What is Strategic Narrative—Guillaume Wiatr, CEO, MetaHelm

If the phrase strategic narrative is new to you then you are not alone. Before recording this episode I had never heard the phrase before and could only guess what it actually meant. If you are in the same boat as me then you are going to love today’s episode in which we unpack Strategic Narrative and how it can help catapult your brand and marketplace position.

ABOUT OUR GUEST:

Guillaume Wiatr is the author of Strategic Narrative: A Simple Method That Business Leaders Can Use to Make Everyone Understand Their Business, Get Behind it and Believe In It. His company, MetaHelm, guides CEOs, founders, and business owners to align teams and accelerate innovation adoption. A former big-firm strategy consultant, Guillaume has founded four ventures. He is sought after by senior executives of companies like Alaska Airlines, the Gates Foundation, Generations For Peace, AIG, L’Oréal, Spencer Stuart, GAP, Google, Microsoft, and the US and French governments.  

After helping to save a 20M euros venture during the dot-com boom, Guillaume went on a mission to turn every company into a source of inspiration that few can resist. Guillaume teaches and mentors entrepreneurs at startup incubators, EMLyon international business school, and the University of Washington Master of Science in Entrepreneurship, ranked #3 in the US.

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TRANSCRIPTION:

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (00:00):

Welcome to the Multiply Your Success podcast, where each week we help growth minded entrepreneurs and franchise leaders take the next step in their expansion journey. I’m your host, Tom DuFore, CEO of Big Sky Franchise Team. And as we open today, I’m going to talk about this idea called strategic narrative. And if that phrase is new to you, well, you’re not alone. Before actually recording this episode with our guest, I’d never heard the phrase before, and candidly, hearing it, I had no idea. It was just a best guest to know what it actually meant. And if you’re in the same boat with me, then you’re going to love today’s episode in which we unpack this idea of strategic narrative and how it can help catapult your brand and your marketplace position. Our guest today is Guillaume Wiatr, and he is the author of strategic narrative, a simple method that business leaders can use to make everyone understand their business, get behind it, and believe in it. His company, MetaHelm, guides CEOs, founders, and business owners to align teams and accelerate innovation adoption.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (01:09):

He’s a former big firm strategy consultant. Guillaume has founded four companies. He’s a sought after by senior executives of companies like Alaska Airlines, the Gates Foundation, Generations For Peace, AIG, L’Oreal, Spencer Stewart, Gap, Google, Microsoft, and the US and French governments. Needless to say, he’s fantastic. You’re going to love this interview. So, let’s go ahead and jump into my interview with Guillaume Wiatr.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (01:35):

Well, my name is Guillaume Wiatr, and I’m the principal and founder of MetaHelm. MetaHelm is a strategy consulting from based in Seattle. You can hear from my accent that I’m not from the United States originally. I’m from France. I’m from Normandy, in fact.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (01:51):

Ah, okay, wonderful. Wonderful. Well, thank you for being here. I’m so grateful. And one of the things I really wanted to just kind of jump into right away is a lot of really geared toward what you do. You have a book out called Strategic Narrative, and I would just like to talk about this concept of strategic narrative. It’s new to me. I’ve never really heard about it, and so I’d love for you to share and give a little overview.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (02:19):

So, I’ll start with the question. Have you ever heard a business person say, “We have to have our story straight. We have to tell our story,” something like that?

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (02:28):

Yes. Of course. Of course.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (02:30):

Okay. So, it’s a pretty common thing to say in the business world, and that’s something I started saying myself maybe 10, 15 years ago. I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 23 years now, and I really love this concept. And at first thought that yeah, you have to be a great storyteller and you have to have a company story. And I even made this my job to help other entrepreneurs come up with their story, until I realize that actually, there is a big misunderstanding behind this concept. Few people really understand it. We think it’s cool. There is a lot of buzz around it, but what’s really underneath this is that what you should be focusing on, if you are an entrepreneur and you want to scale your business, is not build one story, but a system of stories. And that’s what I call the narrative.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (03:23):

I make a difference between a story and a narrative. And most people kind of use it interchangeably in their daily speak, but there are significant differences between a story and a narrative. So, a narrative is a system of stories. And if you design that system intentionally, and if you’re really careful, what it does for you is that you open up people people’s mind to join you on new opportunities. I like to say that people will buy a story, they’ll be happy to buy a story, but they will almost die for a narrative. And when you hear the narrative about society, about the economy, the narrative about artificial intelligence, the narrative about retail, I mean, I’m just giving examples here, you kind of hear this. It’s the general tone and the general message for a specific topic. And few entrepreneurs know that they are actually in charge of building that same overall message and conversation about their business.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (04:27):

