Inspiring Women, Episode 23: An Interview with Haley Boehning, Storyforge
On this edition of “Inspiring Women,” host Betty Collins speaks with Haley Boehning, Storyforge, on why stories are so important in client marketing, employee engagement, and other essential company functions. The “Inspiring Women” series is underwritten by Brady Ware & Company.
Betty’s Show Notes
“When you have a story — the right story — everything changes. Customers become evangelists. Employees fully engage. Decision-making simplifies. Innovation accelerates. And marketing costs go down.” That’s what you find when you go to Storyforge’s website. I had the honor of interviewing Haley Boehning, Co-Founder and Principal of Storyforge.
“We call it a meaningful story.” And that’s what she does best. Help businesses find their story, their higher purpose. And when their clients discover it, it’s, as she puts it, “knock over the table” time and run out to tell the world.
I talk to Haley about:
- The Storyforge story
- Her story
- The Storyforge concept and what their clients do with their story to make a difference
- Why women can’t wait around
- What she has learned from being a business owner
- What would today’s Haley tell a younger Haley if she had the chance
- Conscious Capitalism and its four tenets
Haley has decades of experience working with Fortune-500 companies, non-profits and start-ups to create alignment, elevate storytelling and build differentiated brand positions. She is a regular speaker, lecturer and author on the subject of leadership, communication and conscious capitalism.
Prior to Storyforge, Haley spent 16 years with L Brands (NYSE: LB), most recently as vice president of internal communications, directly supporting the company’s founder/CEO in strategic, leadership and internal communications to connect with 100,000 employees around the globe. As internal communications function head for the enterprise, she and her team were also responsible for all change communications including mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations and reductions in force.
Haley is chair of Conscious Capitalism Columbus, a member of the international Conscious Capitalism Inc. Community Advisory Council and a founding member of The Matriots, Ohio’s first multi-partisan PAC dedicated to electing more women to public office. She is a member and chapter sponsor of The National Association of Women Business Owners and was named to Columbus CEO’s 2020 Future 50 list, recognizing her as a leader with the ideas, energy and heart to move the region forward in the critical decade ahead.
Betty Collins, CPA, Brady Ware & Company and Host of the “Inspiring Women” Podcast
Betty Collins is the Office Lead for Brady Ware’s Columbus office and a Shareholder in the firm. Betty joined Brady Ware & Company in 2012 through a merger with Nipps, Brown, Collins & Associates. She started her career in public accounting in 1988. Betty is co-leader of the Long Term Care service team, which helps providers of services to Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and nursing centers establish effective operational models that also maximize available funding. She consults with other small businesses, helping them prosper with advice on general operations management, cash flow optimization, and tax minimization strategies.
In addition, Betty serves on the Board of Directors for Brady Ware and Company. She leads Brady Ware’s Women’s Initiative, a program designed to empower female employees, allowing them to tap into unique resources and unleash their full potential. Betty helps her colleagues create a work/life balance while inspiring them to set and reach personal and professional goals. The Women’s Initiative promotes women-to-women business relationships for clients and holds an annual conference that supports women business owners, women leaders, and other women who want to succeed. Betty actively participates in women-oriented conferences through speaking engagements and board activity.
Betty is a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and she is the President-elect for the Columbus Chapter. Brady Ware also partners with the Women’s Small Business Accelerator (WSBA), an organization designed to help female business owners develop and implement a strong business strategy through education and mentorship, and Betty participates in their mentor match program. She is passionate about WSBA because she believes in their acceleration program and matching women with the right advisors to help them achieve their business ownership goals. Betty supports the WSBA and NAWBO because these organizations deliver resources that help other women-owned and managed businesses thrive.
Betty is a graduate of Mount Vernon Nazarene College, a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and a member of the Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants. Betty is also the Board Chairwoman for the Gahanna Area Chamber of Commerce, and she serves on the Board of the Community Improvement Corporation of Gahanna as Treasurer.
