Case Studies

1: Major government department (board development)

As part of the merger and reorganisation of two large government departments and on the advice of McKinsey & Company, Hermes Consulting was brought in to support the incoming Permanent Secretary, newly-appointed Directors General and Directors (46 in all) to develop their narrative leadership skills and to guide them in the use of story and storytelling for change. Our work, which stretched over a fifteen month period, involved personal coaching in story and narrative techniques for the top team, group interventions at top management retreats and team building sessions, and advising internal communications staff and organisational development professionals.

The results of this work included boosting the presence and personal authority of the Permanent Secretary and other new appointees, improving the quality and effectiveness of top team communication and developing positive stories of change that fed the ‘informal’ system and improved staff engagement at a testing time for all. This fed directly into work designed to develop a culture of greater personal accountability, higher standards of performance and more customer-focused service. (Contributed by Geoff Mead, )


2: Financial Services Company (cultural transformation)

Following the merger of two major financial services companies, the new board had the task of devising core values for the newly created organisation. These values were centred round “trust”, “truth” and “teamwork”. Poster campaigns, the company newsletter and company away days were used to promote this message. After three months there appeared to be major communication problems between employees of the two former companies and the core values were becoming the butt of many in-house jokes. At this point, we were asked to provide storytelling solutions to the lack of corporate identity with the core values and to address the communications issues in a creative way.

Working with six groups of twelve staff drawn from all levels of the company (director to post room), we first drew out stories connected with trust, truth and teamwork. We facilitated story circles whereby people told recent stories of where these qualities were present and, more importantly, where they were absent. Each person wrote up their story (anonymously) which was included in a book of stories on that theme. These stories were then retold to senior management in the first person. The stories concerning when these qualities were absent proved the most fertile ground for change.

Eventually these stories became part of the induction programme for new employees in order to demonstrate how the core values could be enacted. They became the focal point of several large company gatherings where they were used to generate conversation and engagement in what trust, truth and teamwork really meant in a practical way. They appeared in the company accounts and other documentation. But most usefully and effectively, they were told at the photocopier, in the canteen, the toilets and at smoke breaks – they passed into company lore. (Contributed by Sue Hollingsworth, )


3: Energy Company A (governance and risk)

A major energy company wanted to develop production in one of the smaller African countries, which at this point had remained relatively untouched. Conscious of the bad press their sector had been recently receiving, they wanted to develop a policy, which they called “No Regrets”. This meant that, in ten years time when they were looking back on how the project had gone, they would have no regrets about their behaviour from an ethical point of view. However it transpired that there was a difference of opinion at a very senior level about just how far the company would be prepared to go with this policy. Should it include the provision of education for employee’s families? Housing? What about roads and other infrastructure, which might be of paramount importance for the local population but only of secondary importance for the energy company itself? At this point we were asked to make an intervention at Board level to re-establish communication between the different factions, focus on building pictures of the future and help to begin a process of decision making about what a policy of no regrets might look like.

We began with conversations with key personnel to gather as much information about the project and the different opinions as possible. We then researched a traditional African story that closely mirrored the situation the organisation found itself in. The story was used as a focus for the process. At a series of evening events, the story was told to the senior management in episodes. Each episode was followed by a series of questions about the decisions made in the story, which were discussed in small groups. By focussing on the story and not their own situation, they were able to address moral values and ethical questions without acrimony.

Once the story had been completed, it was relatively easy to map the responses made to the story onto the real life situation and look at the long-term effects of the various decisions. A useful side effect of the process was the development of a common language based around the story, which worked as a short hand and also a bonding mechanism between group members. (Contributed by Sue Hollingsworth,


4: Energy Company B (post-redundancy morale, engagement)

One of the divisions of the company had had to make severe cutbacks, which had resulted in major redundancies. These were not voluntary and had an enormous effect on a community in an area of relatively high unemployment. Those who still had jobs were required to change their ways of working and their behaviours to ensure the continued success of the division.

We were first asked to help improve the morale in those who still had jobs. Those who had “survived” had enormous anger, guilt and resentment towards management and were incapable of moving forward until this was addressed. Together with an in-house team, we ran eight away days for these personnel. Using a mix of traditional stories, their own personal tales and other appropriate activities we helped these workers undergo a cathartic process to let go of their thoughts and feelings. Many of the people were engineers, technicians and other front-line production workers for whom this was an extremely unusual experience! However, feedback from these sessions to management was very good.

The next stage was to work with a set of behaviours that the organisation wanted to promote in order to survive in a very competitive market. The behaviours were different from what had been expected before the cuts but, as presented, were neither memorable not persuasive.  As stories tend to linger much longer in the memory than straight information, traditional and real life stories were researched around these behaviours. Senior managers then told these stories at large-scale company events. (Contributed by Sue Hollingsworth,


5: High Street Bank (internal communication and leadership development)

A well-known consultancy had been contracted to design a new leadership programme for the bank. Their current programme had a very high failure rate. The ability to recognise and tell a compelling story to motivate employees and communicate the bank’s goals was identified as a key part of the new programme.

We were asked to work with the consultancy to design the storytelling element of the programme. Working with a mixed group of bank and consultancy employees, we developed a process whereby potential leaders could access stories from their childhood of their earliest memories of what leadership meant to them. Working with these stories, we were able to help them identify their own different types of leadership style, learn from others in the group and gain a better understanding of what was expected from a leader.

