Tobias Fellows: Storytelling in leadership

On his company website, Neal Rothermel is quoted in Italic font: “I love why we do what we do.”

It’s a powerful phrase showcasing what many leaders may hope to impart on employees across the organization.

“I started my own business 23 years ago, and as we’ve grown, we’ve hired people in leadership roles across the country. My job as a leader is to find the right people, and to make sure to share our company culture and stories. Since we’re located around the United States, it’s increasingly important to find ways to share that culture and stories – to share why we do what we do,” explained Rothermel.

Rothermel pursued the Fellows Program through the Indiana University Tobias Leadership Center in 2017 to further develop his leadership skills and to locate resources that otherwise may not have been available. The program is an exclusive cohort that admits 15-20 seasoned executives each year. During the year-long, 10-session program, Fellows develop a deeper understanding of the core competencies and theory of leadership through experiential learning with leadership experts and scholars.

“Each experience was unique and different, and each time I came into it thinking this round can’t be as a good as the last one. But it was. It was really well-done,” said Rothermel. “Each session had top notch leadership from around the world, and it was held in a site where you got behind the scenes access and interesting perspective. I learned things that aren’t available through any other kind of leadership development program.”

It was the session focused on storytelling that sticks out as particularly memorable to Rothermel.

As a leader, I need to be able to share who we are and what makes our organization so special through stories and symbols.

Neal Rothermel, co-founder of VMS BioMarketing, 2017 Tobias Fellow

“As our company expands to include people around the country and the globe, you don’t just walk by the water cooler every day and share the culture. As a leader, I need to be able to share who we are and what makes our organization so special through stories and symbols. It was a powerful experience for me to be able to learn to distill a story or experience through a crystalized format. This workshop gave me the ability to figure out what my important messages are, how to parse them down, and how to communicate them in a more effective and succinct way.”

The storytelling portion of the Fellows Program is led by Nancy Houfek, an award-winning actor and nationally-recognized theatre educator who served as the Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University for 17 years. During her time at Harvard, Houfek taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, specifically teaching executive education courses focused on guiding executives through storytelling in leadership. 

“People in leadership positions need to communicate well with the folks they’re managing, particularly in difficult situations or in times of change,” said Houfek. “Many times leaders are data-driven in their communications, but it can be more effective to connect to people’s emotions or to their own life experiences. We don’t often think about bringing personal stories into the business world, or into medicine, real estate, police, or fire prevention – all sectors where Tobias Fellows are employed.”

“My goal is to give the participants in the fellowship program the tools to find their own powerful life moments and then to learn how to talk about them well. We also define the purpose of those stories and how they will use them – whether that be in difficult or not-so difficult situations -- to help others with the changes they’re leading them through.”

People in leadership positions need to communicate well with the folks they’re managing, particularly in difficult situations or in times of change.

Nancy Houfek

The Tobias Fellows Program is currently recruiting for 2019. Rothermel says it’s an experience he recommends – that he couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

“The challenge with the program is -- It’s so good you have to fully go through it to appreciate how good it is. There’s no easy way to tell people upfront how powerful the program will be. It’s a combination of experiences, learning from people in leadership, the quality of professors brought in from all over the country – It all comes together in a magic formula that creates a truly powerful experience.”

The application deadline for the program is October 19, 2018. For more information, head to the website here.

How to be a Tobias Fellow

Learn more