stories and culture

Using Stories and Symbols to Build a Powerful Culture

by Jan 27, 2015Culture

Two tools that many CEOs tend to overlook when it comes to reinforcing their company’s culture are symbols and stories. When done properly, these reinforce and increase the impact of your company values manifold.

Everyone talks about company culture and wants a strong one, but as you scale it becomes harder and harder to maintain the foundation of your company’s culture. This is particularly hard as you build multiple locations into your business. Sure, you still operate with the same values you always have. But how do you get the new people you bring on board to understand and buy into the secret sauce that got you there in the first place?

Two tools that many CEOs tend to overlook when it comes to reinforcing their company’s culture are symbols and stories. When done properly, these reinforce and increase the impact of your company values.


Most of the CEOs we work with tend to be analytical. They like to dive into solving operational or engineering issues. So the idea of creating a symbol sounds like a less appealing “soft skill.” However, symbols are extremely powerful in that they help enable people to do things and attribute meaning to their actions even when you as the CEO aren’t in the room, so you need to manage them.

A great example of this is in the U.S. military where you see young people who are willing to risk their lives for little pieces of metal and ribbon. Medals are powerful symbols because they recognize a significant accomplishment. And people will perform at extraordinarily high levels to earn them.

Another example of the power of symbols comes from the CEO of a hospital we know of who really wanted to reinforce the value of openness and transparency in how he managed. He wanted to share his open-door policy where literally anyone in the organization could come in and talk to him about issues they might be dealing with. And to do that, he had the doors of his office literally removed from their hinges and then hung them up inside the lobby of the hospital so everyone in the organization would see them and be reminded of his message every single day they walked in and out of the building. That’s powerful stuff that trumps any email or pamphlet he could have sent out to deliver the same message.

The secret here is to pick a symbol and attribute value to it over time. Frankly, most symbols won’t sense to people outside the organization, but that is one of the factors that make them powerful. Over time, they build in meaning and power for the people that are in the know. As a leader, you need to identify your symbols and begin to layer them with meaning and values.


Stories are also a powerful tool to use in reinforcing your company’s culture, a topic that Dan and Chip Heath wrote about extensively in their book, Made to Stick. Stories become especially powerful when people remember and repeat them to others. The trick as a CEO is to find and tell the kind of stories that reinforce your culture, values, and rules of you want people to behave.

Think about a company like 3M, which is known for coming up with innovative new products. One of the stories that are still repeated to this day throughout the company is about how Spencer Silver, one of the company’s chemists, “accidentally” invented the Post-It note back in the 1960s. Mr. Silver, as the story goes, was working on creating a new kind of adhesive and wound up with one that was weak enough to be removable. The problem was he couldn’t find any practical use for his new glue and he labored for more than 12 years to find one. It wasn’t until a colleague of his, Art Fry, heard about his work and realized it could help him by bookmarking the pages in his choir’s hymnbook without damaging the pages. Voila! Soon thereafter, Post-It notes exploded onto the market. 3M currently makes more than 50 billion of them a year. This story is so powerful for 3M because it reinforces the idea that innovative ideas can literally come from anywhere.

Another great story comes from FedEx–the overnight delivery service started by Fred Smith back in 1971 in Memphis, Tenn. Back in its earliest days, the company was trying to make a name for itself by guaranteeing that any package could be delivered just about anywhere overnight.

As the company lore says, one of the company’s drivers was out late one snowy night in the hinterlands of the Midwest to check a drop-off box for any packages. Only, when he got to the box, the lock was frozen solid and the key broke off in the lock. After trying in vain to reach the packages inside, the driver finally made the decision to drive to a nearby auto garage where he borrowed a torch, which he then used to cut the legs off the box. The driver then put the box into his truck and delivered the box to the airport where a maintenance team was able to drill it open, remove the packages inside and get them on the plane to their final destination.

The point of the story, of course, is that it reinforces the message that FedEx will positively do everything it can do to get your package to its destination on time. No corporate slogan could be more powerful in communicating this aspect of the FedEx culture than this simple story.

And that’s the point: symbols and stories are extremely effective ways to reinforce and drive your culture forward into the future no matter how big your company gets.

How do you manage the symbols and stories you share in your company? Let us know.