A parable of culture change

Parable - sWhy we need to tap into our appetite for stories…

Once upon a time I worked in the head office of a large multinational retailer, a once-great name that was struggling to stand against increasing competition, until one day, it recruited a new CEO from outside the business.

The first thing that CEO decided to do was change the culture, specifically the culture in my bit – head office.

To be fair, he had a point. The business had lost its way; it was overcomplicated, overconfident, and overcharging customers, who were leaving in their droves.

And he wasted no time signalling his intent. In one interview with an industry magazine, he was quoted as saying: “I’ve been here three months and I’ve yet to meet a genuine retailer in the corporate centre”.

I believe the modern phrase would be ‘mic drop’.

Now, it’s not unusual for an incoming CEO to diagnose a need for culture change, nor is it unusual to emerge during strategy development: “If we’re going to deliver this, our culture will need to change…”; or in any number of other situations: “We’ll need to become a lot more commercially astute if we’re going to…”

In fact, with so much turmoil and pressure in our operating environment, I would be surprised if half the executive teams in the charity sector didn’t have culture change on their agenda right now.

But identifying the need is one thing.

Especially when, in this case, it meant changing the culture of a hundred-year-old organisation that was deeply embedded across a head office of six thousand staff.

Of course, our protagonist used the standard culture toolkit: values on the walls and in performance reviews, new awards and recognition programmes, platforming and promoting exemplars, alongside the occasional high-profile exit.

But the thing that really made the difference; the thing that made it all hang together and succeed; the thing I still remember a quarter of a century later as if it were yesterday, was the stories.

In the monthly ritual he initiated, with just a skeleton staff covering the phones, the whole of the office would throng the main floor and the balconies above to hear the updates, cheer the achievements, celebrate the awards, and listen to a story from the CEO.

His first story related how he had spent an afternoon in the company archives and had found one of the earliest shop signs from over a century ago.

He held it up. It said simply: Quality – Service – Value. And he pointed to the word Value, explaining that this was what we needed to bring back, if we were going to bring our customers back.

And suddenly, he was no longer fighting against a hundred years of history; he was wielding it like a rapier, through the simple act of telling a story.

A month later, and the next CEO story was about how Alex, the Director of Stores, had taken him to see the new Christmas merchandise in the big, flagship shops. The CEO narrated how he’d been full of questions and suggestions, but partway through the visit, Alex put up his hands and asked him to stop.

And so, the all-powerful CEO was left to wait while Alex, his most senior member of the executive board, took off his jacket, jumped on an empty till, and helped the staff clear the lunchtime queue.

More than a story, this was a parable to illustrate the importance of Service; of how serving customers should be the first priority, even if it means making your brand-new boss kick his heels for twenty minutes waiting for you.

And as the stories and parables, awards and achievements, continued to circle those same core themes month after month, you could feel the change like a strengthening wind, blowing us all in the same direction.

And when, the following Autumn, all the head office staff were sent out to spend a mandatory week in stores helping them set up for Christmas, we finally began to realise what it meant to be a “genuine retailer”.

Stories are incredibly influential, that’s why we use them in fundraising, campaigning and influencing, and parables have power, their whole purpose is to change attitudes – the foundation of organisational culture.

So, what are the stories and parables that will lay the foundations of your new culture?

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