How do you ensure that the strategy becomes more than just fancy words on a piece of paper and is actually brought to life within the organisation? How do you create consistency between the organisation’s overall strategy and efforts at the department, management and employee levels? We interviewed the Director of Asset Operations* for the Northern European energy company Ørsted, Niels Christian Kjær, and you can read his views on how core stories can be used as a strategic tool to create unity, ownership and behavioural changes in strategy implementation in this article.
* Asset Operations is the area of energy company Ørsted responsible for the operation of combined heat and power plants (CHP plants).
By Emma Bøgelund Bisgaard
The energy company Ørsted’s strategy is green and focused on renewable energy. But what can you do when you are responsible for the unit overseeing power plants primarily operating on fossil fuels? How do you keep employees motivated, and how do you fit in to a strategy that denounces and deprioritises the areas you work with? They know all about this challenge in Ørsted’s Asset Operations department, who are responsible for the company’s many CHP plants on a daily basis. Niels Christian Kjær has been the director for many years. And we have interviewed him to hear his views on how core stories can create unity and meaning – even when you do not play the leading role in the overall strategy.
Niels Christian, what is Ørsted’s strategy and how would you describe Asset Operations’ role in it?
“Ørsted has a clear strategy: to run the world on green energy. It is our very clear vision to create a green world. We have to be entirely carbon neutral and sustainable – from construction to decommissioning. We are not there yet. But that is the objective, and that is what we are working towards. We have three business areas at Ørsted, each of which has a strategy that points towards the vision of a green world. At our CHP plants, that means that we must act efficiently and optimally in the context of ‘having to be carbon neutral’. Among other things, this means that we have gone from using coal to wood pellets. I.e. we are able to deliver sustainable and green energy.
Our (Asset Operations) business concept has changed with Ørsted’s green vision. This has resulted in a need for renewed self-awareness: Who are we? Why are we here? Our self-awareness used to be tied to the fact that we supplied all the energy. Now that wind power has taken off, we are the ones supplying energy when there is no wind. And that also means that, sometimes, our plants are idle. With this new world we live in, there is a need for renewed self-awareness and a new narrative about who we in Asset Operations are. This is where we worked with our core story.”
How did you use your core story as a tool for implementing your strategy?
“When we started the strategy process – advised by Napica – we quickly centred on the questions of who we are and what we have been put in this world to do – our raison d’être. Rather than doing what we have always done, we entered into a dynamic process during which both managers and employees provided their input to the questions “who are we?”, “what do we do?” and “why do we do it?”, which then boiled down to a common understanding of our core story. We previously tried a more traditional approach, spending seven months developing a strategy at the top and then seven minutes presenting it to the rest of the organisation. This is what we avoid when we use our core story as a strategy implementation tool.
With our strategy and core story as a starting point, we have initiated dialogues about who we are, what we do and why we do it – both at management and employee level. We have tweaked the words and statements in our core story many times, and this has helped create a common view of Asset Operations’ role in Ørsted’s strategy. Through dialogues about the core story, employees have helped determine and define what the statements in the core story mean to them. This way, emphasis is placed on the statements’ specific meaning to each employee at the individual plant.
So we have tried doing something new this time. We did not sit down and attempt to control things from the top. Instead, we used the story of who we are, the world we live in and the view we have of ourselves as our point of departure.”
What makes the core story stand out as a strategy implementation tool?
“The CEO of Dell once said, ‘When I stand up to present a strategy to 100 people, only half of them hear what I say. Half of those who hear what I say consider what I say. That takes us down to 25%. Of those who consider what I say, only half start to act on it. And half of those only do it because I told them to.’ So that leaves only a few people who do it because they actually understand it and are motivated to act on it. And that is what I want to break away from.
Using core stories is a different and more inclusive approach to strategy implementation. They (managers and employees) suddenly find themselves able to articulate who we are, what we do and what we create, which then enables them to explain their work and actions individually based on the core story. This way it becomes much more relevant to each employee, and they have welcomed it really positively. They feel involved and can see themselves and their team in the core story.”
What do you do to ensure that a strategy is transformed into action and does not just remain as words on a piece of paper?
“Rolling out a strategy is about making some behavioural changes. And making behavioural changes is very much about communication. Therefore, it is about communicating why we do it – the famous WHY. The core story is a tool used to define and communicate why we have been brought into this world. This creates purpose.
When employees talk about what the words and statements in the core story mean to them and their own work, they help to describe and build the world they live in. Throughout this process, the employees will contribute to how the strategy and the core story unfold as specific behaviour at the various plants. Employee involvement in particular means that the strategy stays alive in the organisation’s actions, and not just on paper. Employee involvement – at all organisational levels – is also what ensures ownership of the strategy. We all know this, and it is hardly a new notion. What is new and different in this case is the approach we have taken to get there.”
What can a core story offer that a strategy alone cannot?
“As a strategic tool, the core story is based on who we are. By working with the core story, a common understanding of our strategy is created all the way down through the organisation, including what we need to do to realise it and why.
The core story takes a “What does this mean to us?” approach to strategy implementation. And it creates a common understanding of who we are, what we do and why we do it – by involving all levels of the organisation. As a result, we have achieved better implementation of our strategy through this process than through any methods we have used before.”
What advice would you give to other managers who want to work with strategy implementation?
“For me, this process has clearly shown that using the core story as a tool is a great way to bring employees on board. I found this to be difficult during previous strategy implementation processes we tried. We bring employees in in a completely different way, because they help create the image, they are involved, and a common understanding is created. The core story is established in the frameworks that exist at the specific plants, and that allows the strategy to actually emerge and be alive within the organisation. It is a powerful method. But if it is to bear fruit, working with core stories requires a sustained management focus”.
And at Napica, we agree with Niels Christian’s views. You can read more on his last comments about the core stories requiring sustained management focus in the article DNA, Core story, Company Values, 2025 Strategy – leave me alone, I’m taking care of my daily work, which you will also find in this magazine.
In the final paragraphs you are about to read, we provide some background on the power of stories, and link this to Niels Christian’s valuable points in the hope that with the practical experiences of Ørsted mixed with background knowledge, we can give you, our dear reader, inspiration for how you might use core stories yourself. And we are always ready to assist you by offering advice and engaging in professional discussions.
What can stories do?
The core story method is built on narrative psychology, which emphasises that we understand and make sense of the world around us, our fellow human beings and ourselves through narratives.
Core stories can create a collective narrative – or a shared story – in an organisation where each employee can mirror themselves and their actions. In this way, the employee can create a sense of identity that is in harmony with the organisation’s collective narrative. Therefore, creating and working with core stories can help create a new and collective self-understanding in an organisation or department, as was the case for Asset Operations at Ørsted.
According to organisational psychologist Karl Weick, leadership is not about making decisions but about making sense. In the sense-making process, stories are an effective tool. Based on the question of identity Who are we?, narratives may reinforce the meaning the employee attributes to their work and their role within an organisation.
Stories create unity, meaning and identity across an organisation. Ultimately, this means that core stories are a way to implement strategies where the strategy itself is integrated into your employees’ identity and self-understanding – and is therefore carried out through meaningful actions.Or, as Niels Christian himself says in the interview: “with the core story approach, the strategy is alive in the organisation’s actions, and not just on paper.”