‘Tis the season… a small fraction of NFL coaches and players are still within reach of their goal of wrapping their arms around the Lombardi Trophy. The rest have moved on to off-season activities while their fans anticipate the scouting combine and scour over every mock draft they can get their hands on.
‘Tis (also) the season for the annual coaching carousel and owner/GM-speak about “changing the culture” which is usually directed at the new head coach and is restricted to the confines of the locker room.
But can culture really make that big of a difference in an NFL team?
In an era when every team has the same access to information, the salary cap to level the competitive imbalance within large and small market teams, rosters full of sub-4.5 speedsters at every skill position, and 300-lb linemen with the footwork of Fred Astaire, a case can be made that culture can and does make a difference.
Nearly everything in the NFL is designed to create parity in the league. They understand that competition is good for the league to sustain and grow the game. By and large, teams have the same facilities, trainers, scouts, salary structures, and talent. So what is the differentiator? Could it be culture?
In the NFL, there are the upper-echelon franchises that have built a reputation of culture and winning for sustained periods. The Giants and Steelers share common stability in ownership with the Mara and Rooney families among the most respected in sports. Robert Kraft’s ownership of the Patriots has been marked not only by winning but he’s also established himself as among the most respected (and influential) owners in the league. In Green Bay, the city owns the team. I lived four long winters in the Green Bay area and I promise you, they have more team culture than cheese curds!
By the same token, there are some franchises that can't seem to dig themselves out of the bottom five or ten teams every single year (sorry, Browns fans!). These organizations are characterized by constant turnover and tense relationships among leadership, which quickly trickles down to the locker room and affects the product on the field; and players (employees) who have been in both kinds of organizations can immediately tell the difference.
I’ve often said, if I have to work to convince you culture is important, we probably just need to be done. But for those who believe culture drives performance, it still begs the question, “How do you create great culture?” Here are a few things our experience at Soderquist Leadership has taught us that is equally applicable from the NFL, to corporate America, to a local nonprofit:
- Commit to the things you say are most important. Listen, anyone can sit down and make a list of values or cast inspiring vision. But if your actions don’t back it up, all you did was waste some time and paper. Commitment takes practical forms in how you treat your people, including your external partners, suppliers, and customers. Commitment emerges in the resources you make available in workspace, equipment, and training – even, and especially, when budgets are tight. Commitment includes taking appropriate action when someone violates your values rather than looking past it, making excuses, or downplaying its impact.
- It’s about 3 things: People, People, and People. How and who you hire matters. Do you have selection processes in place that can identify culture fit as well as talent? Are your recruiting efforts targeted so that you attract the candidates you want and dissuade misfits from even applying? Are you intentional about recognition and opportunities for growth that allow people to flourish? And are you looking ahead, anticipating needs for succession such that the organization doesn’t miss a beat when players in key positions move on?
- Find and share stories. It’s true, everyone loves a good story. The power we continue to find in stories is that they give people a word-picture of what it means to be a part of an organization. Stories give our words life – real life, that had a time and a place and a circumstance, where someone demonstrates who we are. They provide examples and role models that teach as well as inspire others to emulate ideal behavior.
- Care enough to tell the truth. One of the great killers of culture is silence. Early in my career, we had a phrase “silence is consent” when it came to someone doing something unsafe on the manufacturing floor. The idea is that if I choose not to speak, I’m saying unsafe behavior is OK. It also says I don’t care enough about the person or the company to speak up. This is one of the hardest things we have to learn but we’ve experienced teams who work hard at developing the skill and culture of candor and accountability. It doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever seen us facilitate. But for teams that can get there, it’s a whole new level of culture and performance that they will protect and nurture with everything they have.
- Look outside and learn from the best. There are plenty of examples of organizations that do this well. Being humble enough to acknowledge you can learn from someone else is a starting point. It’s why we visit and study our friends at Chick-fil-A and benchmark interviews with executives at Under Armour. It’s not about copying culture. Rather, it’s a recognition that culture comes from the same word as “to cultivate” which implies a constant effort, of churning the soil, and focused attention to produce the desired results.
Soon, a new Super Bowl winner will emerge. And then, the winner will go back to work along with the other 31 NFL teams to focus on next year’s Super Bowl. And when you think about it, it’s really the same for you and me. Seasons come and go and we’ll likely experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in our own circles.
That’s not the question. The question is how that will happen and what we actually can control along the way. Make sure your culture is at the top of your list.