So, it’s different than just saying, “Hey, we have a story.” Right? A story maybe is, where do we come from, and what product do we have? No, the narrative, that system, carefully design system that takes your business to the next level.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (04:42):

Well, that’s really interesting, and it makes me think a little bit about this idea that’s been popular. You talked about some story ideas, like a story brand, for example, and some of these other programs. How is that maybe similar or the same to what you’re describing here? It sounds like the story is just a part of a narrative, which is a multistory, I don’t even know, narrative, I guess is your [inaudible 00:05:11]

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (05:11):

Yeah. It’s a multi-story. Let’s call it a system. It’s a multi-story system. So, great. So, yes, StoryBrand is very popular, awesome concept and book by Donald Miller that I have studied and tried to implement. And that type of approach is great. If you have a business that is well established, that is in a category that is probably already defined. You’re not really a great… You are not really so much into disrupting a market and a great innovator, but you’re doing something that requires marketing, heavy emphasis on marketing. But what this approach doesn’t cover is something that helps businesses that are about adaptation in an industry, that are into adaptive things, that are into disrupting, into really high gear innovation. And that not only just cater to their customers, but also caters to a team that they need to mobilize, a set of investors, a community that they need to bring in to be successful, and obviously the founder.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (06:22):

Yeah. Well, so on your website, in preparation for this, you have this little video that I didn’t get a chance to watch the whole thing all the way through, but I was fascinated by the first few minutes of kind of this idea of the story and the narrative, and really alignment that you talk about, an alignment with your company team. You were using these arrows as kind of alignment and showing what it kind of looks like. So, would you mind talking about what alignment is, why it’s critical, what that means, and how I’m assuming the strategic narrative helps create that alignment?

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (06:59):

Yeah, that’s the purpose of a strategic narrative, is to mobilize people in a way that helps them go the same direction. And when I say people, you may just shrink it to just your team. No, I mean, everyone. People means your team, your customers, your partners, your whole ecosystem. So, in my book, I represent people visually as arrows. And I say if people are arrows, they use arrows go in a certain direction at a certain intensity. They are vectors. People are vectors. And so on a daily basis, if I am doing something for my company… Say I’m here, I’m thinking about new product, I do it in a direction that hopefully is aligned to the purpose of the company, the mission, the goal of the company and what we’re trying to achieve, maybe in terms of profitability or market presence and so on.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (07:53):

And so I do this, and all my decisions throughout the day and throw the week are going to be driven by something that is unconscious. That is the narrative. Something that I’m not going to necessarily challenge because I’ve got stuff to do. And so if that’s true for one person, imagine what it does when you have 10 or hundred or a thousand people and we’re all driven… All our decisions are driven by something that is a narrative. So, if that narrative is different, slightly different for people in an organization, what you can picture, and that’s a visual that I have in my book, is a whole bunch of arrows that goes certain directions. And in fact, there is research around this topic. And people have researched, and then that’s the data point that is available out there, in companies of about a thousand people on average, only 10%, 10% of employees know exactly where the company is headed.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (08:55):

The rest is kind of knows or make a lot of assumptions and kind of goes with the flow and kind of goes by, but doesn’t show up to work with that engagement and that mobilizing factors that makes them make the better decisions and in a more powerful way, I would say. Right? It’s orientation and direction. So, a strategic narrative helps you fix this problem. And you may have a great product or service. You may have great marketing, HR processes, finance processes, but this is going an extra notch. This is going to provide to you, as an non entrepreneur, as a successful entrepreneur, the method and the means to really align and make all those arrows go in the same direction. That’s the whole point right there.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (09:44):

I see. Interesting. And you were talking about… I’m just playing out in my mind, if 10% of your, your team, on average roughly, know the general direction, they know that narrative, they’re able to communicate it, they understand it, just thinking about how many people, let’s say your customers or prospective customers or maybe some key stakeholders or key players in your community or vendors or suppliers that are communicating every day with your staff, and nine out of 10 of them are not aligned, that seems problematic that we’re all facing. So, how do you help overcome that?

