5 ways to drive engagement by letting your employees tell their own stories


by Wendy Lamin

‘Let the network do the work’ is a key phrase one hears more and more in the context of digital (workplace) transformation and Enterprise Social Networks. The next one is that many digital transformation or other change projects fail because there is too much focus on the policies or the technologies, and not enough on putting people first, winning their hearts and minds. Great communication or driving change is about head and heart.

It is time for leaders and communicators to stop being the exclusive gatekeepers and shape a new communication culture. Trust and empower employees to act as storytellers, give them a role to play in their own and collective ‘future of work’ through blogs, vlogs, microblogs and the like. The “command and control” processes and the traditional monologue driven hierarchical leadership models where employees are considered passive participants is outdated. It is time to move towards a dialogue model of “inspire and empower” networked organisations.Basically, companies need more community management models which puts people first as drivers of sustainable change and engagement.

Let’s examine some case studies where ‘the network is doing the work’, where employees are inspired and empowered to tell their own stories through pro-active community management, and in doing so, are delivering the much needed change many companies are looking into, ranging from digital (workplace) transformation to developing and rolling out new company values, imperatives or policies to moving towards a learning culture or a combination of several change initiatives.

  1. Peer-to-peer or Social Learning

We all know that we need to adopt the practice of lifelong learning in order to succeed in the workplace, and that the 21stcentury is about a connected, networked world. With the arrival of social technologies, the two combined led to ‘peer-to-peer’ or ‘social learning’. Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham wrote in 2015 in ‘The New Social Learning: Connect. Collaborate. Work’: “The new social learning provides people at every level, in every nook of the organisation, and every corner of the globe, a way to reclaim their natural capacity to learn nonstop. For a long time, many of us have known learning could transform the workplace. We longed for tools to catch up with that potential. Only recently have changes in corporate culture and technology allowed this eventuality to unfold.’

An early case study of such social learning was Marsh. In 2009, a global colleague survey highlighted that Marsh colleagues wanted to have more training and learning opportunities.  The Marsh Executive Committee decided to help people connect and share knowledge. In particular, they wanted a colleague-driven solution that delivered the following: a platform for knowledge sharing and collaboration and a place where colleagues could meet virtually and build relationships; The solution? 2010 saw the light of Marsh University (MU*), a social learning/social collaboration enabled platform which provided Marsh’s at the time 25,000 colleagues globally with a simple way to learn and teach by sharing knowledge, connect and collaborate with one another across over 100 countries.

The slogan used to incentivise colleagues to share their knowledge, teach and learn was: “At Marsh, everyone is a teacher…what do you want to teach?”, tapping into its collaborative nature: knowledge sharing was behaviour-driven, not technology driven, a prime condition for sustainable change.

The collaborative MU community across Marsh enabled colleagues

  • to teach, namely to contribute their own knowledge,
  • to learn, share and collaborate, namely to tap into the vast expertise and knowledge of peers,
  • to build a personal brand within the community by having their own profile. The MU profile became an online portfolio, rewarding sharing instead of hoarding knowledge.

MU became a community where learning occurred through sharing based on publishing blogs, engaging in conversations and connecting to other colleagues with similar interests. The 3 guiding principles for the social learning or peer-to-peer learning were that it was informal (could come from anyone), atomised (snackable, could be consumed in 5’ or less), sociable (learning together, personable, discussion based). Moreover, it led to continuous learning, in the sense that it was stored and searchable, but also it became a gift that keeps on giving. More than 5000 blogs were posted in 2 years. Below an article of one colleague, a former broker, sharing her knowledge about IPO’s, helping out a colleague in South-Africa who had never dealt with IPO’s.

Blogging is a 21stcentury storytelling skill that responds to the needs of people requiring fast and concise information in a world where time is precious. It allows an immediate and low-cost way to capture knowledge and promote collaboration. When you train your people to become bloggers, storytellers, teachers, sharing their knowledge, everyone wins. It connected and engaged the global Marsh community through the sharing of its collective knowledge. A great example of ‘let the network do the work’ and drive employee engagement through colleagues’ storytelling. As Oscar Berg wrote in ‘Superpowering people – Designing the collaborative digital organisation’: “Empowering people to do their jobs better and get the most out of their knowledge, skills sets and personal traits will make them more engaged”.

  1. Socialising Company Values

Company values are like the DNA in a company. They need to be KISS, easy to understand and remember, sticky, unique, have human appeal, an emotional connection. Colleagues need to be able to ‘get it’ and run with it.

