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3 Tips from the Sports World for Creating a Winning Culture

By: Matt Hibbard


Tips from the Sports World for Creating a Winning Culture

You can learn a lot from failure. A few years ago, I remember reading about Sir Clive Woodward when he was head coach of the England rugby team and how they created a winning culture, culminating in a World Cup final victory in 2003. As he tried to mold a group of disparate players in the years leading up to that final, he would develop a culture that would weed out “energy sappers” and promote “energizers.” The energy sappers would just moan. The energizers would engage with the ideas and work hard to make them happen. While some energy sappers could be turned with a mix of candidness and empathy, others were beyond ‘repair’ and were let go.

This notion that any team or organization for that matter, could include people prepared to derail plans and hamper progress through bad attitude is not new. Most businesses and sports teams have at some point come across disruptive employees or members. They can harm the culture and bad culture grows, like yoghurt, and if left to fester can start to smell and kill the air. Clearing that air can take a lot of effort and resource, or in many cases it can lead to business failure.

So how do businesses give themselves the best possible chance of building a good culture? We have outlined below, three key areas which need to be considered.

Great teams are made-up of great individuals

Easier said than done right? How do you hire not just the right people for the job but personalities that will fit within a culture?

In his book The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues, Patrick Lencioni highlights three traits that recruiters need to look for when hiring team players. They are:

  • Humble – does not think less of self; thinks of self less
  • Hungry – aggressively pursues goals
  • Smart – emotionally smart, that is, in interactions with others

In her Talent Blog, Samantha McLaren delves into the intricacies of the theory and how to test for the traits. The upshot is that candidates must have all three traits and not just one or two.

With a team in place, you also need to focus on improving individual skills. Getting employees to focus on being the best in their role will not only improve particular functions in the business, it will help raise overall standards.

Talk is not cheap in teamwork

Great teams are great at communicating and this starts at the top. Business leaders need to be able to communicate well with all employees, listen and encourage. Understanding roles and individual requirements can often lead to more relevant policies being implemented, such as work dress, social events, holidays and working hours. It means leaders can be responsive to the needs of employees and not take a more authoritarian approach to working practices, which smacks of a lack of empathy.

Good management communication can also lay the foundations for an open-door policy, less ‘them and us,’ more just ‘us.’ It can also set the tone for the rest of the organization. If there is a problem, employees should talk about it. They should be encouraged to collaborate, to solve issues and help each other with tasks for the overall benefit of the organization. It’s using good communication to create a culture of empathy and support, not a blame culture where creativity and ideas just come from the loudest, most confident individuals.

Sports fans will understand this—you only have to look at basketball to realise how important communication is to a team. In fact, Duke University men’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski once cited communication as one of the fundamental qualities that makes up a great team. Being an effective communicator means clearly speaking, but also requires strong nonverbal cues, written words and great listening skills.

The importance of shared values

What sort of business are you? Do you lean towards the high-octane world of Bobby Axelrod in hit drama Billions (in which case you may need your own in-house psychologist like character Wendy Rhodes) or towards the Jerry Maguire style of business, focussing on personal relationships with clients and customers? Understanding what sort of business you are will help set the parameters for creating business values.

While management may learn to pick their battles when it comes to discipline (no one likes being micromanaged or pulled up on what they consider to be small transgressions) they may also adopt an empathetic approach to leadership. Understanding and being empathetic towards co-workers’ strengths and weaknesses has considerable value. It can not just inform training and development and improve efficiency, it also sets a tone for the whole organization.

It comes back to communication. There are times when decisions need to be made and there is a call for candidness but candidness does not have to lack empathy. Candidness should not mean rude and destructive. If a company sets out its cultural values it’s easier for all employees to not just adhere to them but to embrace them and see them as a strength. It should also go a long way to keeping staff happy and therefore retaining staff. For any business that is surely a good thing.


Published: September 24, 2018

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Matt Hibbard

Matt Hibbard is an experienced public and private company CFO with a background in building and scaling innovative and high growth technology companies. With expertise leading two successful IPOs, raising VC financings and structuring various debt instruments. Follow @matt_hibbard on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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