Symbols, Storytelling and Corporate Culture

Caesar’s wife must not only be honest, she must look honest.

I was participating in the last #custserv Twitter Chat (Tuesdays, 9PM ET) and @richardnatoli posed the question (paraphrased):

How to manage the culture of the organization as new employees join and mesh with existing employees? We are trying to cultivate a culture that embraces the value of being proactive.

The group offered several answers, ranging from managing culture during the hiring process, to establishing best practices and policies, mentorship and training programs, etc.

I offered that is also important to use unstructured approaches to cultivate and manage company culture, mentioned Storytelling and Symbols as tools, and promised to post this article.

Wikipedia can tell what Storytelling is and a quick search will find many books on how it can be applied in business. But I wanted to share an experience as an example.

The Frugal Company

A few years ago, I was working for a small company. We had started it from scratch and bootstrapped it without any external capital. Because of that, frugality was embedded in our organizational DNA, it was an important company value. There were no written rules, but we booked the cheapest coach tickets available, our expense reports did not include expensive bottles of wine, we had spartan furniture in the office.

As we became successful, for the first time around 2002, we started hiring several outside directors and VPs, many coming from larger tech companies in Silicon Valley.

It did not take long for the problem to emerge. New people were used to nice hotels and business class flights, and that created management problems and conflict with old employees as you can imagine.

The corporate reaction was to set new “travel and expense policies” to standardize the behavior of older and new employees. The hotel rate limit was $100/night, which allowed for a reasonable business hotel in most cities, but was certainly not enough for the Marriott or the Embassy Suites.

Of course, that generated a lot of talk and rebellion. Old employees were bothered by the attitude of newcomers when it came to using company money. New employees thought the company was unreasonably stingy.

What happened over the next couple of months was truly enlightening to me.

Telling Stories

I had a collection of frugality stories from the very early startup times that I used to tell and retell at corporate functions.

There was  the time when we attended Comdex in Las Vegas and had to share rooms at the Motel 6 on Tropicana Blvd. Or when I had to carry and smuggle an IBM 3270 terminal from the parking lot three blocks from the Moscone Center in San Francisco to our trade show booth so we avoided paying absurd trade show equipment fees. I was almost run over by a bus on Mission St.

During those times of growth turbulence, we had a happy hour and I told those stories over the bar table to a group of the newcomers. This was not new to me, but it was new to them. The stories spread like wildfire. Next day, there were people around the water coolers retelling Marcio’s stories.

Motel with Rodents

At about the same time the CEO and I (CTO at the time) were planning our annual media tour, going to New York City and Boston for briefings with media and market analysts. If you have been to those cities, you know you cannot stay anywhere for $100/night, even in 2003. It just made business sense to make an exception to the rule and pay more to stay closer to where our meetings were going to be.

When the person making the reservations for us came to ask, we decided to stick to the policy. We stayed in Queens for our meetings in NYC and at a really bad motel outside Boston.

When we came back, our PR person told a couple of the sales people what we went through. I observed the same story spreading phenomena: next day everyone was asking me about the rodent encounter at the motel in Boston.

Organizational Mythology

We never had any other problem or complaints with travel expenses. Everyone, old and new, had internalized careful use of company money as a cultural value. If we removed the policies restricting expenses, nothing would change.

In retrospect, this is what had happened:

  • The old stories, which all old employees had either lived or heard many times before formed the “company mythology” that works through people’s right-side of the brain to support the company culture.
  • The decision to go against common sense served as a symbol and validation of that culture. If the CEO would spend the night in Queens to attend meetings in NYC, why should a sales person complain about not been able to stay at the Marriott in every city?

So, answering to Richard’s question, I would say that to manage company culture, to keep it from diluting as you bring new people, or developing new desirable values, you need to do all things you know you need to do: hire with the culture in mind, implementing training and mentoring programs, explicitly articulate your values and implementing policies and practices aligned with them.

But as or perhaps more important, you need to collect stories every organization has (embellish them to make them interesting and memorable if you have too) and cultivate a mythology by repeated storytelling. That process has to be authentic, but sometimes can benefit from a bit of deliberation.

Richard, in your case, think of the real stories that highlight pro-activeness and make it a habit to tell that story at every opportunity.

Apple and Steve Jobs do it too

As it is the case with Caesar’s wife, being true to your values is not enough. The leadership must provide the symbols, the validation points for that culture. Occasionally, the leaders need to go against common sense (those are the stronger memorable symbols) to make a point that lets people know how important that is.

Every strong culture does that. Even if you never worked at Apple, you heard the stories about Steve Jobs firing people on the spot if he did not like a design. People at Apple must pay attention to detail. They know the user experience is important. And they understand that if you don’t internalize those values, you will be fired by Jobs himself.

Do you think Jobs walked around firing people? No, he probably did it once or twice (and probably did it against business common sense). But those stories and symbols are memorable and get passed from employee to employee (in the case of Apple, even outside the company).

That is Apple’s culture. Those are the stories that support that culture.

The summary firings by Jobs or my stay at the Boston motel with rodents are strong symbols that validate to people how important those values are.

Hope this is useful.

Por que ir para o Vale do Silício?

Lobby do Facebook (eu mesmo tirei, ontem)

Location, Location, Location

De acordo com o filme “The Social Network”, foi o Sean Parker (fundador do Napster) quem convenceu o Mark Zukerberg que o lugar certo para criar uma empresa de Internet é o Vale do Silício. Foi assim que Facebook saiu de Harvard e veio parar em Palo Alto na California.

