Culture of Storytelling Drives Engagement

Culture + storytelling used by great leaders

Every culture has its stories. Storytelling is basic to humanity. We, humans, are tribal. Since the dawn of time stories have been used to inspire. Stories are the currency of the community. We need stories to help us pass on wisdom and feel connected. To share our dreams and celebrate them. Stories are beloved by children, but they are not just for them. They are for us all. Great leaders have known this across history. Martin Luther King was a great user of stories to catalyze and change.

I was reminded this morning of the importance of storytelling and culture, when a colleague shared an article on the power of storytelling and how it helps to drive an engaged and empowered culture.

Leaders who think that “telling stories” in business is a fluffy non-value-add activity that has no relationship to performance or financial results are dead wrong – or very out of touch with what people are saying about your company.

Stories motivate change

Stories shape our experience. They drive us to action. They motivate people to change (sometimes by taking our creativity and skills to a competitor.) They hold a culture in place or allow it to change. They always, always engage and inspire people more than a boring Powerpoint slideshow! This is in part, why the show “Undercover Boss” was so popular for awhile – it gave the CEO a chance to hear the stories being told around his company.

Far too often, our “corporate culture stories” are less about heroes and good deeds and great business performance … when a company is “down” or over-burdened by bureaucracy and hierarchy, you see more stories about blame and “ain’t it awful” and “why we can’t change.”

That’s when it’s most important to decide what stories you really want to tell. One of my favorite was an old relic from the days when Amtrak was on the brink of extinction:

Story used to drive corporate culture change

Leaders such as Tom Downs chairman and CEO of Amtrak was a leader who employed the power of storytelling to create a culture change. Not long after taking over at Amtrak, he said,

“Our people want to know the story. They want to know what’s going on.  They don’t want anything mysterious – just the straight stuff, the truth.

“So we need to be able to tell our story, an honest, credible story that our management team can communicate throughout the corporation.  It’s something we’ve got to talk and walk,” Downs said. During the next few weeks, Downs created what he referred to as “The Amtrak Story,” literally a story about Amtrak’s past, present, and future.

The story is lengthy, but it builds to a crescendo as Downs carefully enumerated the lack of funds, lack of customer-centric focus, lack of riders. He assembled 115 managers and shared his vision by telling a story.

If you go away remembering absolutely nothing else about this meeting, I want you to remember one thing: always tell the truth. Tell the truth to each other, to our employees, to our customers, to our communities, and to the political and regulatory bodies that we associate with. Always tell the truth. This is the story of a railroad that must become obsessed with serving its customers or it will go the way of drive-in theaters, full-service gas stations, and downtown shopping. Amtrak was born old. It opened for business in 1971 with 450 worn-out locomotives, 40-year-old steam-heated passenger cars, an antiquated reservation system, and several inefficient maintenance facilities owned by other railroads. There have been many improvements over the years. But the railroad never caught up. Since its birth, Amtrak’s nearly 25,000 hardworking, railroad-loving employees fought and cursed old systems, processes, and equipment in order to do their jobs.  It’s a wonder they did as well as they did. But that was then.  This is now. Today the railroad is in trouble ― big, deep trouble…. Customers feel it. Already this year we are $109 million behind our original forecast. For Amtrak to survive, we must fundamentally change the organization. Fundamental does not mean tweak here, fine-tune there. It does not mean do what we’ve always done, but better. Amtrak must be reinvented. It must be reinvented in the form of a modern, customer-obsessed, high-performing organization. It must begin with an intense and simultaneous focus on the two most important groups of people in Amtrak’s world – our customers and our employees. We must create a partnership between our customers …our employees, who get up every day wanting to do what’s right by the customer. This kind of partnership will create a financially strong business. A financially strong business will be very attractive to our other business partners at the federal, state and local levels. We have already begun to reinvent Amtrak. Here’s what we’re doing…

Downs then enumerated what change would mean:

For leaders throughout Amtrak it means communicating with everything they say and do that we have no choice but to create a fundamentally different railroad – a railroad that is dramatically tilted toward the customer.

For all our employees, it means viewing the customer as your only boss.

Reinventing Amtrak will mean assuming different roles and responsibilities. It will mean trying new things on behalf of the customer.

Reinventing Amtrak also means a new relationship between the organization and our employees.

Many people will find the process of reinventing Amtrak to be an exciting and rewarding one. Some will be uncomfortable in the new environment. They may find comfort going elsewhere. We thank them for their contributions and recognize them as important Amtrak alumni.

We are America’s railroad. We cannot continue to survive if we don’t reinvent Amtrak. We can become the world’s best passenger railroad.

It will take time, down-in-the-trenches hard work, and an unwavering focus on our customers and our employees.  Getting there will be at once exciting and painful, exhilarating and frustrating. But when we get there, it will have been worth the ride.

When he finished, Amtrak’s managers gave him a standing ovation. He’d said things they all knew and felt, but that nobody had said until Downs said them.

“Tell the story again and again,” Downs urged his managers. “And just when you think you’ve told it enough times, tell it one more time.”

Throughout the Tom Downs years at Amtrak, there were two communication principles at work:

  1. Always tell the story
  2. Always tell the truth.

By the time he left in 1997, the Board of directors commended Downs for “helping Amtrak become more business and customer oriented; obtaining outstanding gains in revenues and ridership during his tenure; and for leading the recent fight for a S2.3 billion dedicated capital improvements fund for Amtrak.”

–Excerpted from The Leadership Solution, Jim Shaffer,  [McGraw-Hill, April 20, 2000] 

For a free tool on tips for organizational storytelling, write a personal request to

Lisa Jackson is a corporate culture expert and co-author of 2 books including the brand new “Culture Builder Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide for Assessing and Changing Corporate Culture.” She specializes in teaching companies and leaders how to align and transform their corporate culture to maximize profitable growth, productivity, and innovation.

For free tools and resources on culture change, visit or follow her on Twitter at

*Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons User Mike Licht, via the Library of Congress

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