At Marsh, new operating principles were created back in 2011, called IGNITE, which stood for ‘In Touch, Genuine, Nimble, Inclusive, Trusted, Engaged’. The next challenge was to bring them to life, keep them alive, socialise and embed them in Marsh’s daily culture throughout the organisation. Since MU was already in place, colleagues were cajoled and inspired to translate these IGNITE values into their own stories with their own words in their own day to day working lives, through blogging,  vlogging or microblogging, thus integrating them into everyone’s DNA. The IGNITE blog and vlog stories posted by colleagues on Marsh University were truly transformative, from funky to funny, showcasing the cultural diversity of colleagues in over 100 countries through common values. Within less than a year, 72% of global colleagues recognised IGNITE as the company’s operating principles.

The next step of embedding the new values were to recognise colleagues who had exemplified them. Workplace recognition had been another issue that had been highlighted in the 2009 global colleague engagement survey. So a technology driven peer-to-peer recognition system based on the company’s values was integrated in Marsh University where colleagues could recognize one another for living and demonstrating the IGNITE values in their daily work lives. It was called ‘Rec-IGNITE’ and presented a double win: colleagues could identity the IGNITE values in their colleagues, and socialise them by recognizing their colleagues for any of the 6 IGNITE values through mini stories on their colleagues’ online profiles.

These social recognition awards became a part of the storytelling culture showcasing the company’s values on colleagues’ internal profiles, visible to everyone and showcased on their social feeds. Anyone could award/recognise anyone. The awards could be liked and commented upon by anyone, further deepening and widening the effect of the recognition and storytelling, as well as leading to a copycat behaviour in the wider ecosystem, driving a culture of recognition and putting a spotlight on those colleagues and behaviours that supported the organisation’s values. Recognition (and visibility) is such an important ingredient of engagement. It was making colleagues feeling seen and recognised for their achievements and/or contributions through their own colleagues’ stories. Let the network do the work.

  1. Socialising Growth imperative

In order to survive, thrive and be sustainable, any enterprise social network needs to be integrated within the company’s strategic business objectives.

One case story at Marsh was the use of its social technology platform, MU, to enable and generate growth through a community management driven approach. Every year, there was a quarterly event called ‘Global Growth Day’ (GGD) where everyone focused exclusively on calling clients and prospects. Meetings on those days were not allowed. But the 4 yearly Global Growth Days were rather stand alone, not connected in time, there was no visibility as to what anyone was doing in real time across the globe and build on that momentum. So the community management approach socialised the company’s growth imperative by 1) making GGD the ‘talk of the town’ on MU, 2) turned MU into the GGD content hub and 3) made GGD truly inclusive across geographies, functions, lines of business and hierarchies, by enabling colleagues to publish, share and search for GGD content. Sales colleagues, leaders and industry experts were encouraged to ‘be a teacher’, share their stories, their knowledge, foster collaboration through blogs, vlogs and microblogs (called ‘sparks’, linking back to ‘IGNITE’), before, during and after GGD. Stories were published before the GGD so colleagues had fresh and relevant content and knowhow to be motivated to make the calls.

On the Global Growth Day itself, a friendly competition with #GGD Sparks’ was encouraged, followed by sharing results real-time on MU, and the whole day was followed-up with recap blogs, by colleagues for colleagues, so everyone could engage with the immediate results of their activities. One could see the wave of #GGD sparks coming from Asia Pacific before EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) was awake, then it was EMEA’s turn and the Americas were the ones to close the day, after having seen the results from the other regions: It felt like a ‘Mexican wave’ of online engagement which was very motivating. The next steps were to create online GGD themed communities, add some fun and gamification elements with global competition between the various regions, or themed Global Growth Days, such as a #GGDselfie day, which materialised by the online storytelling of offline engagements. Last but not least, the rec-IGNITE featured was used to celebrate those colleagues with the most contributions.

The result? Through all this online storytelling and community management, GGD went global, virtual and viral, both in terms of GGD themed content and activity on MU as well as in terms of the number of appointments made. The number of appointments were clearly aligned with the number of storytelling activities on MU. MU had become ‘the hub’ of fresh GGD content, with #GGD Sparks becoming ‘the talk of the town’ offline and online, and leading to an increasing number of appointments booked, beating all previous records, making GGD truly Inclusive across geographies, functions and Lines of Business. In other words, Community Management principles to socialise the growth imperative had successfully been employed.