Em 1992, eu me mudei de São Paulo para a California para ajudar a começar a Cyclades. Nós acabamos dando certo porque tivemos a “sorte” de nos envolver com Linux antes dele ficar conhecido. Depois demos “sorte” de novo de encontrar a Google e Yahoo! em 1999 e desenvolver um produto para ajuda-los a gerenciarem o novo tipo de datacenter que surgiu com aplicações de Internet.

Nós nunca vamos saber se estar no Vale foi motivo pelo qual o Facebook acabou ganhando do MySpace (que ficou onde começou, em Beverly Hills) em redes sociais ou do sucesso da Cyclades, uma das primeiras empresas brasileiras a se estabelecerem por aqui.

Mas na minha opinião, a presença no Vale é importante para qualquer empresário da área de tecnologia e Internet.

Vivendo Tecnologia e Empreendedorismo

Depois de 20 anos aqui, nem noto essas coisas.  Em 2007, em uma festa de aniversário, conversei sobre arquitetura de microprocessadores com o marido de uma pessoa que trabalhava comigo. Em 2009, a empresa dele foi comprada pela Apple. Em 2010, a Apple lançava o iPad, usando o processador que ele projetou.

Todo sábado de manhã, participo de um grupo que faz caminhadas pelas trilhas aqui. Nesse último sábado eu tinha um visitante brasileiro (o Leandro, da Ledface) e o levei lá. Rolaram papos como “Será que Hadoop é a arquitetura correta para aplicações big data?” (engenheiros da SAP, HP e Oracle estavam lá) ou “Quem é que conhece algum VC interessado em aplicações de crowdsourcing?”.

É verdade que a Internet está democratizando o acesso e diminuindo as distâncias e o tempo de propagação da informação. Quando fui a Campinas em Junho, fiquei impressionado com a energia empreendedora e com a disponibilidade de informações e conhecimento na comunidade local.

Mas o eco-sistema empreendedor ainda é o mais completo no Vale do Silício.

Tres razões pela qual Empreendedores Brasileiros em tecnologia devem considerar estabelecer presença no Vale do Silício.

  • Vivendo Technologia – Estar no Vale te expõe a idéias novas no cotidiano, parte normal da sua vida social. É a diferença entre ficar sabendo na fonte ou ler 6 meses depois no TechCrunch. Esses 6 meses fazem toda a diferença na vida do empreendedor e no sucesso de iniciativas em tecnologia.
  • Eco-sistema Empreendedor – Desde o capital, passando pela infra-estrutura de suporte ao empreendedor (Investidores, VCs, incubadores), até a disponibilidade de gente com experiências passadas. Está tudo aqui, concentrado em um espaço pequeno e pré-interligado.
  • Mercado para Tecnologia – Um grande desafio para empreendedores em Tecnologia é encontrar os “early adopters”, gente que está disposta a gastar tempo para entender produtos antes deles se tornarem mainstream. Vá a qualquer loja do Fry’s Electronics no sábado de manhã e você vai encontrar 200 deles na sua frente.

8 Checkpoints for Customer Engagement

Social Media is fundamentally different from traditional media in the fact that it is open and allows for bi-directional and peer-to-peer communication outside the control of the marketer. The shift to new media requires us to review some of the processes we use in marketing.

Customer Service is the new Marketing

We have segmented companies in departments dedicated to “influence” customers before the sale and others to listen to or “handle” customer problems after the sale. That segmentation optimizes organizations for efficiency, but offers an often inconsistent experience for customer as they evolve through the life-cycle from prospect to buyer to satisfied and loyal customer to brand advocate.

In the Social Business era,  customers demand a better experience. The person representing the company in any customer interaction must be empowered to answer a question, solve a problem, collect feedback and satisfy a need on the spot.

Being able to communicate across multiple channels is no longer enough, you must be capable to switch between channels without losing context or dropping the ball.

This change will stress current business models and requires changes in how we engage with prospects and customers.

8 Checkpoints for customer engagement

Only you know what applies to and works for your business, but here are a few points to consider when re-evaluating the way your company engage with customers.

  • Speak like a Person! Customers can see through the marketing messages and detect the intentions behind them.  Communicate as transparently as possible and use direct language. Avoid marketing-speak.
  • Recognize the value of relationships. It is not only the sum of the transactions. We need to add to that the co-creation value (product and marketing insights) and all the other transaction influenced by the person over the life of the relationship. Don’t think about the size of the deal, but how much value the customer brings to the company over time.
  • Go where customers are. It can be online forums or social media sites. Employ social tools embedded in your Sales/Marketing systems to scale human interactions. Automation is good for back-end processes, not for customer relationship.
  • Own customer engagements. You might be outsourcing Customer Service or sell through indirect channels. Having other entities engage with customers on your behalf is fine, but you need to own the relationship with end users, or your competitor will.
  • Open your Knowledge Base. Your KB must be open to external contributions and accessible so that customers can self- and peer-help, saving your resources to deal with the instances where specific action is required. The social customer often knows more about the product than the vendor itself.
  • Open your product design process to include customers. I don’t mean just having a product manager collecting use cases from anecdotal customer interactions. I mean truly open the process using social computing technology if necessary so that customer can help to co-create the solution, offer suggestions, prioritize features in a continuous and iterative engagement.
  • Operate in Real-time. If a customer is unhappy, you want to know immediately, before she influences 10 other prospects. A happy customer becomes a brand advocate.
  • Turn Marketing into a Resonance Chamber. We already know that the best way to convince a prospect is to have the endorsement of existing reference customers. Connect your happy customers with your prospects, be in the conversation and resonate/amplify it. That is the new role of marketing.