“Inspiring Women” Podcast Series
“Inspiring Women” is THE podcast that advances women toward economic, social and political achievement. The show is hosted by Betty Collins, CPA, and presented by Brady Ware and Company. Brady Ware is committed to empowering women to go their distance in the workplace and at home. Other episodes of “Inspiring Women” can be found here.
Today, I get to do an interview for my podcast. I like to do that at times. I’m fortunate enough to live in Columbus, Ohio, and there’s just a lot of women in business, or women business owners that either have a great story; they’ve had success. I could do podcasts weekly just on that. Columbus is a thriving town.
Today, I really wanted to interview Haley Boehning. She’s the co-founder of Storyforge. I’ve gotten to experience Storyforge – just go through that – through an organization I’m involved with, which is NAWBO, which is the Columbus Charter. NAWBO is the National Association of Women Business Owners. We’re the Columbus chapter, and we’re the largest chapter … Like any organization, you go through crossroads in time, where you’re like, “Which way do we go? We can do 100 things, or maybe we should do two things really well.” She came in, her, and her firm, to help us get on the same page, so that’s been my experience.
Welcome today, Haley. We’re glad that you’re with us. We’re going to talk about several things, but I tell you, I love your website. I had looked at it probably a year ago, when we started this whole thing, or probably six months ago, whatever it was, with helping NAWBO get on the same page and tell our story. I love your line … As soon as you click on it, it says, “When you have a story, the right story, everything changes.” The other thing that caught my attention, I loved: “Customers become evangelists.” That’s just … First of all, you don’t hear that word a lot – evangelists. “Employees get fully engaged.” That’s become a very hot topic, if you can achieve that; and, “Decision-making gets simplified,” which, we’re on 24/7. So, man, that could be awesome. “Innovation accelerates,” and, at the end of the day, “Your marketing costs go down.” That’s awesome. Haley, I want you to first tell us a little about Storyforge, and then, I want to talk a little bit about your story, so go ahead.
Well, thank you for having me. It’s always a delight to talk with you, and we could probably talk for four hour, so getting this into a couple of minutes will be challenging for us. Storyforge was founded by my business partner, and I about six years ago. It came out of some insights that both of us had had separately throughout our careers about what made businesses successful. Because I had worked in a large corporate environment for 17 years doing a lot of mergers and acquisitions; I had seen hundreds of businesses and noticed differences between them. Those that were successful; those that were able to really succeed and come out the other end of a crisis stronger; and those for whom a crisis, or a challenge, or growth, even some of those positive things would see these businesses crumble and fall.
My business partner had been on the marketing side. I had seen it from an internal side, and he from an external side. As we began talking about our observations, and our beliefs in business, this idea about what story can do for you, as an organization, began to form, and the clarity that we got, through studying hundreds of businesses, has proven itself to be true over the last six years. We’ve worked with hundreds of companies, and we found that there are a few pieces of a company’s story that, when they have these pieces in place, when they’re clear about them, and they’ve had the insights necessary to articulate them, it makes all the difference.
Sure. I get that because it really did with NAWBO, when we … All the sudden, I could go talk differently. Are we doing anything different? I don’t think it’s how we say it, it’s how we talk about ourselves. It’s how we get that.
Well, you said it earlier. It’s also that decision-making. Every business, every organization has a story. The question is whether they’ve been intentional about forming that story, and if they’ve let the world create the story for them, because your story, your brand, is really a collection of all the stories – the stories you tell about yourself and the stories that other people tell about you. You can let that happen in the universe, or you can try to influence it by being very clear, yourself, about who you are, what you’re trying to achieve, what you believe, what you stand for, and what it is that you, as a business, do that’s unique; what differentiates you from all of your competitors in the marketplace.
Tell us about your story of entrepreneurship.” I took this 17-year, maybe safe deal, and said, ‘I’m doing this …'” Tell your story with that.
Yeah, I often call myself an accidental entrepreneur.
That would be 50 percent of them.
