Building culture through storytelling

05.12.16
5 minute read

By Kairi Pauskar - HR Architect, TransferWise.


A question that I answer all the time is:

'What have you done at TransferWise to keep the culture despite hyper growth?'

There are many aspects that matter. A clear mission, strong leadership, role modelling and so on. Each of these topics deserves a dedicated blog post. In this one, I’ll talk about a tool that is deep in our DNA and comes so naturally that most people don’t realise we have it.

That tool is storytelling.

Why is storytelling a powerful tool to build culture?

Because it works.

Stories are one of the most powerful emotional currencies humans have. They connect and inspire us. And it’s not a new concept. It’s the main tool our ancestors used to convey the culture of family, community or country from one generation to another.

“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling."
- Robert McKee

But why it is important that organizations have strong culture?

I like how Brian Chesky from AirBnb defines it:

"The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing.
People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial."

- Brian, AirBnb

A strong culture comes down to trusting people to do the right thing and make smart decisions. Despite this, many organisations opt to build a long rule list and hire people to make sure employees are acting within those rules.

How we use stories to build strong culture at TransferWise

summer days

I’ve been part of the team at TransferWise for more than two and a half years. During that time our organisation has grown to be ten times larger - from sixty Wisers to over six hundred today. From three offices to nine offices - all over the world. We had twelve nationalities on the team when I joined - we now have over fifty.

Last year we had approximately thirty five new Wisers joining our revolution every month. Every new joiner brings new flavors to the kitchen. That makes it hugely important that each of them understands our culture and helps to evolve it.

But how do you explain the culture to new joiners in the same way that made the early organisation special? How do you keep that attitude when the company scales 10, 100, 1000 times?

Here are some examples of how we’ve used storytelling to evolve our culture through hyper growth:

Onboarding

Quite often when people join a new organisation they get given the tools and logins they need - and if they’re lucky someone will give them a good overview of what is expected of them.

At TransferWise our Wisers start with 3-day long onboarding programme in Tallinn, Estonia (our biggest office). The goal of onboarding is to give an overview of our culture and values, our mission, how we work, our teams (and how they help our customers) and the context of why our customers use TransferWise. During that period they’ll meet more than twenty five "old" Wisers across the business to hear their stories about culture, why they are here, what it's like to work here, how they help our customers and so on.

This isn’t just formal meetings. We have lunches and onboarding dinners where new joiners can ask questions in a relaxed atmosphere to build personal relationships, both with their fellow joiners and with the existing team.

When they "graduate" from onboarding and start on their daily roles, they already have a network of people to support them and a first-hand stories about TransferWise culture.

The Wise Way book

wise way book

At the end of each year we put together a book that captures internal and external highlights of the past twelve months.

In "The Wise Way" book we share stories about how we live our values, stories about leadership, personal growth and what makes us special. We also share customer stories, our stunts and celebrate our successes. And it is not written by our HR or PR teams. All Wisers are encouraged to contribute their stories to the book.

Customer stories in bi-weekly team calls

At TransferWise, we have ‘all team calls’ every two weeks. The calls are hosted by a different office each time. We celebrate our victories and learnings (large and small!), we welcome our new joiners, and we share important information with the team. We also share stories about how our product helped customers to build their business or made their life better.

It helps us all to remember why this organization is founded.

Leadership stories

leadership stories

The goal of our team leads at TransferWise is to help each person and their team to succeed. But as all people are different, this isn't trivial task.

Instead of formal training we bring leaders together to share their stories and learnings when it comes to leading people. This creates a space for leads to meet, take time off from everyday work and think about their roles. By sharing those stories we help each other grow. We are building a shared leadership culture - and this mentorship is an essential aspect.

Numbers tell stories

We’re very “data driven” as an organization. That means we use numbers in our storytelling.

Our analysts focus on extracting the stories that help us understand how we are doing in moving towards our vision. These stories help teams to decide where to focus in order to have the biggest impact for our customers. A good example was analysis of our Net Promoter Scores. It showed that it is highly correlated with how many friends users are likely to invite to join TransferWise. Users who gave a high rating (score 9 or 10) were much more likely to invite than neutral users (score 7 or 8). Understanding this meant that our teams could focus on NPS improvements to drive viral growth.

Stories are stronger then rules

These are only some examples. Storytelling is at the heart of how we build a culture that allows people to create a revolution in finance. Instead of rules and telling our employees what to build, we share inspiring stories and trust our people to make smart decisions.

The stories are stronger than rules ever could be. They give meaning and context. They help Wisers to try to live up to the stories they've heard about the TransferWise mission and values. You simply don't need rules if everyone's working towards something bigger and they trust each other. It means we don’t limit creativity or kill innovation.

Instead we enable our team to build things that they didn’t imagine possible.


By Kairi Pauskar, HR Architect.

TransferWise is the smart, new way to send money abroad.

Find out more