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (10:30):

Well, I look at this as a 360 degrees approach. Again, this is a departure from additional business storytelling, which is more linear. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And my approach is 360 degrees, and it has a narrative, has a beginning, a middle, but no end. And that’s a by design. That’s on purpose. So, first of all, you have to be in that mindset. That’s the first step. Then I come in with a view that represents your system of stories and your ecosystem into four areas. The first one is you, the second one is your community, the third one is your team, and the fourth one is your customer. And what we want to do in this context, I call this the strategic narrative canvas, is define what are the key stories that are going to help people really make sense of what your company wants to do.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (11:23):

So, I’ll give you an example. Let’s say, and that’s a client of mine, who’s really innovative and they constantly build new features to their product. They constantly launch new products. They’re in the technology space. And when it comes to launching those new products, what they do is that they build a product story, which means that they are going to assume that the product exists already, and they’re going to collaboratively write together the press release for when the products comes out, right? And then they’re going to take that document. So, it’s, by design, a very short document, one to two pages. And you know the saying, I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter. Two pages document to describe a product is a little bit of a challenge, can be a little bit of a challenge. And then they’re going to test their assumptions and see if their team, their potential customers get excited about this product. And until they get excited about this idea, features, product, whatever this might be, they’re not going to start the product development process.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (12:27):

So, that’s an example of what you can do with the strategic narrative in the product development dimension of that narrative. But there are so many other example. You could apply the same approach, the same thinking for recruitment, for instance.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (12:43):

Yeah. Well, where’s a place… When you’re working… You have a great list of clients you’ve worked with, well known brands. And most of our clients that we work with, and even folks that oftentimes are listening in, they’re leaders of maybe small to mid-size businesses that are tuning in, what’s a place maybe someone could start, or just get introduced and start get this strategic narrative going in their business? How do you recommend someone do that?

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (13:13):

Well, there is… So, first of all, this is something that is the leader’s responsibility to do. So, number one, don’t delegate this. Do not hire an agency for instance, and just say, “Well, you’ll write our stories for us.” That’s all thinking. It can work once your strategic narrative is established, to communicate what this narrative is about externally. But first of all, you have to realize that this is your job. This is your responsibility. So, I like to say, don’t do it… You should do it on your own and start, not necessarily do it alone. So, the first place is there. So, you want to maybe bring in your team and go over a set of basic fundamental stories. The first one is the origin story. And you may say, “Well, we know where we come from. We know why we started this company.”

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (14:08):

Well, great. You’re in a good spot, but you would be surprised that, by actually rehearsing how we tell that specific origin story, people will actually learn and will remember details that helps them align their decision and see where the company comes from and where the company is going. Another example of the kind of story you need to build collaboratively as a team is what I call your perspective story. It’s really about owning the opinion of the business in your market. And when you have ownership of a specific point of view, you create a very differentiating presence in your market. So, some very famous example would be Google’s 10 things we know to be true. You can look it up. It’s one page on Google’s website that tells, in 10 short paragraph, what the perspective of the company is.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (15:06):

So, if you don’t have something like this, I highly recommend that’s you start sitting down and jotting down maybe what are the 10 things to be true, and maybe come up with your own manifesto or your own set of beliefs. This takes a little bit of time, but what’s in place, and once you’ve invited your team to co-design this with you, and maybe some clients, it’s really, really powerful because people will really put their fingerprints on something that now they own and that makes them accountable and responsible on a daily basis. So, these are just a couple steps that you can start with.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (15:41):

Yeah, this is brilliant. And just thinking of an organization, it literally just draws a line in the sand to say, “We are standing for something.” And that’s something probably already exists in some way, shape, or form at the organization. Maybe it’s unspoken. It just hasn’t been articulated in a certain way, but it really makes it clear now what that is going to be.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (16:05):

Yeah. It makes it clear. And Tom, many people will assume that what I’m talking about is building a product. They’ll think, “Oh yeah. Okay. We’ll write our origin story, we’ll write our perspective story. And once we have that, we’re done. We can move on. And we’ll post that on our website, and that’s it.” Actually, what I’m talking about is different. I’m talking about a practice, and I’m talking about the practice of revisiting those stories, telling them over and over, adding other new people’s version of those stories and seeing how they evolve over time. Let me give you an example. I work with this company in France called [inaudible 00:16:45]. It’s a midsize company, and they do… They’re into business development. And it’s about 10 or 12 years old now. And I worked with the founder. We’ve been working with the founder for a few years, and we redid that exercise of the origin story not very long ago. Actually, a year plus ago, we did it.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (17:03):