50 percent, yeah. I don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs. It always seemed like a crazy idea that risk-takers – which, I don’t consider myself a risk-taker – would endeavor to try to become … It was a strange animal. I had the opportunity, after this 17-year career in the corporate world, to rethink what I wanted to do with my life, which is a wonderful gift. Being able to consider what unique skills I had … What are my superpowers that I can bring to the world, and how do I want to apply those superpowers to help others. Storyforge- the idea of creating a business like Storyforge came from that; this desire to do meaningful work – meaningful for me, meaningful for my clients, but also meaningful for the world around us – was really born from that.
Something that has intrigued me is, because I’m an accountant, I don’t even think I have a story, but I do. I know I do … But the name Storyforge being one … I always like to know where that came from. How did that come together?
Well, it’s interesting. In our process, as we work through our process with businesses, there are a lot of amazing raw materials. So that’s part of our discovery, and you’ll remember this, as we worked together, was digging in and understanding the objective realities of business, and learning about our stakeholders, and mapping them, and understanding the beliefs and the vision that was there at the founding of whatever our business was. All of these great raw materials are just raw materials. They’re inert. When you forge them together, they become an even stronger material than they were in their incomplete parts.
For me, as I think about Storyforge, that’s what it is. Often people forge their stories from the outside in. I have people call me regularly and say, “Do I need an Instagram account?” “How can I better improve my digital marketing?” All questions that I cannot answer, not because I’m not qualified to, but because I don’t understand what their businesses is intending to do. Without having those fundamental answers, without understanding the DNA of your business and what you’re really trying to achieve, all of those tactical questions are meaningless.
When I think of forging, there- my husband likes that show Fire Forge, where they’re making the knives. I hate the show, but I watch it … The one thing I always look at is when they they’re working hard … Of course, it’s reality TV, so none of it’s reality, right? But when they dip it in the fire, and it comes out, the piece is solid now. There’s something about that. When I think of your forge, I think of the same thing – that the story has come together, and now … Wow.
Yeah. We call it, and you’ll remember this because you were there for that moment with our NAWBO work, we call it the kicking over the tables moment. It’s the moment where the discovery has been completed, and we’ve done the hard work as a leadership team to debate and have really intensive dialogues about do we want A, or B, C, or D? Are we going this way or that way? We codify our thinking about those essential questions of the business. When it all comes together, when it’s all forged, it is like going in that water and coming out a stronger metal – a forged story. We often have to hold leaders back because they want to kick the tables out, run out the door, and start screaming it from the mountaintops.
But there is a second important phase to this work, and that’s where many businesses actually fail in this work. It’s not necessarily not forging the correct story, but figuring out what to do with the story, after you have it. Because a really, truly meaningful story is not just a story that’s told, but it’s a story that’s lived. That’s the work that I know the board of NAWBO is doing right now is thinking about all the different aspects of the organization – from people, to process, to place, to positioning, to philanthropy – and making sure that what we do is in alignment with what we say.
Well, one of the thing … You have a definite passion for women. We experienced that from the beginning of time, when you were interviewing the board, and we were going through it. One of the things that I loved that you said to us – because we were talking about the different … Why we’re on the board? We’re women in business. Why are we business owners? All those things. One of the things you said to me that I never stopped thinking about was, “Let’s not wait another decade to accomplish something as women.” I’ve thought about that ever since we talked about that.
So, your passion for women and your passion for the time is now is so there. Tell me what … Because I’m looking at, we just started a new decade, so everyone’s saying that; it’s kind of the buzzword. It’s my last decade to work. Sometimes, I say that out loud, and I go, “Oh … Yay!” Then, I go, “Oh … Did I do enough? Did I get what I needed? Did I …?” All those things come to play, where you’re thinking about legacy and stuff. But, for you, what would you love- as a woman business owner, and someone who doesn’t want us to wait 10 years or a hundred, what’s on your mind when you think about those things that you don’t want to see us wait, and let’s execute? It’s a tough question, but …
Yeah, something I think I see a lot – but especially with women business owners, with many entrepreneurs, but especially women – is we keep our nose to the grindstone. We’re in the day-to-day operations of the business and trying to make things incrementally better every day. We don’t often give ourselves the luxury of stepping back, pulling up our head, looking out at the horizon, and saying, not, “Where do I want to be this week, next week, this quarter, next quarter?” but what does 10 years from now look like? What do I want my legacy to be? What do I want to have accomplished? There is something to that truism that we underestimate what we can do in 10 years, and overestimate what we can do in one.
