5 Ways to Tell Powerful Stories to Boost Your Culture

Marriott CEO, Arne Sorenson stood before the black tie audience at the Watergate Hotel to accept an award from the local business journal. He was being celebrated for his leadership in the company’s acquisition of a major competitor, Starwood Hotels. What stood out from his remarks was not the growth of the hotel chain, but the hotelier’s culture. Underpinning the Marriott ethos is a simple belief espoused by Bill Marriott, “Take care of your associates and they will take care of your customers.”

And then Sorenson told a story. He’d received a letter from a long-time customer. She was dying of cancer, but wanted him to know how much Marriott meant to her. She got engaged, married, and even conceived her first child at a Marriott. She kept coming back. Her experience with the company wasn’t just a series of transactions. The company was woven into the tapestry of her of life for more than 40 years. Sorenson was deeply proud of that.

Marriott, and others in the hospitality industry, understand the Prism of Value. They understand that business relationships are about adding good things and subtracting the negatives. And they understand that refracting their messages through the Prism of Value asking in what way are we making something better for someone else and in what way are reducing the negatives, they are communicating and delivering value. And through those messages they create a powerful organizational narrative. The stories large and small that are part of that narrative help build and reinforce a culture that delivers value at all levels.

How can you create an organizational narrative:

1) Find What Matters About and In Your Organization – The best narratives are rooted in a common theme that everyone in your organization believes in. For Zappos.com, it’s about making people happy by providing great retail experiences. For Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, it’s fostering a collective culture in the US that promotes good health. For Apple, it’s constantly innovating to create products that make it easier and more enjoyable for people to connect and live their lives. When you construct a narrative around a shared belief, then employees, customers, investors and other audiences can better understand their part in the narrative.

2) Frame all of your communication efforts inside and outside of your enterprise around that common belief/theme. Everything you communicate should tied back to the common belief/theme that undergirds your organization. For example, if your narrative is based around providing the best customer service, then discussions of pay raises, employee benefits, for example, should tie back to taking care of the employee so they take care of the customer.

3) Use stories to illustrate and reinforce the theme of your narrative for your staff, your customers and others who matter most. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh at Zappos tells a great story about his company’s awesome customer service experiences. After a lengthy set of meetings with investors in San Francisco, Hsieh and his group wanted a pizza. The trouble was it was 2 a.m. and the hotel kitchen was closed. Hsieh told the investors to call Zappos.com. They thought he was nuts as he insisted that they call the 800 number. They did and the representative found them an online pizza delivery even though that had nothing to do with the company’s business. But that customer representative helped them because he knew that Zappos’ core business is making people happy and if you make them happy they come back to be a customer. That story is part of the company lore.

4) Repeat, repeat, repeat. Tell those stories over and over again not just inside your company but to your customers, investors and staff. Stories are memorable and help make concrete what may be abstract.

5) Refresh your narrative. Stories, like food, can become stale. Continually search for great stories within your company. Adding new stories to the larger narrative ensures that your communication stays fresh and relevant. Aspire Public Schools, a charter management organization in California, bakes the act of finding these stories into their every day behavior through UFOs, Unexpected Fortuitous Observations. Employees at all levels are encouraged to look out for great interactions and moments and share them with supervisors who in turn share them throughout the organization. This organizational sharing celebrates the individuals in the stories and serves as a model for the kind of behavior that fits within the larger narrative.

We do business with people we like and trust. Trust is built on a series of repeated experiences. Building that trust within your organization comes not just from good hiring and policies that empower individuals, but also by how those practices are integrated into the larger organizational narrative. The behavior and policies are continually reinforced. Stories bind us together into something bigger. Stories give us heroes we can emulate, and flawed protagonists from whom we can learn. Stories, well told, reinforce message. Story nurtures culture. A strong culture is the key to recruiting and retaining talent who are the bedrock of any enterprise. Just ask Arne Sorenson at Marriott.

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