Last week, Forbes posted an article titled “How to Establish a Winning Company Culture,” championing the power of employees. As the human capital behind any organization’s products and services, employees—and their actions—can make or break a company. Fostering an environment where employees feel valued and appreciated allows companies to attract and retain quality talent. It can also motivate members of the organization to be productive, because they believe that they have skin in the game.

The cultures at Google and Facebook have become the new model for companies shifting their focus inward. But organizations that are looping everyone into meetings and providing unlimited vacation time should proceed with caution. Just like a poorly designed open-space office can be distracting for employees, an uninformed culture campaign can leave staff members confused. Don’t neglect your strategy when testing what’s trendy. Giving employees privileges without purpose opens the door for staff to misinterpret organizational values and creates unnecessary space between what employees and leadership envision for the organization.

There’s value in empowering employees, but if you want to be effective as an organization, you have to know exactly what you’re asking employees to do. How are you expecting them to contribute to the growth and shared success of the company? Knowing the behaviors you want your staff to embody can be the difference between creating a company culture that resembles a cooperative and one that looks more like a military coup.

Discover Your Corporate DNA

Pictured: a corporate archivist is holding a piece of media from the Black & Decker company archives. It looks like it is an advertisement for Black & Decker's air-powered tools.

Use your organization’s DNA, the traits that have helped define the organization and its successes, to articulate your values in a way that is specific and meaningful. Trying to do this from the inside can be difficult for communicators dealing with internal politics and priorities. Bringing in an outside partner can help communications officers prioritize messages and guard against insular perspectives.

If you’re going to invest in “knowing thyself,” do it right. Be authentic and articulate. Authenticity comes from what’s real. For organizations wondering where to start, building or mining an existing corporate archives are a few great ways to gather evidence of what defines you. Sit down and sift through 10, 20 or 200 years of annual reports, advertisements or employee newsletters, and you’ll see trends begin to emerge. Words, phrases and imagery, despite being created by different people at different points in time, start to align. You’ll also notice when and where things get discarded: the trends that didn’t stick and programs that didn’t pass the test of time.

Like genes that make up who we are as individuals, the traits that amount to your organization’s DNA are the building blocks that can help you talk about who you are as an institution.

Draw on Lessons Learned

You can keep your institutional narrative concise and help employees remember best practices by connecting an organizational value to a moment in your history when that value was tested. Pinpointing the origin of a value also gives it legitimacy. It’s authentic to who you are and how you’ve grown. Values should be like mementos: reminders that employees can point to when they’re at a crossroads. Key moments upon which values are based should elicit the unified response: “You can’t make this stuff up.”=

Your past is a place where what’s proven meets what’s possible.

The ways you can communicate the lessons that shape your company’s culture are infinite. Organizations can translate their cumulative experience into any program or tactic, from engaging exhibits to custom-illustrated publications. How you express your institutional insights is dependent on the specific needs of your organization. Start with your desired outcome, and then back it up with what you know works—what’s real.

The lessons that have shaped your organization are not confined to turbulent times you muscled through 10 or 15 years ago. And you don’t have to wait for a recession or industry blunder to test the strength of your guiding principles.

Your employees accumulate evidence that further solidifies the effectiveness of your organization’s values every day. They’re your field agents, so engage employees to share their personal experiences with one another. The lessons from your past can act as a platform that prompts employees to ask, “When have I experienced a situation like this?” Suddenly, a past experience becomes a shared experience.

Let Icons and Artifacts Do the Talking

Pictured: a section from KPMG's exhibit to highlight it's history. A visitor is looking at a display showing a biography of Sir William Barclay Peat.

Documenting what makes your organization unique is essential. Every institution can benefit from crafting a unified business narrative, but corporate communicators are often culprits of inundating employees with words designed to reinforce company culture. They spell it out, repeat it in meetings, and plaster it on posters. Repetition helps ingrain information, but communicators should avoid assaulting employees with phrases that might become the punch line of an office joke. When internal rallying cries are overworked, words that are catchy run the risk of becoming comical.

Communications professionals can help employees identify with institutional values by using icons and artifacts to illustrate their point. The more people are able to associate an insight with an icon, the more efficiently they can recall the moral of your story.

KPMG, a multinational financial services firm, made its message more immersive when it brought objects and storytelling together in an exhibit showcased at its annual U.S Partner Meeting. History Factory supported KPMG in this endeavor by finding artifacts, including a ship manifest that proved the company’s founders were on a voyage together when they agreed to merge their firms. Employees could connect the manifest to the firm’s history of partnerships. Tethering mergers and acquisitions to a tangible example gave them meaning.

Keep It Real, Keep It Relevant

We can learn from organizations such as Uber, which has suffered as a result of a dysfunctional culture. We want to foster cultures that make companies successful. Every industry faces unique challenges when it comes to creating better cultures for employees and the company as a whole. While a culture of success varies from office to office, there are shared strategies that companies can implement to better define what success looks like for their organization. Discovering your institutional DNA, distilling the lessons you’ve learned, and finding engaging ways to tell your story are great first steps to creating a more compelling company culture.

What’s beneficial to the organization and what’s meaningful to its employees aren’t mutually exclusive. We can help employees identify with corporate values by elevating specific personalities and practices from the past that are both meaningful to the company and relevant to individuals. When we give employees the agency to take history and run with it, we enable them to iterate and interpret a company’s best practices while participating in the creation of a culture that’s informed and intentional.

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