And he had not realized, and he did uncover a specific defining moment in his background, in his story, that actually completely reset the whole strategy of the organization. And as a result, they grew over 50% in 2021. He completely repositioned the company because he had realized that he forgot an essential element for why they exist, really. And that thing in particular was the moment when him, as a young salesperson in his early twenties, he was selling consumer goods to retail chains. He realized that he didn’t get the proper training and proper coaching. And although… He was also a professional athlete at the time and got so much coaching. He’s like, why is that in sports and music and entertainment, we get all those great coaches, but in sales, we’re kind of left to our own demise.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (17:59):

Yeah, we have maybe a training here and there, and maybe some incentives sometimes, but the level of coaching is drastically different. So, he realigned his whole company around this moment that he had experienced and started actually breathing life through it in podcasts, he started writing about it, he starting doing his internal retreat around this concept in this moment. And that was the huge click and aha moment for people, so they started to really understand why this company existed. It was to help many other folks that probably experienced the same imbalance in their job as a salesperson.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (18:40):

That a great example. That’s a great example, and I appreciate you sharing that. Well, Guillaume, what I’d love to do at this point here is take a few minutes and transition to ask the same questions we ask every guest when they come onto the show.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (18:54):

Okay.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (18:55):

And the first question is, have you had a miss or two in your career, and something you’ve learned from it?

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (19:03):

Yeah, I think one of my misses is not to have invested financially early enough in my career and being so… I’m a, I’m a passionate careers, diehard entrepreneur being so focused on my product and developing it and not building wealth for the future early enough, just believing too soon that, yeah, I had the best magical thing in my hand and that it would work by itself. So, that’s one of them.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (19:38):

Yeah. Great. Great. Well, how about on the other side? Let’s talk about a make or two and something you’d like to highlight.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (19:48):

Well, one of the big one for me is the international presence and reach that I have, and that’s due to the fact that I immigrated here in the United States in 2008 in the middle of the great recession. I had to completely reinvent myself. Nobody could read my experience, my background, my resume, and I had to start over, and really transition successfully, establishing myself in a culture that is not mine with a language that is not my native language, and rebuilding that trust, that presence, little by little. That’s really a huge achievement for me. Another achievement is to have actually build my own narrative and own a point of view that is differentiating from anybody else in my space, and being able to teach it at universities. I teach at the University of Washington. I teach in France. I teach remotely in different countries, and being able to help other entrepreneurs, and sometimes very successful entrepreneurs, not just startups, but I’m talking about very successful entrepreneurs. So, these are kind of the couple big things. And being trusted by big brands, I think is a big make for me.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (20:59):

I work with companies like Microsoft, Alaska Airline, L’Oreal, Spencer Stewart, and being able to transfer the learnings from working with those big accounts to smaller, maybe mid-size companies who are not at that level yet, but aspire to get there one day.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (21:17):

Yeah. Yeah. Oh, thank you. And let’s talk about a multiplier. This is probably my favorite question we ask our guests, because we get such a wide range of responses. So, I’d love to know, have you used a multiplier in growing yourself or your company or in your career that you can share?

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (21:37):

So, here is how I define mine, is being able to leave in the zone of productive disequilibrium, always on the edge, always looking for the discomfort that helps me take resonated risks.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (21:58):

Well, I’m glad you’ve mentioned that, because I had written down here, a quote I saw on your website. And so I want to just kind of spin off before we get to the last question, just ask you here. You wrote on your website, “I’m here to make you comfortably uncomfortable, and I want to push your way of thinking to build and refine the way you communicate your strategic narrative.” And so that really stood out to me, and so I’d love for you to talk about that. I think it ties into what you were just sharing here.

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (22:28):

Well, my multiplier is exactly about walking my talk here. And so what you see on my website, I live it every day, every hour, every minute. And what I’m talking about is the ability to look at your business. So, the metaphor I use is to climb on the balcony of the dance floor. Imagine your business is a dance floor with a lot of people doing things there. Their moves, their plays are… It’s vibrant. It’s going 100 miles an hour, 200 miles an hour. And going to that zone of predictive disequilibrium is getting to the balcony, looking at it, and saying, “Okay, there are things we need to change. There are truths that are not told yet. There are elephants in the room. There are moves we should be making on our market or in the way we run our business that are bold, that requires courage.”