If you make growth fun, and add an element of storytelling to it, people will naturally gravitate to it. Colleagues were given the opportunity to demonstrate they loved what they were doing, teaching their peers about their own knowledge, to the benefit of the greater good. The absolute cherry on the cake was when non-sales colleagues started to participate in GGD as well and share their own stories of how they were contributing to growing the company in their own way. It was the perfect way to build, embed and grow a sales culture in the entire business. Another example of ‘let the network do the work’, give colleagues a voice and a role to play and thus drive engagement through colleagues’ storytelling.

  1. Socialising Diversity & Inclusion

Tackling Diversity & inclusion, unconscious bias, is often tricky. How to tackle deeply held beliefs of what people think and feel or not even know they think and feel about a whole range of diversity and inclusion issues? Storytelling is one way, by harnessing the power of stories, one can change minds and build empathy. People love reading stories about people. Get colleagues to tell their stories about themselves, their lives, their childhoods, their families, the good, the bad and even the ugly if they want, let the network do the work to drive the diversity & inclusion needle.

One such case study is Marsh & McLennan Companies. A new intranet was rolled out for about 60,000 colleagues at the time based in over 100 countries. The diversity & inclusion leader wanted to seduce colleagues with the best colleague stories on the intranet, focus on user generated content, make it impossible not to engage with colleagues’ stories, not feeling an emotional connection, thus impacting fixed beliefs and deeply rooted assumptions in a subtle way. The stories were not labelled as diversity & inclusion but ‘Our Voices’ and focused not only on the traditional D&I issues as the D&I angle was somewhat camouflaged in the broader narratives. Where some people simply ‘switch off’ when it comes to D&I, or others believe they are not unconsciously biased, the stories addressed the invisible reasons people resist changing their minds or becoming aware of fixed patterns in their thinking. Stories ranged from a single mom in the UK raised in Eastern Europe looking at her own daughter’s childhood in the UK, to a retiring NY-based compliance leader wanting to leave his legacy, to a male couple’s journey of getting children, to a father with a handicapped child, to a colleague with MS or another who was blind, to veterans telling their stories, to a local leader sharing how he was raised in a racist environment. Each story provided a reason for members to check out the intranet in search for more stories, getting drawn into them. The openness and authenticity of the ‘Our Voices’ ultimately created an internal shift in what colleagues thought and felt about certain topics and were by far the most popular content on the new intranet. It got to a point where one person’s story inspired another to tell their story as well. Again, inspiring and empowering colleagues to tell their stories is a gift that keeps on giving. 

  1. Socialising Social Media

Every company needs to review its policies and processes regularly to see whether they are still ‘fit for purpose’. After the review, it’s about publishing and familiarising the colleague population with the new or revised policies, processes or guidelines. That’s not always easy. One way is through purposeful persuasive storytelling. Stories have that emotional power that makes our head and heart listen and can suspend the critical part of our brains.

At Marsh & McLennan Companies, a new social media guideline was written in 2016 as the 2012 policy was outdated and no longer fit for purpose. A playful tone was adopted and the metaphor of ‘dipping your toes in the waters of social media’ used, ‘taking a deeper dive’ for the more experienced digital natives, ‘looking out for sharks in murky waters’ to alert colleagues to potential risks and ‘snorkelling under water’ to refer to potential company monitoring of social media feeds. A social media community was created and colleagues were cajoled and inspired into posting blogs about their own stories and feelings with respect to social media, or interesting playful stories they had come across. It was a common place where digital natives could meet digital immigrants and socialise, where everyone could share knowledge, ask questions, get ‘aha’ moments, engage with the new social media guidelines, try out their own ‘social voice’ with peers in a safe space. Stories posted were ranging from an extraordinary chance encounter with the CEO of LinkedIn, to the German equivalent of LinkedIn, to a village in Europe run by a mayor on Twitter, to the British queen looking for a new social media manager, to colleagues making their first steps on social media and seeing a whole world open up. After the tone was set in the new social media guidelines, the proper use of Social Media was thus ‘socialised’. The guidelines also contained references to employee (brand) advocacy, and a special reserved section of the social media community was dedicated to it. Employee advocacy is a logical external consequence of ‘letting the network do the work’ and ‘inspiring and empowering’ colleagues in a social media storytelling context. The last article on Simply Communicate addressed it under the title: ‘Empower your employees to tell your story’ which refers to 10 more articles on the subject.


Facts tell, stories sell. Logic may go to the brain, but stories get to the heart. Don’t forget the heart.

Trained as a litigation lawyer, then broker, Wendy Lamin moved into global pioneering roles in internal communications, digital workplace transformation, employee engagement & social media.

* Marsh University as such was replaced after a number of years by another Enterprise Social Network.