Yes, that’s a great saying!
I try to keep that in mind, especially when I’m working with our clients, because we … People think too small, sometimes. To be able to swing for the fences, we have to look out in the distance to be able to get there. We can’t just look at the day-to-day operations. So, I think, for me, for women business owners, I would love to see more of us give ourselves that opportunity to reflect, to think long term, to think big, sustainable growth for our business and sustainable impact for our stakeholders, for our customers, our clients, our families, ourselves. What are we really working toward? What’s all this about?
Say that one more time – not the whole thing … Say it one more time. So, we overthink- we do too much in a year, but not enough in … Say that again? I love the way you say that-
Yeah, we often … I know I do this. Every day, I overestimate what I think I can get done in a day. I leave every day with things on my to-do list. It’s just typical. So, we overestimate what we can do in a year, but we underestimate what we can do in 10.
Right, I love that [crosstalk]
-that often keeps us thinking in short-term-ism, rather than really thinking long term.
Everybody goes to their own school. Haley went to the Hard Knocks of Haley, or you got your MBA, and something that, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting to learn this, but I did …” In these last six years, especially from going from corporate America to you’re now a business owner … For me, it was a huge change when I just wanted to be an employee. I wanted somebody signing my check. I didn’t want to be the signer, right? Tell us maybe a thing or two of what you learned, getting that MBA in the last six years of business, that you would want a woman-owned business owner to know.
It’s interesting. There was a moment, for me, when I left the corporate world. I was with a group of other executives, V.P.s and above, from businesses that were transitioning out of their prior careers and into their new one. We were sitting around a table doing introductions, and everyone introduced themself the same way. They said, “Hello, my name is Haley Boehning, and I used to be the Vice President of Internal Communications at [crosstalk].” “Hi, my name is Ted Smith, and I was the Chief Financial Officer of Blank Company.”
This went around about 12 people. Then, it came to me, and I said, “We’ve got to stop doing this. We have to stop defining ourselves by the title that we have – CEO, entrepreneur, vice president. We have to rethink how we define ourselves and our identity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could think about what our unique skill set is – the thing that we do better than anyone else – that exists at an intersection of a need in the world that we now can uniquely fill. If we could talk about ourselves that way, wouldn’t that be more meaningful, and wouldn’t that help us frame our identity around something bigger than a paycheck?”
What did the 12 people around the table do? They go, “Uhh …”
There was a lot of that [crosstalk] but it did change. If you ask people the right questions, they will give you far more meaningful answers.
What’s something you really feel like, in the last- in your career, in general- I know, for me, I look back and say I wish I would have been an owner sooner. I wish I would have jumped into entrepreneur sooner. When you look back over your career, over this stuff that you’ve accomplished, what do you look back and go, “If I had to do it again, what would I say to Haley, who was 30, and 40?” What would you … Is there anything that comes your mind when you think about …?
I think maybe two different Haleys. If I could go back to the Haley in her 20s, starting out in the corporate world and looking at all of these people with these very big titles, with these very big offices, at the time, I thought that being a leader meant having all the answers and that, somehow, if I worked hard enough, and if I learned everything I could learn, and I had the right mentors, that someday, I, too, could be a leader and have all the answers. Now, I realize that being a leader doesn’t mean having the answers. It means having the questions.
I think that-
That insight could have served me well in my 20s. When I started the business, if I think about those early days of Storyforge, there were two lessons that I learned that now we apply, and it’s made all the difference. One is to be very, very clear about who you are, what you stand for, who you serve, and how you serve them and be willing to say no to clients. Because I’m a people pleaser. I like people to be happy. But that’s not the best approach, when you’re a business owner, or when you’re in sales, or doing business development. It’s really making sure that you’re the right fit for that client and that the client’s the right fit for you.
