Who Are You Really?

June 20th 2014

My business partner Kieran Flanagan and I have recently finished writing a book about human behaviour - how we can lift our own performance, increase engagement and drive influence in our organisations, our teams and our communities.

Some of the questions we’re often asked about the process is, “How do you write a book with another person? How is the labour divided and how do you make sure the tonality flows - as opposed to jumping from one style to another?”

Now, Kieran and I have worked together for over twenty years so we’re more than a little familiar with each other’s writing style (and of course our annoying habits and weaknesses also). This allows us to shift seamlessly from her tone of voice to my own and to edit each others work with a certain consciousness around style.

However, what was key in writing this book, and in building the businesses we have worked on and with throughout our careers was an understanding of character.

Before we wrote the book, we decided on the character of the book and personified its characteristics. Then we wrote alternate chapters, not in our own voice, but in the character of the book. Each of us editing with that character’s voice in our heads.

And this is something all of us try to achieve in our organisations - although we often struggle to make it tangible. We define a vision and mission statement, we collect core values and assign archetypes to the individuals in our team - whether they be Myers Briggs, Jung’s or HBDI. Our personal archetype preference is based on the work of Plato.

Having said all this, what tends to happen is that we end up with visions that sound like they were written in a Dilbert Cartoon or else as a result of Corporate Keyword Bingo, our values often become generic and hard for our people and customers to contextualize and use and the archetypes we uncover tend to be too cumbersome to deliver much beyond some self revelation and are often used to caricature our co-workers.

But a character is something we innately understand and marries with the oldest form of cultural communications - stories.

If we were to say that your organisation is a “Stephen Fry”, you would instantly assume a thoughtful wit that ventures into judgement in the negative. If we said your organisation is more Robert Downey Jr, you would imagine an organization that is energetic, inspirational and a bit of a loose canon. 

Characters tend to be more complete than archetypes or values statements. We tend to ignore the negatives in describing our organizations, but negatives can be useful in some contexts - sometimes, being judgmental or a loose canon is exactly what is called for.

The point is, when you couch your values or mission or archetype in terms of a character, whether they be mythical, fictional or a real person, they immediately suggest behaviours. In other words, you move from the abstract into the concrete.

This also allows us to better understand what our weaknesses might be and of course the kind of person we might look to hire.

When we don’t understand our organisation character we risk being beige and generic and locked in a production mentality.

When we know who we are however, the why and the how become something we all understand.

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