Culture-Builders are Storytellers

telling stories

Four times a year I get to go work with leaders from an iconic, fast growing tech company in San Francisco. They are scaling fast after going public this year, and hiring lots of new employees. Notably, they’re doing their best to scale the culture as they grow.

During our time together, I take the leaders of the company through a one-day exploration of their company values. I’m going to share with you one of the activities that we do together. In my experience, this one of the most under-used yet high leverage activities that leaders can do is culture building through storytelling.

If you think about it, storytelling is the oldest form of culture building there is. In fact, before the written word we would tell stories about ancestors, important events, moments that highlight who we want to be, what we value, what’s important in life and in community. It is through stories that all of that important cultural information gets transmitted.

For leaders, telling a culture building story is as simple as choosing a moment where you witnessed someone or a team express a company value. Then tell the story of that moment. Remember: It doesn’t have to be a big deal, a significant, extra-ordinary moment. Actually, some of the best culture-building stories are mundane moments seen through the culture lens.

How to tell a culture-builder story

To tell the story, you can use an advocacy storytelling format which is a simple outline for your story.

  • Situation –what was the situation?
  • Challenge — what was the specific challenge?
  • Action — hat did the person do reinforce the culture?
  • Result –what was the impact? What specific value was reinforced?

Usually the stories are a minute or two in the activity we do together. Each time I go to this company, they tell stories both in small groups and in front of a larger group. There’s inspiration in the room and people get a palpable sense of the company values, whereas before they told the story to the community, the values were just words on a white board.

For example, at this company someone told the story of their mentor and manager, who was a mom of four and had taped her kid’s artwork on her laptop. Her colleague took pictures of the artwork and created stickers, upgrading the quality of her kid’s art on her laptop and gifted them to her with a card of appreciation for her mentoring. The manager was touched and grateful. This story reinforced their company value of delighting people and customers.

Use storytelling to elevate your company culture

Here are some ways that you can use this ritual of telling stories about when the group is meeting their own cultural aspirations in your everyday life at work:

  • Make it part of a weekly check-in by saying, “Who has a story about…?”
  • Use it while you’re on-boarding new employees
  • Use it as a way of giving appreciation during one-on-one meetings
  • Appreciate moments when you saw a person expressing a company value and use it as an example of what you want more of.

Telling positive culture-building stories is so much easier and more pleasant than policing people into culture building. That’s because what we pay attention to, expands. What we put our attention on and what we appreciate reinforces the behaviors and values we want to see more of.

Stories about people we work with inspire us and challenge us to be better, creating a positive feedback loop.

What’s a culture-building story you can tell?

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Simon D’Arcy is a partner at Evolution, where he works with leaders of fast growing growing start-ups and high-growth companies that strive to be iconic, world-enriching entities. He is an executive coach, consultant and leadership mentor with over 20 years of experience assisting leaders and companies on six continents. His work focuses on helping leaders become highly effective culture builders for their teams and companies. Recent clients include Tile, 8i, Slack, Dropbox, Yahoo!, Genentech, and Slack. He is the founder and curator of—a resource for leaders curious about the latest inspiration and insight on culture building. He is also the author of the forthcoming Culture Builders Manifesto.

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