Very good. Great insight. Now, I’ve known you for a little while and I’ve heard you talk about an organization that you’re very involved with. I know enough about it to be dangerous, but I love the title – Conscious Capitalism.
I would love for you to talk about that because I’m a big fan of the marketplace. The marketplace in our country is crucial. It’s not about how much money can we make, or greed, any of those things. To me, it is if you have an idea and a passion, you have the ability to do it, and you have of an environment that allows you to do it. If you’re fortunate enough, you, one day, have employees because you’re an employer. Those employees have families, which are households that form communities. It all works together. When the U.S. is successful, the country is successful, the world is because we have the abilities here to do things. When it’s mixed with really bad things, it doesn’t do well; but when it’s really good, it’s really good. I’m a huge fan of I get to be a CPA in this environment, in this country, and do things. I’m very intrigued by what is this organization, so I’d like for you to talk about that.
Well, thank you for asking about that, because I am very passionate about Conscious Capitalism, and I love the combination of the two words.
When I go out, and I speak with audiences, generally, each audience has some concern with one of those two words. Either I’m in an audience of people that say, “Oh, capitalism … Of course. Fantastic. Best thing since sliced bread. What’s this consciousness word you keep throwing in there? What’s this woo-woo you’re trying to add to my capitalism?”
What’s that guilt thing [crosstalk]
-but when I talk with younger people … I was recently out at Denison University talking with some of their Commerce Department, and there were a lot of students who said, “Consciousness, absolutely. Capitalism? I’m not so sure about that word.” But when you ask them what they want to do when they grow up, they all want to be business people. They all want to be entrepreneurs. But capitalism, itself, has a big PR problem right now.
Conscious Capitalism was born from a book that was written by two gentlemen who you probably have heard of: John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, and Raj Sisodia, who is a Professor of Business at Babson College. It was codifying a way of thinking about business that wasn’t just John’s idea. It was a number of different business leaders had been practicing business this way, recognizing that business both can and should be a force for good in the world; that capitalism, itself, is one of the greatest inventions that we’ve had and has done more to lift people out of poverty than many things in the last couple hundred years, but that people have misused capitalism.
Because of that, we have a crisis on our hands. We need to reinvent capitalism. There’s been a lot of talk recently. Just as recently, I think, as this week, Jamie Dimon was talking about reinventing capitalism in Time Magazine. We know that the Business Roundtable has come out and redefined the purpose of business to include a purpose bigger than profitability because they see the cracks in this system. We believe that business is good because it creates value; at its most essential, it creates value. It’s ethical because it’s based on voluntary exchange.
It’s noble because we know that when done more consciously, business can actually elevate our existence, and that’s the world that we want to create. Conscious Capitalism is an international movement. There are hundreds of thousands of people all around the globe, from Sydney to Columbus, Ohio- Sydney, Australia to Columbus, Ohio, all working to advance this idea of business as a force for good.
We think about business in terms of four principles. The first, which I’ve already mentioned, is that business should have a purpose bigger than profitability. Profitability is necessary; without margin, there’s no mission. But the purpose of the business should be to solve some need in the world and that profitability helps to drive that. Just like I need red blood cells every day to live, it’s not my reason for existence. I don’t get up every day and think, “Thank God, another day I can create red blood cells!” That idea of purpose, a purpose bigger than profitability, is the first tenet.
The second is stakeholder orientation – understanding that a business doesn’t just have one stakeholder, the shareholder; it has multiple stakeholders – employees, community, shareholders, investors, partners, vendors. All of these stakeholders need to be considered, and when we have an orientation to them, when we understand and are thoughtful about the impact and the value that we create for each of them, we’re more conscious. Then, understanding that both leadership and culture have an important role to play in the success of business.
