Note: This is an updated post from last year.

The stories employees and executives tell internally are leading indicators of organizational health and marketplace effectiveness – more so than the marketing stories we tell externally. There is no sound wall between external and internal worlds. That means before companies focus on customers and external marketing, they need to focus on employees, values and internal stories – all the things that make up a strong internal culture. Everything great in marketing starts with great inside-out storytelling.

Changing Your Corporate Culture: Influencing the Insiders

Why do executives 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. Sooner or later, internal stories get told outside the company. And, today, new media amplifies everything – good, bad, and ugly.

What are the stories that employees tell? What stories define your culture? What’s the big story behind the company’s mission? The stories circulating internally point to what your people really believe and say your culture is about. And it may not be what leaders say it is.

Recently I caught up with a wonderful colleague I knew years ago at a once very prominent high-tech company in Silicon Valley. In the 90s, this company was THE place of innovation, and employees were dedicated. 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.

Elephants Verses Penguins: Stories Reveal Truth

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.

Inside-Out Storytelling

Changing Your Corporate Culture

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.

Inside-Out Storytelling

Changing Your Corporate Culture

“We are the penguins,” the COO liked to say often (smiling and proud). That story (repeated over and over through the ranks) 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 under-appreciated they were. That story was an honest reflection of how employees (and eventually customers!) had come to be treated – it signaled a powerful change in culture. Not only were employees treated as expendable; the top brass bragged about it. It also signaled the demise in trust; and cultural deterioration is a precursor to implosion. The culture and company eventually collapsed. It’s poetically Darwinian.

Change Your Inside-Out Stories, Change Your Culture

Stories reflect our values and our actions. If you want to change culture and lead change, you must identify and change the stories people tell. That starts by changing behavior. Stories aren’t based on fiction; they are forged by the kinds of values and actions leaders and employees exhibit over and over again. Start creating the kind of culture you want to be, and tell credible stories demonstrating that change within your company. Yes, that change takes time. If you want to be a place where employees never leave, foster that kind of culture and credible stories will emerge.

Most leaders analyze the marketing and brand stories of a company to determine its marketplace effectiveness. They are important; however, If you want to know the health of a company to survive long-term, track the stories people tell about the culture. They are the most powerful internal and external marketing tools around. To change your culture, start by changing cultural behavior and the stories that define it.

What stories does your culture tell? I’d love to know. Let me know below!

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