Saturday, 2 October 2010

Chapter Five - a business book in seven Days

Chapter Five

Telling Stories to create a Culture

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game
Lou Gerstner

When we dream alone it’s just a dream, but when we dream together it’s the beginning of a new reality”
Brazilian proverb

Ever since our ancestors sat around fires in caves, human beings have felt the need to be part of something. Remember your group of mates at school? Remember the sense of security you had, mixing with kids who had the same interests as you?

Well, organisations are a bit like groups of mates or tribes of Neanderthal man around a campfire – only with suits and laptops. The same fundamental thread runs thought all these groups – a need to form itself in a collective group, with a shared sense of identity; and that identity is consolidated and developed through its C ulture.

Much as been written about what culture is and I am not going to try and re-define it here . The best definition of culture I have read is from Honey and Mumford who describe is quite simply as “the way things get done around here”. It is the living incarnation of all the organisation’s policies and procedures, the way its people interact with each other and their customers, and how it demonstrates it Values.

And successful organisations use Storytelling to give their culture rocket fuel.

The Disney Corporation is the master of Storytelling. When I went to study at The Disney Institute in Florida, my trainer, Gwen Burch, told me a story:

“ I have an eight year old niece called Olivia and she thinks I am really cool because I work with Cinderella. Can you imagine how much kudos she gets in the schoolyard by telling her friends that I hang out with her?

I decided that I was going to give Olivia a special gift for her birthday. I would take her to Walt Disney World and introduce her to her idol, and my co-worker, Cinderella.

So she came down tot the property and we had a wonderful day playing on all the attractions. But the best was yet to come.

I had found out where Cinderella was going to be at 4.30 and at 4.25 we were to be found casually strolling up Main Street on our way to the rendezvous.

Suddenly, Olivia’s little hand had slipped out of mine and she was racing up Main Street. She had spotted the fairytale Princess!

And off in the distance, with her back to us, I could see a figure in a beautiful blue ball gown, with long flowing hair.

Olivia rushed up to Cinderella and tugged on her gown shouting ‘Cinderella, Cinderella, it’s me – Olivia’

Cinderella turned around.

In one hand she held a cigarette. In the other a cup of Starbucks coffee.

‘OK kid. I see you. I’m on a break. Give me five minutes and I’ll be back’

Olivia crumpled and began to cry”

I can imagine what you are thinking now. When I heard this story I was truly shocked and remembered the heroes and heroines of my childhood. How awful would it have been to be disillusioned like that? And shame on Disney for allowing it.

Well, we can all calm down.

It isn’t true.

Gwen was using a story to illustrate a very important Disney policy – “Always stay in character’.

When you go to induction at a new job, you hear hundreds of rule and regulations. You many even be given a handbook of do’s and don’ts. Disney recognises this and brings their policies to life through Storytelling.

With the potential to mentally scar 8 year old visitors from all over the world, through Storytelling, Disney has created a magical culture where ‘cast members” go “on stage”. They know they are playing a part and they know what is expected of them. It is a culture of “magic” and each employee has a crucial part to play in it.

Another attribute of the Disney culture is great Teamwork- they call it “All in this Together”.

Another story illustrates how, if all employees come together, they can achieve great things. And all employees means, in times of need, whatever your status is in the organisation, you are expected to pull together.

To keep delighting their customers and keep one step ahead of the competition, Disney is constantly opening new attractions and new guest accommodation. These openings are well-oiled machines, but sometimes things can go wrong.

Gwen told us that a new guest accomodation was about to open, but due to supplier complications, the day before arrived and things just weren’t ready.

Every spare person was drafted on site; to make up beds, hang pictures and wash floors. But there was one big job left to do – to lay the lawn at the front of the hotel.

A whole team of Disney employees, many of whom should have left for home hours ago, were taking pre-grown tuft off delivery trucks and laying it out at the front of the hotel.

And then there came a visit from Management.

One particular Senior Manager worked in the Marketing function and began questioning the busy cast members about time plans and asking how they got in this awful mess.

