CULTURE before strategy – this is the now accepted axiom of successful businesses, and for all intents and purposes, the desired bedrock for every sports team. Get culture, get results – easy. Or is it?
Overnight transformations create scepticism – an ex-partner who comes back to us a week after separation, claiming to have ‘changed’ usually deserves a wide berth, or at least an observation period. The reality is, change takes time – it’s a process. You have to consciously do the thing long enough before it eventually, subconsciously becomes who you are.
Creating a successful culture is no different. If you are a club, riddled with a toxic environment, wanting to emulate the success of the Dubs, you are not going to do it tomorrow. In most cases, those who implement the first positive steps of change are highly unlikely to receive its long-term benefits. This in itself is a core principle of those successful cultures – leaving the position/jersey in a better place than you found it.
Creating a successful culture requires selfless acts, and for some this can be too much of a demand. Short-term individual achievement or recognition can supersede the backbone definition of team. How would you react if your manager – trialing a new intensive fitness regime – said to you: “the runs that you put in this winter are going to help the team win a championship after you’ve retired”? There would surely be an increase in truancy. Yet this is the reality of the successful culture model. It is likely to take time before it bares its fruit.
So, let’s ask the most important question here – is it worth managers’ and players’ time to focus on creating culture?
The only answer can be yes. Why? Because all the strategy and all the tactics and all the preparation and all the financial and temporal investment count for nothing if you haven’t the right people doing the right things with it. If you have a few bad apples within your system then no amount of everything will achieve anything.
A successful culture is a hive, where every individual bee works with the bee beside it for the health of the beehive. And the success of that hive relies on every bee playing its part. As soon as one or two bees pull in the other direction, lose focus on the overall objective, become individually driven, annoy or irritate the other bees around, the line collapses, the hive breaks down and all the bees die.
So if cultures are imperative for success, how do you start one?
As I said in my previous article, belonging is key. Every member of the team needs to feel like they add value – that they have an influence (or at least a chance to voice their views) on the direction of the team. Very seldom is a ‘rookie’ senior player consulted in the same way as a player who has six or seven seasons under their belt, and yet they put in the same amount of time and energy.
We only have to look at the example of the Brexit vote to understand the disharmony that brings. We know that the majority who voted to leave Europe are considered the older generation, which caused uproar from the younger generation who believed the decisions were going to have a greater impact on their lives. The exact same thing takes place in changing rooms up and down the country; older statesmen/women have greater influence in decisions that will impact the younger team members more. This is quite a common cause of an ‘us vs them’ atmosphere.
Every player should be asked for their opinions – but even before that, the changing room needs to feel like a safe space for everyone to speak. Players need to know that they are not going to be mocked or ridiculed for how they feel. In the world of business this is called Psychological Safety – a shared belief that the environment you work/play in is conducive to interpersonal risk taking, both physically and emotionally – and it is at the heart of all things successful.
The more team members feel safe speaking in front of each other the more they will say, and once someone begins to give their opinion the more they feel implicated in the process. ‘If my opinion is heard, and I feel valued, then I’m going to give more to the cause.’ And with more opinions heard, the more possibility there is of creating a great, game changing idea, or nipping something negative in the bud.
So where do we start?
The manager must make the first move. They must start by being utterly clear and transparent about where they want the team to go, but also what the team is up against. They must be honest in what they are capable of doing, and where they will need help. A manager openly and honestly asking for help is a manager creating trust.
And finally, they must invite voices, they must be proactive in their search for input and opinions. Ask players what is on their minds, ask what they are seeing/feeling and what concerns they might have – both for themselves and for the team?
It is a manager’s job to be the catalyst in creating a successful culture, where it is more difficult for the members of a team to remain silent than for them to speak. And when players do eventually speak and open up, especially to voice negative experiences, never shoot the messenger. There is no place for egos in a successful culture.