I have two kids who said, “I will never be in business. I would never be a CPA,” and they made sure of that. I have a daughter who’s a teacher because it’s what she loves, and I have a son who is a minister because that’s what he loves. My daughter is more like me – she’s a spender. She’s one of those consumers, right? But my son and I have had long debates on capitalism, and I always remind him that, “Capitalism put you through college. Please remember that …” because it did. He will tell me, “I just need provision from somebody so I can do what I do in life.” We both see it, and we talk more about- we’re coming together more with it because there is good capitalism out there. The marketplace is so very, very necessary.
When NAWBO met with- a roundtable with Governor DeWine, I just said the marketplace has to really be held high so that the taxation can do more than just run our government. There’s tremendous need out there. There are people who can’t do and have what I have. It’s a system that has to work really well, and when it’s not run well, it’s a bad deal. I really learned about … When I came to Brady Ware in 2012, one of the things I did was read Simon Sinek’s book and did the Why University, and I had somebody help me come together. I came up with my whole why being – because I have 150 employees who are families who need health insurance, who need to live in- to have provision that forms those communities and households. It just became a whole new way to think about it.
So, then it wasn’t just accounting. Accounting is just a part of it. It’s a necessary evil that business has to have that. I’ve always loved that you’ve talked about that, and I would love to know more about it, so I wanted my audience to hear about it, as well. Because my son’s generation, the denizens that you’re talking about – he’s 28 years old – will eat chicken at Joe DeLoss’s place because he understands Joe DeLoss and what their whole social enterprise is. That’s huge for him-
Yeah. Joe DeLoss, and Hot Chicken Takeover being a local company that makes some damned fine Nashville hot chicken-
-but more importantly than that, they’re a business that was created to employ people who are difficult to employ – people who’ve been in the- who’ve been incarcerated, who are coming back into the workforce – that many other companies would overlook. I think we’re beginning to- we’re beginning to have a realization and insight as a country about the power of business, when business thinks more consciously about who does it employ, why does it employ, how does it employ? We can make a difference where we have more in common than not. We really do. There’s so much more that binds us together. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of civility, I think, in conversation, today, which often polarizes us.
But when we get down to the brass tacks of it, we all want the same things. We want communities that are thriving. We want families that are thriving. We want to leave the world a better place when we go. We want it to be better than it was when we found it, and-
It’s why I love working for Brady Ware, getting to be … Getting to even have a women’s initiative that we can … They put a lot of resource and time in. This podcast is one of those resources. It goes just beyond that, and it goes so beyond accounting. I think that’s where you see things going. There is still reality of paying the lease, and the electric; and people want to be paid well because they did spend a lot on an education, or they want to be valued, or they have goals, as well. It all wraps together, but-
Well, I’m sure you see it with your clients because you do work with so many small businesses. There’s good that business does just by being in business-
Employing people by enabling people to send kids to school, enabling people to care for their elderly parents – all of the things that having a job and doing that job well enable you to do. A lot of businesses have trouble seeing a purpose bigger than just that. But we have worked with hundreds of businesses over the last six years at Storyforge. There has not been one single business that we have worked with that has not been able to articulate a purpose higher than profitability. We have worked with toilet manufacturers.
There you go.
We have worked with distilleries, and we’ve worked with accounting firms. All of them were able to find this more emotional, meaningful story about what they did that helped unite their teams and helped them think differently about how they serve their customers.
Well, this podcast is Inspiring Women, and I think we had a very inspiring woman today. I appreciate your passion, certainly, for women, for what you’ve done with NAWBO, just telling our story. Forging – I love the force of just that word. I can picture the knife going down in the- whatever they’re putting it in, I’m assuming. Then, just putting business owners, women in business, men in business, doesn’t matter … It’s this two words of conscience and capitalism together. Thank you for spending time with us today. We appreciate your efforts in coming and making time because you’re busy and you do what you do well. I’m Betty Collins, and I appreciate the opportunity that I get to do a podcast; that you get to listen to us today and check us out on our website. Thanks.