He went up to one employee and began his conversation, but the employee was busy laying turf and knew he only had about two hours left to get it all done.

After politely trying to answer the Marketing Manager’s questions, he continued to lay turf. And the Marketing Manager continued to ask questions.

‘You know” said the temporary turf layer “you could help us out here and work with me to lay the lawn”

To which the Senior Manager replied, “I’m sorry I can’t help you. I work in Marketing and have no experience of turf laying”

That was enough for the junior member of staff. He took a piece of turf off a lorry, threw it to the floor and stamped it into place with his foot

“Green side up. Now get on with it”

I don’t know if this story it true, or if Gwen was again using a tale for illustrative purposes, but they more the tale is told the more it confirms the Disney culture of Teamwork. That they are all in it together and, only by coming together in times of need, regardless of status or job role, will they continue to create magic for the children of the world.

I have also been fortunate enough to spend time studying the Ritz Carlton Hotel Group. Their Vision is “Ladies and Gentlemen, Serving Ladies and Gentlemen”. This makes it stand out in the world of hospitality as it puts respect for the individual at the core of its business. It also places the customer at the heart of what they do.

Every day, before every shift, The Ritz Carlton has “The Daily Line Up”. This happens in all departments, all over the world, regardless if you work in housekeeping or human resources. A different member of the team runs it each day and hierarchy has no place to play in who chairs the meeting. And Storytelling is at the heart of the Line Up.

Each day, team members tell real stories of customer service experience and there then follows a group discussion on how it relates to one of their service principles. Each day, a service principle is re-enforced and brought to life by the telling of tales.

And the service experience at The Ritz Carlton is outstanding. This is in part due to the fact that the Ladies and Gentlemen are empowered to spend up to $2000, without management permission, to put something right for a guest.

Sometimes the stories are big and emotional – how the quick thinking of a staff member saved someone’s wedding day; and sometimes they are small gestures, but equally as impactful.

On one visit, I heard a story that has stuck with me for years.

We’ve all seen the little pieces of chocolate, left on the guest’s pillow at night. One housekeeper noticed that the guest in the room she was servicing, was throwing the chocolates in the waste paper basket. Also contained in the waste paper basket were Snickers wrappers. It wasn’t that the guest didn’t eat chocolate – she just didn’t like the ones being placed on her pillow.

So, knowing that delighting guests was at the heart of The Ritz Carlton’s culture, and armed with her $2000, the housekeeper went out to Seven Eleven and bought a bag on mini Snickers. Each night, she would place a mini Snicker on the guest’s pillow, and every morning there would be a wrapper in the bin.

Yes, it’s a small thing and probably only cost a few dollars, but can you imagine the impact on the guest? No manual or policy book is going to tell you substitute one chocolate for another, but through Storytelling at The Daily Line Up and the empowerment of the $2000, the housekeeper created a tailor made experience for the guest, that encouraged huge loyalty to Ritz Carlton. And I bet they got a load of free advertising as the guest probably told everyone she knew about the Snicker bar on the pillow.

If Culture is the way an organisation works, then it can be encouraged, enforced and enabled by Storytelling. By bringing polices and work practices to life, you can create an engaged community of employees, who are able to think for themselves and delight their customers.

So my advice to you is when you have your next meeting, instead of talking about policy, ask yourself – what story will I tell?


  1. Oh this really is my favourite chapter yet!

    I think it is remarkable that stories (both the good and bad ones!) are cycled through organisations and really do indicate what is appropriate, required, or even outstanding behaviour. Stories are also so democratic - can come from anyone - and travel upwards, downwards and sideways and as this demonstrates its not always the CEO who is the chief storyteller.

    What do you think is it that transforms some stories into legends? Those that get repeated long after employees have moved on?

    Another thing is that stories have ways of migrating outside the company walls.

    Keep up the wonderful work!

    David B.

  2. thanks for the comment!

    Richard Branson talks about Myths and Legends - I think when a story resonates with a universal truth it can become a lengend