Building Corporate Culture – One Step at a Time

This week my family and I are on vacation. We returned again to the place where I spent summer vacations as a child, my (now deceased) grandparents’ lake cottage. We drove 3 days to get here across the sweltering Midwest, in a car loaded with impatient children, just like my grandmother used to do over 60 years ago. What can I say… genetic impulses run strong in my family!

The things that make this vacation place special, and why we are willing to drive 3 days to get here, are much like the components that make a company a ‘great place to work.’ Four generations have invested in building a culture here by investing our joys, heartaches, storytelling and sweat equity. Below are a few elements that have helped us get it right.

  • Traditions that run deep, but also withstand some change. We have many traditions here. Some are corny and fun, like going to say ‘Hi’ to the lake when you arrive, while others are more serious and carry a lot of weight (rules about laundering towels come to mind here). Everyone who has spent time in the cottage has experienced the traditions firsthand. I was surprised this summer to see one long-standing tradition tossed out by my mother and her generation. Our cottage has always been a sailing place – my grandfather was not fond of motor boats of any kind – yet we showed up this year to find a pontoon boat at the end of the dock! With a motor and everything! While tradition has played an important part in cottage life over 4 generations, my mother and uncles recently challenged and changed tradition – yippee! Companies must tread just as carefully with tradition. Traditions that get bogged down in ancient corporate history are meaningless to new employees, while traditions that are expensive to maintain risk elimination in lean years. What company traditions are you investing in, and when was the last time you had the guts to change them for the next generation?
  • A story that everyone knows and shares. Allegory and legend play strong roles in defining world cultures, and at the family cottage it is no different. My children never spent time with my grandparents here, but they know – through years of stories shared around a beach fire – the connection my grandparents had with this place. Ask my 10-year-old about the cement ‘terrazzo’ floors and he’ll explain they catch the sand off his feet. My 13-year-old can retell the story about the time my mother painted her sailboat in polka dots so it stood out better against the boys’ boats. These stories provide common history across cousins, aunts, uncles and friends who see each other infrequently, and will become the basis for connections across future generations as well. Apple knows the benefits of corporate storytelling well; the story of Steve Jobs and the company’s history has been told so often in business journals and books that people whose only connection to the company is a playlist know the quirks and tales of Jobs and his generations of teams.
  • Shared pain and glory. We are vacationing on a lake in the woods, which means there are plenty of bugs, poison plants and sand granules – in other words, there is no shortage of things to make someone uncomfortable. We tolerate these inconveniences because the benefits of a vacation ‘Up North’ are awesome – cool temperatures, beautiful lake views, fires on the beach and cool, clear water. We are willing to put up with more inconveniences, too. For example, to get to the beautiful blue lake, we climb down 54 stairs. At the end of a long day of swimming and boating, we climb back up 54 stairs. Everybody complains about how exhausting the stairs are… that is, until the neighbors installed an elevator a few years back. Now climbing 54 stairs is a badge of honor, a daily tribute to the mother/grandmother/great-grandmother who climbed them twice a day well into her 80’s. Even the elevatored neighbors speak of the steps and her fortitude in revered tones – often as they push the ‘up’ button on their elevator control panel! Somehow I don’t think they share elevator-riding memories as much as my family and I share strenuous stair-climbing memories. I am reminded of ‘death march’ projects I have worked on in the past, where long days of hard work seemed never-ending, yet once the project ended I immediately missed the friendships and camaraderie that had developed with colleagues as we slogged up our 54-step-project. (Note: even as I write this, my kids are arguing that there are 72 steps, and one just ran down to count them!)

Most people don’t understand why I come so far for a vacation when I could have a similar experience closer to home. The culture and history of our cottage pulls me back each year. Companies that invest in building a strong corporate culture have the same draw on employees and customers.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter at @HeatherGNelson1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.