Storytelling by Walt

October 5, 2017

Authored by: Robert Klingler

As Jonathan and I mentioned on our podcast on succession planning a few weeks ago, our patriarch and founding father, Walt Moeling, formally retired at the end of 2016.  However, his knowledge and influence continue to permeate almost everything we do (and he still has the same office down the hall).  One of the ways that influence can be seen continues to be in our use of stories originally told to us by Walt.  Of course, his story telling ability has been noticed, including by the press. Several years ago, as part of our succession planning, we began chronically some of those stories.  What follows is what I wrote two years ago…

In early 2010, our clients were dropping like flies, with one or two clients failing every Friday. Even as one client entered receivership, we were each likely working with three or four others that were on the same path. (Each was a horror movie, and we knew exactly how it would play out, even if our clients held out optimism each time that, for whatever reason, their story would play out differently.)

Walt and I were on the phone with one such client who had just passed the 2% leverage ratio threshold, and was in discussions on next steps.  The executives were worried about how their employees would handle the receivership. Walt, as usual, slipped into a story about another (former) client that had been a client for years. Whenever Walt called, the president’s administrative assistant, Nancy, would answer the phone and chat with Walt before tracking down the bank’s president. Walt shared how he had listened as Nancy became increasingly depressed as the bank’s condition had deteriorated.

In his best Southern belle, falsetto, voice, Walt would demonstrate the decreasing pep in Nancy’s voice. From an upbeat “Good Morning, Walt!” to more and more depressing “Oh, Walt, things are hard, but we’re trying.” In the weeks leading up to that client’s receivership, Walt himself became increasingly saddened by Nancy’s stress. Calls now usually started “Oh, Walter, things are rough.

The week following the client’s receivership, Walt dreaded calling to see how things were with the, now former, president – primarily because he dreaded talking to Nancy. With great trepidation, Walt dialed, and, as expected, Nancy answered. At that point, Walt would switch his story-telling to reenactment mode. Walt would start in an effort to be sympathetic, “Hello Nancy, it’s Walt. How are things?” Without missing a beat, Walt would switch into upbeat Nancy mode, “Things are great, Walt! We’ve got money to lend, and we’re back in business!

And with that story, Walt would explain, among other things, that the employees likely had a better understanding of the bank’s condition then the directors, that community bankers fundamentally just wanted to help their borrowers, and that, for many of the employees, receivership was not a bad outcome at all.

This particular morning, we followed that call with a call to another bank in the same early stages of the downward spiral. Again, the president lamented the impact it would have on the bank’s employees. Without missing a beat, Walt launched into the same story. “Whenever I called the bank’s president, his administrative assistant, Sally, would answer the phone….”

Internally, my mind exploded. How did Walt forget Nancy’s name? I knew Nancy, remembered those calls, and couldn’t imagine the story to be the same without her. Would he forget the rest of the story? How would Walt have any credibility with this client? Should I correct him?

Then it slowly hit me… the details of the story, like Nancy’s name, were completely irrelevant. While the details gave the story depth and believability, they were also completely interchangeable and irrelevant to the underlying message that Walt was trying to communicate.

And that’s why this is the Walt story that has most impacted me. While I hope to never go through another period like 2010 again, and thus won’t need the underlying story, the freedom to tell stories when you don’t remember all the details (but filling in the details with realistic possibilities) opens up a world of storytelling. I doubt I will ever be as effective as Walt in using stories (nor have as effective of a falsetto), but that day opened my eyes to the potential.  In hindsight, I have no idea whether the assistant’s name was Nancy, Sally or something else. I strongly recall at the time that I believed I knew the assistant, the president and the specific bank where this occurred.  But it may always have just been part of the story.