Narrative connections

A Winning Culture

A Winning Culture

I had the great pleasure of watching my daughter’s hockey team win the national championship earlier this month. After an amazing year that saw the team win five tournaments, they capped it all off by coming back from a two goal deficit in the the third period to win in overtime. As you can imagine, I am one proud father.

I have watched the replay an unhealthy number of times and get a bit teary-eyed with each viewing. To see the joy on their faces and the passion in their hearts is something I wish I could bottle and sell. They never wavered nor worried. They seemed remarkably calm and focused on winning, but their attitude was what resonated with me the most.

When they found themselves down late in the game, you could hear them laughing and cheering one another on. And while they are certainly a talented team, they don’t practice together; they don’t do any film study, and there is very little structure. The officials drop the puck and off they go.

I recall many of the parents—I was one of them—murmuring about more coaching and instruction during the year, but the team just kept winning. And in the finals, it finally dawned on me that the team’s culture was better than anyone else’s in the country. I just wondered where that culture came from. Certainly the coaching staff helped facilitate it, but it emanated from someplace else.

It may have started in a parking lot. You see, several of the fathers became really close during the year. We made it our mission to tailgate before every game and share some serious belly laughs together. We truly believe that the kinship we built had a profound impact on our daughters and the team overall. When they saw us having fun (we even had T-shirts made) and enjoying each other’s company, they mimicked the behavior.

Now let’s get some perspective here. Youth sports can be a petri dish of toxicity. Parents have been known to be unabashedly parochial for their kids and, in many cases, make things like playing time their daily focus. There is jealousy, efforts to influence playing time and even some gossip. In some instances, you would swear the parents were doing the actual playing.

Rather than make this a bitch session about what is wrong with youth sports, I want to point out how impactful culture is to any endeavor. And while you may think I am nuts for using a bunch of old guys drinking beer in the parking lot as an analogy, it is clear to me that good culture is created and crafted intentionally. If we leave it to chance, a culture will form, but it may not be the culture we want.

I would love to give us crazy hockey dads all the credit, but the real credit goes to a few of our most skilled players. Our best athletes were very focused on the team rather than themselves. Some opine that youth sports is really individual endeavors masquerading as a team because it seems rare that kids genuinely play for one another or have the team’s best interest at heart.

With this specific group of young ladies, our best players were serious. They wanted to win and they wanted to do it with each other. When they were down going into the third period, a couple of the veteran players reminded everyone that “We are here to win” and to “Go for it.” In turn, that culture permeated the rest of the team. There were no individuals more relevant than the sum of the whole.

We had one player who missed some opportunities to pass the puck earlier in the week. You could hear a few grumblings about selfish play, but they were quickly put to rest by one of the older girls who chastised her about not passing the puck. She said it sternly, yet honestly, and the player nodded and played beautifully from that point on.

Another player didn’t get much playing time as the games grew in importance. While she could have brooded and complained, she may have been the biggest cheerleader on the bench. Ironically, she made one of the key plays of the week and her attitude made her as valuable as our leading scorer.

The fact that these young women could bond together for a common purpose, police one another when someone stepped outside the culture, embrace roles and encourage one another is why they won. That and some silly fathers in the parking lot.

We have heard that culture eats strategy for breakfast. We have written countless articles on what must be done to facilitate culture within the walls of a company. But good culture is hard to define. You cannot articulate it, but you know it when you see it.

So, if I were to pull a few nuggets from this band of 14 year old women, they would be as follows:

  • Quiet leadership — If you see your best employees having fun and being joyful, yet working passionately to get stuff done, then others have no excuse but to follow. And if they don’t, they will leave.
  • Honesty and humility matter — Being honest with yourself about your role on a team is critical. There may come another time for you to be the star, but if you are not in the moment, you cannot lament it. Superstars typically know what it is like to sit on the bench. Ask Michael Jordan. But lamenting your lack of time in the sun and being a drag will not only hurt the team, it will hurt you individually over time.
  • Luck — Leaders have a personality rooted in self confidence and humility. They are not worried about their status or the perks. They are able to let go and be themselves, and working hard and being kind and team-oriented is at the core of their being. You should consider your company lucky to find them.

While we live in a “selfie” world, what touches our heart is when someone selflessly gives to others. Great teams have players who are able to let go of their selfish needs and serve others. They have this feeling they are going to be just fine and that the team’s success will be more enriching than anything else.

After my daughter’s team won, someone said to me, “They will have this memory for the rest of their lives. When their kids ask them what they ever did, they will be able to say they won a national championship. And nobody will care who scored goals or who had more ice time. They will simply remember the hugs and tears of joy.”

When your company decisions match your core values and purpose, your culture should come naturally. But it takes leaders who “walk the walk” to create a stimulating work atmosphere that keeps employees inspired.

Don’t get me wrong, not every culture has to be loving and chummy. Culture is about fit. Some teams win with a very regimented routine and a great deal of discipline. Understanding your purpose and the people involved is the first step in establishing that culture. Some cultures can be harsh, others can be friendly, but neither are wrong if they are a fit for purpose. The key is putting the right people in place and using the right systems to make them work.

The building blocks for these young women and their nut-job fathers were humility, warmth and accountability. These were the shared values that served the best interest of the team, as opposed to self-interests. And now they will be champions together forever.

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Mark Potter

Founder / Consultant

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