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (23:25):

How can we make those moves without killing our business? Of course, that’s not the intent. The whole intent is to evolve the business, to adapt through the changes outside and inside. But this require really the courage to yeah, to make some tough decisions sometimes. So, many people think, “Okay, building a strategic narrative, just like a story, you write stuff. It’s a a writing exercise. Yeah, marketing can do that.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a leadership move. I’m talking an act of leadership, not an act of literature. A narrative is about making decisions that will polarize people sometimes, that will make people upset, because change is hard. They’re going to have to lose something, maybe lose their zone of comfort, maybe lose their autonomy, they lose their status, but that’s what happens when a business grows.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (24:14):

Yeah. Oh, that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. And, well, the final question we like to ask every guest is, what does success mean to you?

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (24:27):

The word success evokes the word intentionality. To me, success is becoming who you are supposed to become, doing what you’re supposed to do. And in the business realm, it’s about building a company that impacts people the way it’s supposed to impact people. It’s all about… I’m a strategist, Tom. I’m a marketing strategist. I’m a leadership coach, so I think about this thing all day long, is are you doing the things you wanted to do? Are you really executing the strategy you wanted to [inaudible 00:25:00]? Are you actually accountable, committed to your biggest dreams? So, that’s what success means to me, whatever the dream is. The big can be small, big here in the United States or all over the planet. That’s your choice, but what really matters is helping more people accomplish and being in line with their dreams.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (25:21):

Yeah. Great. Well, as we bring this to a close, Guillaume, is there anything you are hoping to share or maybe get across or you haven’t had a chance to yet?

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (25:32):

I feel like I talked a lot, but one of the things I like to say is, I’m a jazz musician. I’m a jazz musician. And in jazz, we think… Most people see jazz as this joyful, unorganized kind of chaos. No, actually jazz is very much driven by systems, principles. And one of them is listening, and it’s the complete opposite of control. And what I like to say is that if you want to build a great company, if you want to build a great strategic narrative, you have to let go of control, because control is for beginners.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (26:15):

That is brilliant. Guillaume, how can someone learn more about… If they’re interested in saying, “Wow, I love what he’s saying. I want to learn more, maybe get involved, maybe buy a copy of your book,” what’s the best place for people to do that?

Guillaume Wiatr, MetaHelm (26:29):

Well, my book is available for free, and you don’t even have to put an email because I don’t like to spam. So, I will not spam because I won’t even have your email. And to get this book, it’s simple. You go to strategicnarrative.com, strategicnarrative.com. And you let on my company page, you’ll see a photo of me, and you’ll see book, and you click there and read the book. It’s a very short book. It’s a fast read that is… The feedback I’ve gotten is that’s pretty thought provoking and people take action based on that. And if you want to talk more, connect with me on LinkedIn, or just shoot me an email.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (27:06):

Guillaume, thank you so much for a fantastic interview. And let’s go ahead and jump into today’s three key takeaways. So, takeaway number one is just the definition of what strategic narrative is. And strategic narrative is essentially a system of stories about your brand. So, you have your own story. You maybe have heard that we have to have our own story or tell our own story, have a consistent story. And what Guillaume says is, well, that’s correct, but it’s actually a series or this whole system of stories that work together about your brand. And so, I thought that was a phenomenal takeaway just to help explain what that is. Takeaway number two, strategic narrative helps create alignment within your team. And he said that, on average, only about 10% of employees know the direction of where the company’s going. So, having a clear strategic narrative allows you to create alignment with customers, your staff, your community, and even with yourself.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (28:08):

And he gave that analogy of viewing people or thinking of them like arrows. Which direction are those arrows pointing? Are they all pointing in the same general direction? Are they lined up? Are they pointing backwards, upside down, all the different angles? How does that look? How is that structured at your organization? And strategic alignment helps get them all trying to point in the same direction and lined up and doing so. Takeaway number three is when he talked about what success means to him. And he said for him, it’s becoming who you are supposed to be doing, what you’re supposed to do, and building companies that are supposed to impact people the way that those companies are supposed to impact people. I loved that takeaway. And now it’s time for today’s win-win.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (28:59):

And today’s win-win is when Guillaume talked about the first step to creating your own strategic narrative. And the first part of that is that the leader, for you as the leader, you cannot delegate this. You need to do this yourself and be very active in the creation of it. And then part two of this first step is to really develop and be very clear about your origin story. I thought that was a very simple, great first step to take. That’s the episode today, folks. Please make sure you subscribe to the podcast and give us a review. And remember, if you or anyone, you know, might be ready to franchise their business or take their franchise company to the next level, please connect with us at bigskyfranchiseteam.com. Thanks for tuning in, and we look forward to having you back next week.

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