How can organizations build a strong culture in an era of remote or hybrid work?
The loss of physical proximity and shared space since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the practice of norms and rituals, making it harder for employees to forge relationships and make common cause. But the challenge of uniting people around shared values is not unique to the pandemic era.
Long before COVID-19, the changing nature of work—including more frequent staff turnover and the rise of the gig economy—was creating organizational silos or discontinuities, weakening the institutional memory that binds people together.
Even firms that boasted strong cultures with well-understood value systems often discovered that those cultures were bound up with a single charismatic founder or leader, making them difficult to sustain after a leadership transition. The pandemic exacerbated these forces, but it did not create them—nor will the end of the pandemic eliminate them.
Fortunately, organizations can shape a robust culture regardless of where employees perform their work. It begins with tapping into their heritage: a source of stories that transcend time and place.
Narratives like these, because they are rooted in a shared experience, have the power to unite and inspire, making people feel a part of something larger than themselves. They can help transform cultures that need a reset. And by articulating the values that have sustained the organization over time, they create cultures that are resilient enough to weather changes in strategy, leadership, and work environment.
Building an Ownership Culture: Brown Brothers Harriman
Take Brown Brothers Harriman, America’s oldest private bank. Founded in 1818, the firm has a long and storied past. One reason for its longevity is the way it uses stories from that past to reinforce a set of shared values.
For instance, at a moment of rapid expansion for the bank 10 years ago, senior partner Taylor Bodman began hosting employee seminars on BBH’s history. His goal was not to venerate the past, but to get people excited by change—by highlighting the successive transformations that have enabled BBH to thrive as a small private bank in a world of corporate financial behemoths.
Bodman is strategic with his history lessons. He sometimes omits aspects of BBH’s past that do not reflect the inclusive values of today’s firm—the relationship between partners and nonpartners in generations past, for example. But he doesn’t shy away from discussing mistakes, because they underscore by comparison the often shrewd decision-making that has helped BBH navigate the ups and downs of the global economy for over 200 years.
The popularity of Bodman’s history seminars—today, even by Zoom, they have a waitlist months long—reflects a culture that has always prized storytelling as a way to instill in employees the values that remain crucial to the bank’s success. These stories are not parables from the mount, but cautionary tales and lessons learned, often in the form of humorous anecdotes. Like the one about the elephant that dropped dead with a load of jute on its back: this, one partner points out, was the real reason one of the bank’s commodities clients fell behind on its interest payments. The lesson: bankers need to dig deep for root causes before making credit decisions.
Plenty of private partnerships like BBH have gone public or gone bust. “The reason we’re here,” Bodman argues, “is the magic of making hundreds of people think like owners.” Stories, whether they’re drawn from institutional or individual experience, have a unique power to help people feel invested in the success of the larger enterprise.
Cultural Transformation: Microsoft
It is not just private partnerships like BBH that draw on their organizational narratives to cultivate strong cultures. Microsoft, the $2.5 trillion public company, exemplifies the power of stories to drive cultural transformation.
New CEO Satya Nadella took over Microsoft in 2014 determined to emphasize mission and culture. A longtime employee, Nadella believed that hubris and a bloated bureaucracy had led the company to lose sight of its founding cultural traits: curiosity, continuous learning, and a focus on people. Microsoft, he argued, needed a reset.
To articulate the transformation he envisioned, Nadella “went back to [Microsoft’s] origin story as a company,” recognizing that the “very first product Bill [Gates] and Paul [Allen] created was a tool for others to create software. It was to empower people.” This origin story, in turn, became the basis of a new mission statement: “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”
Microsoft used other narratives to drive this new/old mindset. In 2015, it instituted a practice on the senior leadership team dubbed “research of the amazing.” At each Friday leadership meeting, one member of the team was charged with researching and sharing a story “from somewhere in the Microsoft ecosystem of employees doing amazing things and embodying the aspired culture.”
The weekly ritual unearthed an array of compelling stories. One involved a Microsoft lab whose researchers, inspired by an encounter with a woman suffering from Parkinson’s, had developed a hand-stabilizing watch for people with the disease. Another highlighted a Microsoft research initiative that had helped teachers function more efficiently in the classroom. Executives used these stories to better understand and articulate the best elements of Microsoft’s culture, then instill those values more broadly throughout the sprawling enterprise.
Crucially, Nadella made clear that he did not want employees to think of these cultural initiatives as “Satya’s thing.” These were stories and values, he emphasized, that belonged to Microsoft as a whole, transcending any one person or moment. “I wanted them to see [the initiative] as their thing.”
The Risk of a Top-Down Culture: Bridgewater Associates
Building a viable culture is a shared enterprise that is best grounded in a larger organizational narrative. When organizations try instead to dictate culture from the top-down or allow their values to become too closely identified with any one leader, they risk undermining the strength and sustainability of that culture.
That may be the lesson from Bridgewater Associates, the mammoth hedge fund known for its culture of “radical transparency.” Conceived by the firm’s founder, Ray Dalio, who outlined the system in an employee handbook titled “Principles” (since published in book form), Bridgewater’s culture encourages employees to confront each other with brutal honesty. Every meeting is recorded for later review and analysis, and employees are urged to judge each other’s performance.
Such an environment, of course, is not for everyone. More than a third of Bridgewater employees leave within two years of joining, a level of turnover the firm accepts as a necessary sacrifice to ensure that those who remain are a good fit. And indeed, many who do stay with the firm say they value the open exchange of ideas and knowing where they stand with their colleagues.
There is no doubt that Dalio powerfully executed his vision for Bridgewater’s culture—and there is no denying the firm’s track record of successful investment returns (at least until 2020). Unfortunately, Bridgewater’s culture became synonymous with Dalio himself and his own edicts, rather than being grounded in a collective story of a firm whose origins, evolution, and purpose everyone understood and embraced.
The result? The Bridgewater culture began to fray after Dalio stepped down from day-to-day management of the firm in 2017. Teams he had designed to help reinforce radical transparency were dismantled, and management itself has been in turmoil since Dalio’s departure.
Perhaps the culture that Dalio built will reassert itself as Bridgewater finds its footing in his absence. Or perhaps that culture has outlived its usefulness now that the founder himself is gone. What’s clear is that if the firm’s culture is to survive in the long term, employees must come to see it as part of their story and not just the founder’s story. A lack of buy-in to management’s vision for culture is a problem anywhere—but all the more so when that culture already promotes high turnover and conflict.
Culture from the Ground Up
Organizations can cultivate strong, distinctive cultures regardless of where their employees physically work, but they must be intentional about it. And one of the most valuable tools at their disposal is the stories drawn from their own organizational experience, which can help forge relationships and bring stakeholders together in the pursuit of a common goal.
Whether disseminated virtually or in person, these stories can break down siloes or gaps in understanding that, today, exist even when employees do work in the office. And, by weaving a collective story out of the organization’s many voices, they articulate and sustain shared values from the ground up.
Arielle Gorin is a Saybrook Senior Consultant, while John Seaman is Saybrook’s founder and CEO. Both are currently engaged on a research study for a global beauty company as well as an impact analysis for the Ford Foundation.