Leaders commonly try to influence their company culture through a lofty statement of purpose. But despite the time and money an organization pours into crafting its own special statement, the result is often vague and generic – it sounds like every other well-meaning company’s purpose statement. One simple way around this is to highlight specific stories that illustrate the values leaders want to emphasize. Stories are free, always available, and are such a core part of our human DNA they automatically make us feel good. Especially when they’re true. That’s why leaders at companies like Sweetgreen, Lyft, and JetBlue look out for, and socialize, stories of specific employees whose behavior fits the values the company would like to see, whether it’s going the extra mile for a customer or helping a colleague through a hard time. Best of all, by bringing true stories to light, the culture becomes one of paying attention: leaders and managers learn to keep their eyes and ears on what’s most important, and that in turn helps drive superior performance.
Leaders commonly try to influence their company culture with a lofty statement of purpose. But despite the time and money an organization pours into crafting its own special statement, the result is often vague and generic — it sounds like every other well-meaning company’s purpose statement.
One simple way around this is to highlight specific stories that illustrate the values leaders want to emphasize. Stories are free, always available, and are such a core part of our human DNA that they automatically make us feel good. Especially when they’re true. And best of all, when a company brings true stories to light, the culture becomes one of paying attention. Leaders and managers learn to keep their eyes and ears on what’s most important — the real experiences of real people.
Sweetgreen is a healthy grab-and-go food chain that always seeks to “add a sweet touch,” as the company describes it. Not only does it want to serve customers delicious food with stylish sustainability baked into every bite, but it also wants to make its mark as a fine-tuned instrument of tightly aligned, mission-driven business. It uses stories to show what adding a sweet touch really looks like in practice.
One such story is of a loyal customer, recently recovering from cancer, who visited her favorite Sweetgreen location in Washington, DC. The team member behind the register recognized her and mentioned that he hadn’t seen her in a while. He told her she looked great, remembered her favorite salad order, and gave it to her on the house. The woman was so moved by this kindness — especially, one can imagine, coming from such a vulnerable place — that she wrote Sweetgreen a letter telling them how much this personalized attention meant to her. This story made the rounds through the Sweetgreen community, strengthening the company’s core values and empowering team members to live them.
As Sweetgreen cofounder Nate Ru told me, “Stories are the way humans exchange concepts and ideas. We want to create intimacy as we scale, and stories are the key, [so] we empower everyone to collect, on a day-to-day and weekly basis, stories of people living core values.”
Lyft is the San Francisco–based ride-sharing company increasingly known as the friendlier version of Uber. By encouraging passengers to sit in the front seat and engage in conversation, Lyft emphasizes human connections. Its mission is “to reconnect people through transportation and bring communities together.” It also seeks to spread its values through storytelling.
During an all-hands meeting of 500 Lyft employees, a woman stood on a stage and told the story of the Lyft driver who not only drove her daughter to safety from a violent roommate situation but actually helped her pack and unpack her belongings into a hotel room. A picture of the driver’s smiling face appeared on the screen behind her as the choked-up mother recounted the impact this man’s kindness had on her and her family.
According to Ron Storn, VP of People, one of the company’s most important values is “uplift others.” This story highlights more than the driver’s determination to do just that — by sharing the story publicly, every single one of Lyft’s employees gets uplifted as well.
When JetBlue was founded, in 1999, its mission was “Bring humanity back to air travel,” which has since been shortened to “Inspire humanity.” It doesn’t get loftier than that! And its values are safety, caring, fun, integrity, and passion, in that order. It also uses storytelling to spread these values among 20,000 crew members.
At JetBlue University, the training site for new and returning JetBlue employees in Orlando, Florida, orientation is upbeat, emotional, and often story-driven. From their auditorium seats, 170 crew members watch a video of one of their own, a man from an airport operations crew, tell the story of his ill granddaughter and how his crewmates chipped in to help pay for her medical care. It’s not uncommon for this video to move the audience to tears.
JetBlue keeps the storytelling going after orientation, with its company-sponsored homepage showcasing a constant news feed of shout-outs, its Blue Hero program, which highlights crew members who go above and beyond, and daily notes from the Head of People often sharing an inspiring story or two that have crossed his desk. These stories fly, no pun intended, throughout the organization.
Stories make us all pay closer attention to what matters. Start paying attention to the stories unfolding in your organization, and figure out how to help the best ones spread. Because people have a lot to say, and if we’re smart, we’ll start listening.
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