5 ways for leaders to build company culture through storytelling
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” — Peter Drucker
In 1997, Steve Jobs rejoined Apple when the company was 90 days away from bankruptcy and spent a whopping $90M on the “Think Different” campaign that displays no products whatsoever.
An outsider might call this an insane move.
But the late visionary knew that humans thrive on stories. These stories create a robust company culture, which serves as the fertile ground where a strategy truly bears fruit.
Accordingly, as much as the campaign was aimed to revive Apple’s brand, it was about making the folks at Apple see themselves as the protagonists set out to save something worth saving.
Knowingly or unknowingly, all great leaders are excellent storytellers. That’s because great leaders build a great company culture, and a great company culture is built by stories.
As a leader, it is your responsibility to set up the infrastructure for stories to become central to your organization, thereby forming a robust culture. So how can you use stories to build a strong company culture at your own workplace?
1. Sharing stories about early employees and culture-makers
Company culture is often established by early hires. Give these early hires a voice to ensure that they reconnect with their “why” and also draw others into the company’s original vision.
For example, at one of my previous companies, we interviewed all early employees to document a set of values that reflected what the company stood for. “One brick at a time” was one of the company’s values, and here’s an interesting story behind it.
One of our board members was digging a muddy trench during military service to build a literal brick wall. It was hot and humid and all he could remember was the sensation of mosquitoes landing on him, and biting, continuously. To get through, he remembered telling himself “one brick at a time, just focus on one brick at a time.” Sooner than he expected, he and his military unit was done building the wall.
Reflecting on that experience, he told us, “In a startup, it can sometimes be hard to see progress, and while each day feels hectic it can also feel inconsequential. Some days, you feel like you’re doing nothing but swatting mosquitoes and getting bitten anyway. If that happens, just tell yourself “One brick at a time.” Building a wall literally feels like being bitten by a thousand mosquitos and getting nowhere. It’s fine, you’re on the right track. Just focus on “One brick at a time” and you’ll get there.”
Those words inspired how the CEO approached our work, and in turn, inspired the company and shaped me as a leader in that organization and beyond. To this day, when the going gets tough, I am reminded of this story and I remind myself to focus on “One brick at a time.”
Stories. It’s powerful stuff.
To capture stories from your early culture-makers, you can ask them to talk about:
Why they joined the company
Where they see it going
Stories of how they and the team braved the hardships while starting out
The most meaningful values in their lives, especially those that they bring to work and echoes the company’s cultural values
Values that they see other people in their team demonstrating and that is meaningful to the company
Stories from early culture-makers of your company tell your history, connect the newer employees with the values you stand for, and give your team a sense of being part of something bigger. By pulling in stories from every level rather than only at the leadership level, a stronger culture is formed.
How do you share stories about your culture-makers?
2. Hang company culture reminders at work (or at home)
Why limit yourself to penning down your values on paper when you can tell tangible stories with physical reminders around your office?
In Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, Steve Jobs hung up photos of revolutionists to inspire Apple employees to embody the spirit of these great heroes who dared to think differently. “We at Apple have forgotten who we are. One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are,” Jobs said about the campaign on the release of his biography.
At the company where we had the “One brick at a time” value, we used Duplo bricks to build a brick wall. Whenever we hit important company milestones such as a new hire, or shipping a new release, we write the date and the milestone on the Duplo brick and add it to the wall in a ceremony.
At Twilio, one of their values is “Wear a Customer’s Shoes.” This value speaks to the importance of the customer journey and reminds employees to look at the product experience from the customer’s perspective. During customer visits, Twilio asks its customers to submit their old shoes, then takes them back to HQ and hangs them around the office as a reminder. All a Twilio employee has to do is look up and be reminded to keep the customer’s perspective in mind with every feature they ship.
What cultural values at your company can you express with real physical reminders?
3. Celebrate your Champions of culture
Values are not words on a poster, they are imbued with meaning through actions by people. Specific people champion your culture by interpreting the values in the right direction. These champions of culture make the company values come to life. So remember to share and celebrate their actions.
The classic “Best employee of the month” photo is a good example of this attempt. By highlighting who’s doing it right, it helps others emulate. Often only a photo and a name is on display, whereas the actions that earned this person the honor are not on display. That’s a grave oversight. Always include what that person did to be honored as employee of the month. Tying the desired behavior back to the company values on a continuous basis helps others understand what the values mean in actionable terms.
At a previous company I worked for, we had a “kudos” system that gave employees access to small gifts between $50 to $200 to give away to co-workers who have helped them on a project. When the employee submits the kudos for manager approval, she also indicates which of the company values the receiver was exhibiting. These kudos are often celebrated publicly, with people placing them on their desks, or having the kudos announced on our chat channels. This system enabled a continuous reinforcement and interpretation of company values.
How do you celebrate your champions of culture?
4. Create a book, deck, ad about your company culture
Humans are social animals and we want to belong. A shared history, documented, is a great way to build this sense of belonging.
Apple published an ad in 1997 and established that it was a place for “The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.”
Netflix published a 125-page deck about their company culture. It served as a great way to attract potential employees who resonated with what the company stands for.
Atlassian published a company history book that was displayed on a coffee table book in the lobby. It captured everything from the early stories to memorable company milestones and events. It had photos of most employees who joined up until that time. Anyone waiting in the lobby could leaf through it, be it interviewees, customers, investors, or employees waiting for a visitor. It was a wonderful reminder of where we came from and our culture.
How can you formally document your company’s history and culture?
5. Harvest stories at events
Companies spend hundreds of dollars per head on team building events. Get the extra mile of benefits from these events by harvesting company culture stories. The extra 5–15% spent on doing this work will be well worth the effort.
The team-building events that are particularly suitable for capture are Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. Many companies such as Atlassian and Microsoft offer give-back days where employees can use paid time to volunteer for a cause they believe in.
Once I brought the whole team to volunteer a day at an animal rescue. We spent the day working side by side to clean old cages and do landscaping work. We were able to really bond as a team. The photos were shared via a post to the wider company and provided a great story to look back upon that reinforced our company’s values. While we only used the post internally, it could also be great external material as well.
In addition to team building events, there are many other great events that tie back to company values as well. Product launches, fundraising milestones, or even product failures after the company overcomes the failure, are all great events to highlight and document. Over time these build up the story of “who we are.” Look for these moments and investment in story capture. Make it part of your HR or Marketing department’s job. They go a long way to reinforcing company culture.
Here are some other creative ways to crowdsource story collection:
- Set up a well-managed digital bulletin board to share upcoming occasions, interesting anecdotes, and insider jokes
- Conduct digital happy hours and company lunches
- Hold Ask Me Anything sessions with leaders of various departments
How are you documenting your notable events?
At Product Maestro, we help leaders find their inner storyteller. Our 6-week online class helps leaders tell stories that influence up, down, and across their organization. Becoming a great storyteller starts with knowing your Storyteller type, find your Storyteller type here.