Culture… what you do, not what you say

Dr. Ralph Pim, 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 making it a culture of significance”.

Let me set a scene for you that I’m pretty confident you will be familiar with, that illustrates just how quickly a team’s culture starts to form.

You are taking the first training session of your season with your team. You have the players warmed up, and they are engaged in the first activity of the session. One of the players attempts an audacious pass that doesn’t come off and play breaks down. Do you:
a) Stop play to highlight the mistake and explain why that can’t happen
b) Commend the player for the attempt and courage to try something different

What option you choose is critical in forming the ‘culture’ of how your group will operate for the rest of the season. The unconscious message from option A is:

“Don’t make mistakes or try things in this team!”

The message from option B is:

“We are free to express ourselves and try things here”

Now I am aware there are countless other ways to act in that situation. I have deliberately chosen two ends of a continuum to keep it simple. But what I hope this illustrates is how quickly a culture begins to form, and if you aren’t aware and conscious of the messages you and your environment are sending, then you are falling in to the trap of letting your culture develop be chance. As soon as you meet at the beginning of your season, team members are taking cues from each other, from you and from the environment on how to act. So the question is, ‘how do you want them to act?’ What are the conditions (behaviours) for inclusion in to this team? Purposely spending time developing a team culture should be the first thing you do with your team, and I think this process makes the biggest impact on whether your season is successful or not.

I learnt this lesson a few years ago with a Rugby team I coached. The team was a provincial representative team, so a lot of the players had played against each other, but never with each other. I thought I had planned a great first training session, which was based on ‘on-field’ skills and tactics. My thinking was ‘we have a very short window before competition starts, we need to get straight into how we are going to play’. Before the players had a chance to connect with each other and start to build relationships they were running around tackling each other. Consequently, performance was pretty poor with a lack of direction and intensity. However, about a week into our season we held a team culture session where we discussed and agreed our team values and behaviours, goals for the season, expectations of the players and their expectations of us as coaches. The intensity and focus in the training after that session lifted significantly, and from that point on it felt like we were coaching a team, rather than a group of individuals. We were all able to align to an overarching idea and goal, and align behaviour to achieve that goal. It provided everyone with clarity on how to behave. We had started the process of building a culture that everyone would be proud of.

There are a number of ways you can lead your team through the creation of a vision, values and goals for the season. This needs to be your first step in creating your teams culture. I have included a few links at the end of this blog that you can follow which outline some ways you can facilitate this process, as I would like this blog to focus on what happens post this discussion and give you some ideas for how to bring your culture to life, as this is the most important part in the consolidating of your culture and is often the most overlooked.

So, lets fast forward and presume you have had a great session with your team brainstorming and landing on your teams vision, values, standards and goals. Now this is where the rubber meets the road. It’s easy to walk out of that session with everyone smiling and feeling connected. What is less easy is living those values and standards day in, day out. Or in other words, behaving in alignment to those values at every opportunity. Below are three concepts that I believe are critical in helping you and your team be consistent.

Make your values behaviour based

Simon Sinek, in his great book “Start with why” states,

“For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs. It’s not ‘integrity,’ it’s ‘always do the right thing’. It’s not ‘innovation,’ it’s ‘look at the problem from a different angle.’ Articulating our values as verbs gives us a clear idea on how to act in any situation.”

The purpose of creating a set of team values is to give people clarity on the conditions of inclusion to the team. Telling people “we are professional” doesn’t guarantee that your team will be professional AND there is a vagueness to it. However, “getting the job done to our highest standard” is actionable AND it gives everyone clarity on how to behave. If you can turn your values in to behaviours using language specific to your sport or team, even better. As an example, in the last Rugby team I coached, one of our values was:

The two statements I want to draw your attention to are highlighted in red. These two statements gave specific clarity to our players. Firstly, the reason we had 3–4 minutes is because in the game of Rugby, there will very rarely be a passage of play that lasts for longer than 3 minutes before a break from a mistake, a penalty etc. So we asked our players to go as hard as they can for that period of time, and then they can expect a break. Secondly, in Rugby, players are on the ground a lot, either from making a tackle or from being tackled. When they are on the ground they are out of play, they can’t impact on the game. We need them to get on their feet as quickly as possible so they are back in the game. These standards, written as they are, left very little room for confusion in the players and consequently became easy for them to remember and demonstrate.

Signpost and benchmark

Your values should weave through everything you do. As you can see from the example above, it becomes easier to reference your teams values when they are described as behaviours, and when they are in the context of your sport. This is one way of creating awareness of your teams values. Another way is to regularly benchmark your values. Craig Lewis, in his book “Lead to succeed”, shares a story of when he was working with the New Zealand Rugby League team. Every month, at the end of a team meeting, everyone would write down a name from a person in the team who had best demonstrated the teams values in that month. They would then go around the group, and explain why they had chosen that person. This process had two benefits;

  1. It meant that the team values were regularly being discussed and debated
  2. The stories became the benchmark for what great looked like when it came to living the teams values

A Provincial Hockey representative team I worked with came up with another idea to benchmark their values. They created a trophy for each of their values, and at the end of each week, the trophy was presented to the player who best demonstrated that value. They held that trophy for the week and then presented it to the next person who they deemed had best lived the team values, by telling the story of what that person had done. The cycle repeated for the length of their season. Again, this process had two benefits;

  1. It meant that the team values were regularly being discussed and debated
  2. The stories became the benchmark for what great looked like when it came to living the teams values

These are just two examples and even if you don’t think they would work for your context, the concept behind them is critical. By highlighting benchmark behaviours, you are creating norms of behaviour, you are motivating people to achieve those benchmarks and you are setting the expectations for all. All this means there will be clarity on the conditions of inclusion to your culture.

Constantly reinforce

DanielCoyle, in his book “The Culture Code” shares a study that Inc. magazine conducted. They asked 600 companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name their top three priorities. The executives estimated that 64% would be able to name them. When employees were asked to name the priorities, only 2% could do so! This highlights why it is so important to constantly reinforce your behaviours and standards for your culture. However, equally importantly, you need to ensure you are looking for these behaviours. Don’t let the behaviours become words, they need to stay alive. Ensure you are searching for your team demonstrating behaviours, and, if you see someone behaving in alignment to one of your values, recognise it. Make sure they understand why you are giving them the feedback. Recognise it in front of the whole team if you need to.

As mentioned above, the following four links all provide examples or give guidance for coaches on how to lead a session with your team to create and agree a team vision, goals and values. If you want any further ideas please get in touch with me, as I have a few examples of ways I have led this process with teams I have coached too. Don’t forget, once you have gone through this process, the challenge becomes living those values consistently. That is the essence of culture. It isn’t what you say, it’s what you do.

Other references and influences on this post:

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

Start with Why by Simon Sinek

Lead to Succeed by Craig Lewis