Painful Events, Stories, And Company Culture

Stories can be powerful tools to shape behavior and dramatically communicate expectations. Wise executives continually seek for opportunities to capture and then relate a story that supports and illustrates the organization’s culture. If the story can be tied to a piece of physical support, then it’s even better. Here’s an example.

In the days before E-mail, we had a marketing program that consisted of developing an individualized prescription for a series of marketing letters for each prospect we encountered. We would customize and send these monthly. Thus, one prospect would get a series of letters based on the size and type of his business, and another prospect would get a different series. This was the backbone of our marketing effort, and we produced hundreds of customized, first-class letters each week.

For reasons that I can’t remember, I reached into the wastebasket and retrieved a crumpled up letter. It was one of our prescription letters that had been sent back to us. There were typos and obvious errors in the first paragraph, including the incorrect spelling of the prospect’s name. The recipient had circled the errors and hand-written this message across the top: “Dave, if you can’t produce a letter without errors, how can you possibly help me?” He had mailed the letter, with his notes, back to us.

The marketing intern who was responsible for managing the program had received the letter, and, in an attempt to keep it from me, had crumpled it up and thrown it away. It was only by chance that I had seen it.

This event stimulated a series of consequences. First, the intern was relieved of her position. Hopefully, it was a powerful learning experience for her to take to her future employers. She had violated two of our core values which we had written and posted in prominent places around the office. Every new employee received a copy of our vision, mission and values statements. They included these two commitments:

Quality: In everything we do, we will strive to do it as well as, or better than, the very best companies in the world like ours do it.

Integrity: We will be honest in everything we do, never over promise, and zealously work to fulfill our commitments.

The letter itself, with its obvious errors, was clearly a violation of our quality commitment, and the act of hiding the returned letter so that I would not see it was an obvious act of deceit and dishonesty.

That could have been the end of this event. But I recognized this story as having the potential to enhance the organization’s culture and influence everyone’s behavior.

So, we first adopted a new policy: Every mass-produced letter (as opposed to a personal, one-off communication) had to be reviewed by one other person before it could be sent. This policy then stimulated some procedures to support and enable it.

More importantly, I kept the crumpled-up letter – slid it into a plastic sleeve to preserve it — and showed it to every new employee for the next 15 years. It had become part of the company’s lore. The incidents of obvious errors in our written communications fell to practically zero.

What had begun as an unfortunate, painful event, morphed into a policy and a show-and-tell story that impacted the company’s culture, became part of its lore, and influenced behavior inside the organization for decades. Just as it should be.


Dave Kahle
Dave Kahle
YOUR business can be much more than just a money-making enterprise. Helping you achieve that potential is Dave Kahle’s passion. He has been helping business grow for 30 years. The author of The Good Book on Business, he’s written 12 other books, which have been published in eight languages and distributed around the world, and has presented in 47 states and 11 countries. He has personally and contractually worked with over 459 companies, and touched thousands of others through his seminars, speaking engagements, and webinars. You’ll find him challenging your paradigms and prompting you to think more deeply.

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  1. Great story Dave. I think we all need to hear something like your story. Storytelling is a powerful tool. Why? Because we all have a story that can touch something inside the listener and sometimes it is just what they need to hear. Thank you dave

  2. That’s a good story. I have one too about an employee that slept her way up to a top position. Even though she’s now a stellar executive, here credentials are still being questioned because of that unsavory thing she did two decades ago; and the rumors that it led to. We cannot associate a high enough price for our reputation.

  3. Nice upside resulting from a “disposed” letter. Never underestimate the value of retelling such a story. Our lessons learned often result from of a failure, a mistake or a real life episode with unintended consequences. A coach, a teacher, a mentor and a parent is capable of changing the behavior of others when they repeat stories that impacted them throughout their lives.

  4. Strength in an organization comes from recognizing opportunity for improvement and leadership guides by helping others and the whole company to excel. Excellent motivator for all involved and I agree with Jane, integrity is key. A powerful book, Energy Leadership, talks about the different levels of leadership based on thoughts and response to situations. It is nice to see a story, such as yours, where a situation turned into a long term success. You have had a positive impact on many lives, what a blessing for those you have been able to influence.

  5. I love this. Quality and integrity are the lifeblood of an organization. I think they are so bonded, one feeds the other. As a technology writer, my first thought was, where was the desk check that would have caught the errors? I’m glad to see you implemented some processes to boost quality and enhance team building. Integrity level changes everything.

    • Hi Dave, you were careful to bring that out in your article. That you learned from and made corrections. You know there are a lot of organizations that never figure that last part out. 😉