What is Culture?
Posted by Kurt Earl in Public
In 2016 Tim Ferriss sent out a simple tweet that got me thinking.
“As much as I dislike vague talk of “company culture,” I like this definition: What happens when people are left to their own devices.” Tim Ferriss
A few weeks after Ferriss’ tweet I was named the new head football coach at Lincoln Christian School where I had served as an assistant for ten years. The tweet rang loudly in my head as I began to take my first steps as the new head coach. Our former head coach and I had built a solid culture over the years, but it was time for a serious refresh.
I was about to raise the standard, but would my players raise the standard with me?
After my first season as a head coach, I realized that as the Head Coach I’m the Culture Coordinator. Other coaches on my staff are tasked with coordinating the offense or defense or special teams. My task is to coordinate the culture.
But what is culture? What defines culture? That was the question in the first ever #CultureCoordChat on Twitter. Here were some of the highlights of what was said:
- Culture is the current state of your program. Could be good or bad. It’s the state of things as they are.
- Culture can be changed.
- Many participants indicated that the best way to change culture was to reinforce desirable behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs.
- Culture was perceived to be the sum of many actions that shape decision making and the overall direction of an organization.
- Building a positive culture was seen as a long-term project that must constantly be maintained. Many participants spoke about the need to fill the cracks and watch out for the slow fade away from the culture you want.
The thoughts from the first #CultureCoordChat aligned well with this article from Forbes magazine by William Craig. According to Craig, there are four key areas that reveal your culture:
- Clarity of purpose
- Employee engagement
- An environment of trust
- Continued learning
As I pondered Ferriss’ tweet, the feedback I received from #CultureCoordChat, and read through Craig’s article and others like it, my mind grew more and more confused about how to define culture. All of this was too meta, too abstract, and far too intangible.
Enter Brian Kight and Focus 3.
My team and I recently had the pleasure of doing a three-hour workshop with Kight. Our time together was full of pearls of wisdom, but perhaps the biggest pearl was the clarity he brought to the question “What is culture?” Ironically, he didn’t answer or even attempt to answer that question. He asked a better question:
What is the purpose of culture?
As soon as he asked the questions my mind began to realize I had been asking the wrong question and was, therefore, not finding answers that satisfied me. In asking, “What is culture?” I was asking the equivalent of, “What is football?” and hoping for the answer to be “West Coast Offense” or “4-2-5 Defense.”
So, what is the purpose of culture? According to Kight and the Focus 3 team, the purpose of culture is to drive behaviors that win.
This thought brought immediate clarity and excitement. It shifted my paradigm and focused my attention on what our program is trying to accomplish, instead of having my attention focused on what I should be doing. I had the proverbial cart in front of the horse problem, and I needed Kight’s question to help me see that.
Kight went on to say, “The purpose of culture is not to make people feel good and comfortable. The singular purpose of culture is to drive the behaviors called for by your strategy.”
Suddenly, the most obvious question was, “How do I define winning and what are my strategies for creating wins?” Notice the progress of my train of thought. I went from “What is culture?” to “What is winning and how do we make winning happen?” From the abstract to the concrete.
What is winning? Our current sports culture is more focused on individual stars than amazing teams. As a result, winning or success is defined a thousand different ways. A high school athlete might define success as getting a college scholarship or being all-conference or breaking a school scoring record. We’ve all known the player who could care less about the scoreboard as long as he gets his stats.
This focus on self also manifests itself in a lack of loyalty to teams. For instance, growing up there was no doubt that I was going to be a mighty Trojan at Longmont High School. The odds of me becoming a Falcon at cross-town rival Skyline were exactly zero. No chance. I’d rather die than suit up in red and yellow. That type of loyalty to the school in your neighborhood is dying. More and more high school players see themselves as free agents choosing the school that best meets their needs.
What does all this have to do with defining winning/success? It means that your team is filled with players who are defining success differently. Some of them don’t care if you win or lose on the scoreboard as long as they get their stats. Others define success as being the starter at their favorite position and can’t imagine playing a different position for the sake of the team’s goals.
Here’s my point: If you’re going to create a culture that drives behaviors that win you first have to define winning and sell your players on that definition.
As you wrestle with defining success, it’s important to remember that you are free to define it however you want. Winning might include beating the other team on the scoreboard, but your definition of success is probably bigger than that as well. The key, regardless of how you define success, is that it’s well articulated to your players and the rest of your stakeholders and that you sell your definition to everyone. Everyone in the program, from your student-managers to your quarterback, to the parents and alums have to believe in your definition and make it their own.
Much could be said about how to sell your definition of success and create genuine buy-in, but let’s conclude by thinking critically about what your definition of success should include. As I’ve already alluded to, I believe your definition had better go beyond the scoreboard. Regardless of what level of football you coach at, I believe your definition of success ought to include the development of both players and people. In other words, if your definition of success doesn’t help your players win on the scoreboard and in life then it’s an incomplete definition of success unworthy of your team’s dedication.
To help illustrate this point I often refer to success as a coin. Pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters all have two sides, and each coin has no official value if one of the sides doesn’t have the official imprinting and engraving. In the same way, your definition of success has no value if it doesn’t include teaching your players how to play the game well and how to become great men. In my opinion, a proper definition of success must include developing players (one side of the coin) and developing people (the other side of the coin). If you only have one or the other your definition of success isn’t worthy of being sold to your program or bought by your stakeholders.
Here is our definition of success at Lincoln Christian School: Pursued our God-given potential and became more like Christ in the process.
Obviously, not all of you reading this are Christians or coach at a Christian school so here’s a version of that definition that can be used more universally: Pursued our potential as a team and become better men in the process.
My main point here is that our definition of success at Lincoln Christian School includes both developing players and developing people. It’s my conviction that our definition is worth trying to sell and worth buying into.
One final thought on our definition of success. You may have noticed that we are focused on pursuing our potential and not on trying to win games. Our definition is intentionally worded that way because we are careful to acknowledge that there are many aspects of winning games that we don’t have control over. All we can do is show up on game day as ready as possible and play the best we are capable of playing.
Remember, this article began by asking the question, “What is culture?” What we have discovered is that it’s far better to ask “What does culture do?” and to recognize that a great culture drives the behaviors that win. In the end, we discovered that we can’t create a culture that drives the behaviors that win if we haven’t defined what it means to win.
Ultimately, the process of building a great culture begins with defining success. You have to know where you’re trying to go. Once you have identified the desired outcome, you can reverse engineer the process towards the outcome. This process of reverse engineering the journey towards your desired outcome will reveal the core values of your culture to you and help you “drive the behaviors called for by your strategy.”
A podcast version of this post has been made available here.
Checklist of things to do:
- Stop asking “What is culture?”
- Start asking “What does culture do?”
- Create your program’s definition of success
- Start building a culture that drives behaviors that win