Once this part of the process was completed, the potential leaders received intensive coaching in order to tell their personal stories in a compelling and charismatic way. The process of being coached in front of their peers was a key element of the programme. Finally, the new leaders told their stories to their new staff at a variety of gatherings. They turned out to be excellent storytellers!  (Contributed by Sue Hollingsworth,


6: Global Telecommunications Company (strategy and board development)

One of our consultants worked with the board of a global telecommunications company (not BT) for a couple of days helping them prepare for a nine-day rollout of their new strategy to about two thousand managers. Unusually, he faced considerable barracking from certain board members who seemed particularly hostile. After a couple of hours of increasing obstruction, he drew on the inherent authority of the storyteller to say; “I’ve now worked with this company from the Chairman down to the most junior sales assistant, and I have to tell you that this is the most unpleasant organisation I have ever worked with.”

He was received with a long silence until the Director of Customer Services said, “That’s not the first time we’ve heard that.”  There followed an impassioned discussion about the “elephant in the room” that no one on the board had so far dared to discuss – an undeclared struggle between those who believed that the company was there to shift new technology, and those who saw that most people in the world now possessed a mobile phone and that the most important thing was to develop customer relations. 

What also became apparent in the wake of this exploration was that the company, giant that it was, was operating from goal to goal in the wake of a massive expansion by acquisition without any defined vision of its future. The board subsequently went away for a further two days to hammer out a clear vision before the roll out.  (Contributed by William Ayot,


7: High Security Prisoners (personal awareness, violence reduction)

One of our consultants recently worked on a four-day long NGO sponsored programme with a group of prisoners (all murderers) in Zonderwand High Security Prison in South Africa. Called ‘Silence the Violence’, the aims of the programme are for participants to recognise, acknowledge and then work to reduce their own violence.

Each day every individual was given a chance to speak and to tell some of his story; this came to a focus on the final day when they were asked to share their ‘secret’.  Some just told their story as a recital but those told it from the heart touched their listeners deeply – and they were the ones who made a commitment to work ( with support) through the changes required to move to adopting a non violent approach.

Telling one’s story and being heard respectfully (and non-judgementally) is a pre-requisite for personal change.  In this way one can loosen the grip of old, limiting and dysfunctional stories to make room for new and more generative stories about ourselves: a principle that is just as valid in the boardroom as it is in the prison cell. (Contributed by Peter Neall,


8. Global Insurance Company (personal impact and inspiration)

One of our consultants co-delivered a training course for 60 international delegates from a global insurance company at INSEAD business school, France.  The course was focused around building inspiring and compelling speeches.  During this one day course the skills of building powerful and inspiring language were identified by listening to the speeches of politicians and business people such as Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs. 

All great speakers use easily practised applied techniques that date back to the days of Aristotle, including the Power of Three, Contrast and Balance and the use of Metaphor and Story in speechmaking.  Delegates were asked to practise using these rhetorical devices in their own business speeches and contrast these with their speeches before and after, and the subsequent impact on their listener. 

The afternoon included a group voice and breathing session to introduce the skills of powerful speaking, and then personal coaching with each delegate to give them a bespoke exercise to improve their delivery skills. This coaching session was caught on DVD so they could see the improvements in both their content and the style of their delivery of their speech. The results were impressive and feedback from company about the effects of the programme was excellent. (Contributed by Kate Firth,


9: Global Gas Company (cross-cultural specialist team building)

Due to the economic downturn and the consequent need for cost-savings, a specialist (6-Sigma) internal consultancy department of a European owned global gas company was about to be disbanded and their function reintegrated into operational divisions. It was inevitable that some of them would lose their jobs but when our consultant was asked to intervene it was not known who would stay and who would go. The company regarded their continued effectiveness as essential.

The focus of the intervention was on providing the group with the ‘strength of family’ to work together as a unified team despite the imminent upheaval and the fact that in future those who survived would be working with different bosses in different regions.  Our consultant designed a 2 day workshop based on a traditional Russian Story ‘The Little Messenger’.  The story was told in three sections; at the end of each they formed into smaller working groups to discuss the relevance of the story to their own situation and what was to be learned from it. Although they had never come across this approach before, they were curious, interested and industrious.

The story caught their imaginations and they applied its lessons to their own situation very actively and creatively. They understood and were able to articulate their personal responsibility to maintain contact and not lose the benefits of the three years they had spent as a single team when they were disbanded whilst also making a commitment to make the new structure work as well as possible.  The workshop received excellent feedback and subsequent contact confirms that their dispersal has not adversely affected their ability to operate effectively as 6-Sigma consultants in the company. (Contributed by Peter Neall,

10: An Open Programme (assertiveness and personal survival)

One of our consultants co-delivered a leadership development programme based on the story of Macbeth, which explores the darker aspects of leadership. One participant, a successful yet underachieving executive, rolled his eyes, sucked his teeth or passed a passive-aggressive comment whenever a new aspect of the drama was introduced – almost as if he was playing out a character in the play.  The opportunity arose during a breakout session to give him some very clear feedback about his behaviour and his need to be more assertive instead of blaming and undermining others in authority.  At the end of the workshop he grudgingly offered his thanks and left. Nine months later, his e-mail arrived. He had a story to tell.

He wrote that he had booked a beach holiday for his wife and family just before coming on the Macbeth programme. In due course they had arrived at their destination and checked in to their beach hotel. It was rubbish. He wrote that he thought of our work together and, for the first time in his life, he decided to assert himself. He complained. The hotel did nothing. He complained again and gave them an ultimatum. They still did nothing. So he checked his family out of the hotel and marched them, complaining all the way, 600 metres up the hill to a shabby little hotel which they hated on sight. The next morning the Boxing Day Tsunami struck and the beach hotel they had originally stayed in was wiped off the face of the earth. He said his wife and kids thought of him as a hero but he knew it was because of the work he had done with us, and Macbeth.

Amongst the major benefits of story (and presence) work is the fact that it can help delegates to address, challenge and often deal with character issues like the one above. These issues, if left untended, can later derail the most successful executives – not to mention the organisations they lead! (Contributed by William Ayot,