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.

3 thoughts on “Symbols, Storytelling and Corporate Culture

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  2. Marcio, I think this is a great piece to show how important stories are. Following along its lines and on those of our HBRchat conversation, stories have the power of showing employees the human aspect of the C level and everyone else in the organization, which matters very much when you consider that sometimes the C level is seen as unreachable and unforgiving. Telling collaborators and peers that you are human too and that you get down and dirty as they do, through the most effective means of validation -informal conversations, that is- will grapple their loyalty and admiration like nothing else can.

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