Using narrative and place to nurture small business culture

Every leader aspires to create a great organizational culture but few succeed. The truth is it’s hard to create and even harder to nurture.

In a post earlier this month, Jeanne Yocum summarized a survey that offered some good characterizations of particular company cultures as well as important crosscutting elements. In my opinion, a particular strength of the survey is the concrete way it describes culture, which is all too often described in fuzzy terms.

The HBR Blog Network post from John Coleman on “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture” offers an accessible approach to defining an organization’s culture by breaking it down into more tangible elements: vision, values, practices, people, narrative, and place. While the author discusses how each contributes to a great culture, these elements are actually components of any organization’s culture — good, bad or indifferent. As the author indicates, isolating these elements is only a first step. In my experience, great culture is only possible when all the individual pieces fit together well and each reinforces the others.

Most leaders are aware of the importance of Coleman’s first four components — vision, values, practices, and people — in creating and maintaining culture. Unfortunately, the last two — narrative and place — are often overlooked. For those who have a solid foundation, both are well worth considering as vehicles for strengthening the culture and making it more transmittable to newcomers. Here are some suggestions tailored for small for-profit and nonprofit businesses.

Use “narrative” to highlight moments when the organization overcame adversity and/or exhibited the strength of its culture. Narratives can take a wide variety of forms including histories, photos, blogs, webpages, events, physical bulletin boards, and news items.

  • Histories are a particularly good way of putting past crises to work. Was there a time when everyone sacrificed to save jobs or keep the company running? Honoring those contributions as a key part of the group’s history sends a powerful message.
  • A business that prides itself on giving back to the community could celebrate the volunteer hours contributed by company employees.
  • Anniversaries are great opportunities to bring everyone — founders, owners, employees, and customers — into a narrative that reflects the organization’s history and expresses its current culture.

Using “place” as a vehicle to create or reinforce culture is much more challenging for a small business than for a large one. If you have the opportunity and resources to build or design your space, floor plans, furniture, and group areas may be flexible but often options are limited. Even with a great new physical space, low cost/no cost, smaller ideas complete the concept you are trying to achieve.

  • Set aside an area to display products or testimonials from happy customers.
  • One organization I know of spruced up outside areas with small container gardens that employees cared for and the business purchased. Office workers enjoyed the outdoors for a few minutes each day, the place looked great, and it underscored the organization’s commitments to its community and environment.
  • Parking rules are a low cost/no cost way to reinforce values. Some businesses assign the best space to the “employee of the month.” Others have no assignments so that the early bird gets the best spot; or allocate the best spaces to top management. Each of these approaches sends a different message and reinforces a different value.
  • “Place” can be about more than your physical location. Are there employees who work remotely much or all of the time? These employees are often hard to engage in your culture. Can you create a sense of place on your intranet, via a private blog or other technology-based vehicle?

A great company culture can be a source of strength and resilience in difficult times while a dysfunctional one will surely interfere with solving even the simplest problems. How does your organization create a narrative to nurture and transmit its culture? What creative, low-cost ways have you found to make the best of your space? Please share your ideas and best practices.


Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2013. All rights reserved.

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