By Rob Zell

When you think about the places you have worked, what pops up in your memory? When you have left an organization, did you do so because “it wasn’t a good fit”? When you consider the places you would like to work, how do you “know” you would be a good fit? That feeling of “fit”, or sense of belonging, comes down to culture. The question is, how can you identify and describe the culture?

Stories shape culture and give members of the group a “rule of thumb” for how to behave and respond. The heroes of the stories are the people the organization emulates and provides an ideal to strive for. The “Nordstrom Tire Story”, possibly the most quoted (and misquoted) service story ever told, creates a clear vision of what customers can expect in a Nordstrom shopping experience.

Stories provide a more memorable way to communicate messages of importance. Why? According to Chip Heath and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, there are six characteristics of effective messages. Service stories meet several of these criteria including:

  • Simple
  • Concrete
  • Emotional
  • Stories (that is kind of a no-brainer)

A good story isn’t a complicated message with charts and graphs and really small bullets. It has a rhythm to it that brings you along. Good stories have that concrete element that grounds you into the plot and the characters. A well-told story is relatable because you can picture the characters and settings as the plot unfolds. Good stories also engage us emotionally because we can relate to the conflict and we want to compare experiences and outcomes. The fact that it is in story form is significant because all the other elements combine and link together versus being presented as a list or technical document.

Stories have been the primary vehicle for teaching rules of behavior for thousands of years. Consider all the creation myths, parables, and religious texts floating around in our collective informational database. All of these stories exist to illustrate how people should, or should not, behave. The characters in these stories enjoy the benefits of “proper” behavior and suffer the consequences of veering off the path or acting in their own interests.

This leads to me the second element of these stories: heroes. Heroes are another factor when defining culture. You can get a feel for an organization’s culture by listening to the stories and understanding the heroes. Think about Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, or Tony Hsieh. These are all “legendary” characters in their respective organizations and their traits serve as a model of what others strive to become (or what not to become). A culture is shaped by the behavior of the people who lead it and the stories (and the protagonists of those stories) provide us guidelines of how to behave and interact.

When newcomers enter an organization they inevitably ask, “How do things work around here?” This question is complex and requires not only the formal processes and procedures but also the unspoken norms of the collective that describe how stuff “really gets done”. That’s culture: the rules of the organization that are both published and unpublished of how things work. They inspire and guide us to achieve and be compared to the heroes of the stories of the organization. Like Peter Drucker reportedly said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

As you consider the culture in your organization, reflect on the stories that get told before meetings and in the hallways. Think about the heroes of the organization: how did they get work done and which behaviors do others seek to emulate? If you are looking toward moving to a new company, ask about the leaders of the organization and the myths and legends that get passed around by the water cooler.

How’s your organizational culture? Who are the heroes in your company? What are your stories? If you don’t have any, now might be the time to start developing a repertoire. Did you hear the one about the company that….?