows us to really move the story forward with that particular new fuel. And for this reason, psychological safety and a safe and trusting environment are fundamental.
Marianna: Yeah, it’s essential for people to be creative, to open up, and to bring different types of fuels, not just the ones that are allowed or that have been brought historically.
Paul: Yeah. That's also why good organizations should also have continuous professional development where people have the training, where they get new skills, new tools, and new perspectives, and where they also get to appreciate the skills of their colleagues. That is where we start to see real momentum. That’s why continuous professional development is important because we don't let the fuel run dry. We're constantly reinventing ourselves. You determine the balance between the mechanisms of doing business (the credible and the incredible parts) at different stages.
At different times, there is a different emphasis on what has to be achieved. But by definition, if you're going to do a launch or a marketing campaign, you need the right people with the right perspective, energy, and skill set to deliver this. That's the key to its success. And they will come to that point because of the culture, the training, and the recruitment you've created to get the best team in place to deliver it, where they feel they can do the best job, and we're proud of what they're doing.