How to use storytelling to build your startup's culture

To attract great talent, a startup has to create a great culture and market it well through stories. Here's how founders can begin

Harsh Pamnani
Updated: Aug 1, 2022 05:01:49 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

Many people aspire to start a company. Perhaps, a few become entrepreneurs. Out of the ones who begin, maybe a few create a solid product. Out of those who come up with a great product, perhaps a few earn eminent clients, marquee investors, and highly valued industry recognitions. Out of the ones with such credentials, some become unicorns and soonicorns. India has over 100 unicorns (startups valued at over $1 billion) and numerous soonicorns (startups that would be a unicorn in the near future), which is a matter of pride for all of us.

During my interaction with many entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, I have observed that although they feel proud of their success in building and backing great startups, they worry whether outstanding startups will become long-lasting institutions. Whenever I tried to understand their worry, I got a standard answer “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” a famous quote from Peter Drucker.

The repeated mention of this statement made me curious, so I decided to understand the problem in detail. I realised that in the beginning, when a startup is small, the founder makes the initial hires and directly shares the purpose, vision, and values with the team. The entire team mainly works from the same office and is in daily contact. As the startup gets bigger, things begin to change. The founder gets occupied with many new responsibilities and slowly hands the hiring task to someone else. As employees grow, layers build up between the founder and new team members. As offices grow, day-to-day interaction reduces between the leadership team and new team members joining in.

Another major problem is attrition. As the number of unicorns and soonicorns increases, the job opportunities for good talent rise. A talent who is leaving not only takes away the valuable knowledge of technology and business but also the understanding of culture, values, and ways of working in an organisation. In most startups, values are written over the office walls, and founders talk about purpose in town halls. However, new employees can either not relate to these messages or forget them. Unfortunately, inferior culture gets formed accidentally if superior culture is not defined formally. A toxic corporate culture is one of the key reasons behind attrition.

There are a few steps that fast-growing startups can take to mitigate their culture crisis:

Create a culture book

Messages like purpose, values, and mission guide employees on what is right or wrong in the context of an organisation. Because of different educational backgrounds, experiences, and baggage, people have different ways of understanding and interpreting things. So, it is possible that every person who reads these messages can draw a different understanding. Gallup's research shows that just a 10 percent improvement in employees' connection with the mission or purpose of their organisation leads to an 8.1 percent decrease in turnover and a 4.4 percent increase in profitability. Therefore, principles that govern employees' day-to-day decisions and behaviour should be documented well in a culture book that both new and old employees could refer to. The culture book should also contain the context of various statements, their importance, and stories to clarify their meaning in practice.

Share stories of relatable role models 

One of the key challenges for founders is to repeatedly talk about their values and purpose in a way that doesn't sound boring to employees. One approach is to transfer the spotlight to culture champions—employees who demonstrate organisational values while making an impact, delivering exceptional results, and navigating change. Culture champions' stories can help listeners create a picture of a real-life event in their minds and understand how organisational principles create great results. Sometimes, a story of a relatable role model can even motivate another employee to transform a seemingly terrible situation into an unexpected victory.

Treat every employee as a storyteller

Even if their titles and roles are different, all employees are storytellers in some way or the other. In a cafeteria, many employees might gossip about gruelling work schedules, demanding founders and their behaviour, favouritism given to their colleagues, why the proposed change will never work, and so on. Such negative stories lead to cultural erosion. If founders want to protect culture, they must identify and change the stories people tell each other. Startup leaders should communicate the founding story. They should bring to life how the founding team worked hard to achieve product-market fit, win customers, convince investors, contribute to society, and so on. Stories stick in mind and are easy to re-tell. Such inspiring stories give employees positive content to share internally and externally. Imagine an office boy sharing such stories with another office boy, a newly joined software engineer sharing such stories with his family, and a manager sharing such stories with his neighbour. Suddenly, there would be many brand ambassadors, generating free publicity for the organisation.

Set context in HR communication

HR is responsible for aligning people with organisational strategy and driving change. Many times, due to a lack of context-setting in HR communication, people find it challenging to interpret strategy and are resistant to change. This information asymmetry between management and employees could dilute the expected impact. Storytelling is a powerful tool to set the context and inspire action. Interestingly, employees at all levels understand stories. By sharing announcements and reports with short stories to establish context and give clarity, HR can make the messages relatable and memorable.

Publish stories of corporate philanthropy

Many talented people today make joining decisions based on how organisations treat the environment and how they support their communities. By showcasing stories of corporate social responsibility and employees making a social impact through various organisational initiatives, a startup can make the workforce feel proud of their employer, build trust with society and stand out from companies focused only on making money.

The growth of an organisation is dependent on its ability to hire and retain great talent. Marvin Bower, the founder of modern-day McKinsey, famously said, "A business of high principle attracts high-calibre people more easily, thereby gaining a basic competitive and profit edge." Therefore, to attract great talent, a startup has to create a great culture and market it well through stories.

The writer is an author of 'Booming Brands' and co-author of ‘Booming Digital Stars’. Views expressed are personal and don't necessarily represent any company's opinions.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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