Recently a lot of marketing pundits have focused on storytelling. All great marketing IS storytelling. That’s true. While marketing tends to focus mostly on external storytelling in the age of new media for good reasons (hey, I just wrote a post about it 2 weeks ago), not enough focus today has been placed on internal storytelling and on how important that is in organizational and cultural leadership.
Why so executives and marketers spend so much more time influencing outsiders than they do on influencing the “insiders” – the people who are tasked with delivering the best customer experience? Employees are among an organization’s greatest brand champions. If employees aren’t happy, customers won’t be, either.
What are the stories that employees tell? What stories define your culture?
The stories circulating internal to any organization are telling – because they point to what your people say your culture is about.
Recently I caught up with a wonderful colleague I knew from many years ago at a once very prominent high-tech company in Silicon Valley. At one time in the 90s, this company was THE place of innovation, and employees were dedicated and worked hard. It was a company people clamored to work for. Over time, that culture changed and it became insulated – a victim of its own success. Eventually that company failed – in a very big way. And that culture change coincided with a change in C-level mentality that can be illustrated in one story that a former President and Chief Operating Officer Used to tell.
Elephants Verses Penguins
The stories the C-Suite tells – and those that are frequently repeated down the food chain – reflect organizational health and values. If the folks at the top are telling negative stories, that is indicative of a culture in trouble. This former President and COO told a favorite story about penguins and elephants, and he told it often (my colleague and I remembered it!). Penguins are not nurturing of their sick. When one falls behind or is injured, the other penguins attack it. They cannot be weighed down by the infirm. It’s tribal and it defines pack behavior. Elephants, by contrast, are large and majestic animals that care for one another. When one of them is sick, the entire herd rallies around and nurtures the sick one until it is better or passes. The entire tribe is affected. They feel a connection that keeps them looking out for one another. “We are the penguins,” the COO liked to say often (smiling and proud at his “toughness”). That story communicated so many layers of culture, values and how the company felt about competition and people. And it wasn’t lost on employees exactly how underappreciated they were.
Stories Told Reveal Truth
That story repeated over and over by the COO on down through the ranks of employees is an insight into the culture. What kind of culture would you rather be in as an employee? I know I’d rather be in the Pachyderm tribe. This story illustrates how a culture that was once thriving had changed and not for the better. It is no surprise that the culture eventually collapsed – and so did the company.
This company is by no means alone. Remember Enron, for example? At Enron, according to the Harvard Business Review, stories about “get-rich schemes” were as prominent as stories and jokes about “screwing over customers.” That negativity is toxic and that it was so pervasive is the hallmark of an acidic and dangerous culture.
Change Your Stories, Change Your Culture
If you want to change the culture, you must look at the types of stories being told in your organization – up and down the food chain. Are they positive or negative? Do they tell of progress? Are employees extolled? Or are they considered expendable and under-valued? Are people merely elephants or penguins in your organization? Are your customers valued or do employees make fun of customers far too often (as at Enron and countless other companies).
It matters. If you want to change culture and lead change, you must identify and change the stories people tell. Stories aren’t based on fiction; rather, they are forged by the kinds of VALUES and actions the company and its leaders and employees exhibit over and over again.
Leaders must understand the tribal nature of stories that lead and inspire and they must understand that stories rally or disengage employees. They are the most powerful internal marketing tools around. So if you want to change your culture, you must start by understanding and changing the stories that define the internal culture as well. Great storytelling outside the company starts with great storytelling internally.