Culture… A family thing??

I recently came across a podcast series called ‘Finding Mastery’. I recommend listening to it if you are a podcast fan. It is a series of interviews conducted by Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist who works with the Seattle Seahawks, among other clients. The particular interview that caught my attention was with Jack Clark. Jack is the head coach of the University of California Berkeley Rugby team. He has been in that role for 30 years and in that time his team has won 27 national championships. Regardless of what you could say about the standard of US College Rugby, that is an impressive record!!

Michael was asking Jack about the team culture he creates with his Rugby team. In particular he asked about the deliberate way he avoids comparing his teams to a family. Now, I am a bit of a culture nerd. Deliberately creating a strong, positive culture is the aspect of coaching I enjoy the most. So naturally I have read and listened to my fair share of ‘experts’ talking about culture. This interview was the first time I had heard about anyone deliberately avoiding a comparison to family. A lot of teams I have worked with take pride in describing themselves as a family. Needless to say, he had my interest piqued. Jack’s reason for distancing his team from being a family is the main topic for this blog, as the more I thought about his reasoning, the more I realised it did actually align to my beliefs on culture.

For most people when they think of the word family, it brings warm, happy thoughts and feelings. You may be very different from your father/brother/daughter. At times they may drive you crazy. Nonetheless, there is a feeling of love and acceptance. You love them unconditionally, in spite of your differences. My brother drives me crazy sometimes with how often he forgets about meeting for a coffee or a beer, or a phone call we had scheduled. Whenever I try to have a conversation with him about this, he is so stubborn we get nowhere! But regardless, I love him unconditionally because he is my brother. And that word unconditionally is central to this conversation.

Edgar Schein, arguably the father of organisational culture, has found that culture exists for two reasons:

1. To help a team achieve its goals and/or survive against external competition
2. To help people integrate internally to work as efficiently as possible

If that is the purpose for why culture exists, we need a definition. So, culture for me, is:

‘the way we always do things around here’.

Please note I didn’t come up with that myself, and I know it’s not a dictionary definition. However it captures everything that’s important to understand around culture. It highlights:

· it’s a collective (we),

· that it needs to be consistent (always),

· that culture is action-oriented (do)

· its context specific (here).

Let’s put my definition of culture, and Schein’s purpose for culture together in the context of sport. Sport is inherently competitive, and the higher you go, the more this competition is prevalent. Within Schein’s purpose of culture, the goal of a sports team in competition is to do their best to win their match/league/cup etc. To do this, teammates and coaches need to integrate cohesively. A cohesive team, collectively aligned to their goals is more likely to win their match (achieve their goal). This means, there are certain behaviours that are going to be more conducive to achieving that goal than others. Let me change the language slightly to get back to my point around family…. There are certain conditions that are going to be more conducive to achieving that goal than others.

So team culture needs to be conditional rather than unconditional.

People in a team need to consistently demonstrate behaviours (the conditions) that will help the team achieve its goal. These are the conditions of inclusion in to that culture. However, there are generally no conditions for inclusion into a family. As the saying goes, you only get one family and you’re stuck with them family for life. In sport, team members can’t do whatever they feel like and expect that to be ok. If my brother was on my team, and he was forgetting team meetings or turning up late, and as a team, we agreed one of our conditions was ‘5 minutes early is on time’ then I can’t accept that. I need to have a conversation with him and help him see how he can align his behaviour to help the team achieve its goal.

This is where my thinking, and Jack Clark’s thinking on team culture align. I have always felt that culture can be a competitive advantage for teams if it is deliberately designed and consistently referenced, highlighted and reinforced. Too often, culture isn’t even something that is referenced or discussed. In that situation, coaches are letting a culture develop by chance, and it can go a number of ways. In fact, one of my favourite quotes from Dr. Ralph Pim (@KeepDrivinOn), former Director of Competitive Sports at Westpoint Military Academy, says

“Every team has a culture, so as a coach you can let this culture develop by chance, or purposely spend time on building it into a culture of significance.”

If coaches do talk about culture with their team, too often they don’t make a link to it helping to achieve their goals (e.g. to win their matches). Or they talk about it at the start of their season, and then it isn’t referenced again. If you take away one thing from this blog, let it be this. Culture can be a competitive advantage for your team. But, it will only be a competitive advantage if it is consistent and conditional, and those conditions (behaviours) become ‘what we always do around here’.

For more reading on team culture, check out the titles below. They have all helped shape my thinking:

Organisational Culture and Leadership by Edgar H Schein

The Culture Code by DanielCoyle

Legacy by James Kerr

Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal

And of course, the podcast I referenced is Finding Mastery by Michael Gervais

Start With Why by Simon Sinek