Even though I grew up in Ohio, my first vision as a young boy of a great team, a great coach, and real champions came to life through the Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi. In holding the Green Bay Packers to his standards of character, Lombardi became a legendary coach, helping to create a legendary team. He understood better than most that culture started with the leader. After winning the 1965 NFL championships, the players divided the money among themselves, leaving marginal sums for management and groundskeepers. Lombardi chastised the team, “I am ashamed of you. Just take [my name off the list] and split it up. Split it up if that’s the way it’s gonna be.” He refused to profit from the team’s selfishness. After he stormed out, the players re-divided the winnings more fairly, returning Coach Lombardi’s share. Culture starts with the leader.
From Process to Culture
We have written about leaders and strong teams and how they engage in working together. Let’s zoom out and speak to the whole organization. How does an average, or even a good, organization turn a process into a culture? A healthy culture involves more than the ability to “get the job done.” It entails getting the job done excellently and doing the right thing the right way. This involves honest answers to tough questions. What are you willing to admit has not always been done as well as needed? What are you willing to change in order to become excellent? What is necessary in order to help your team collaborate more closely and to become stronger?
Great leaders devote their energy to bringing out the best in their team by playing into the unique character of their organization and team. They are considerate and observant. They invest ample effort in learning about each member’s strengths and values to understand the nuances of the team. Strategically fitting these dynamics to the team’s goals, the leader can guide the team to excellence. Strategically positioning a team to use their natural strengths yields an efficient process and energy that lasts; whereas being aggressive, applying force, or cultivating fear to get the job done grinds people down and sacrifices the team’s hope for a better future. What is the difference? Doing the right thing the right way.
Set an Excellent Standard
What turns a process into a culture? Repetition and consistency. The leader’s vision. Everyone working together. You do not just practice and hope to become excellent; you practice, aiming to achieve an excellent standard. Practice makes culture, and it starts with the leader. Leaders of excellent organizations set the bar of standards for the company and perpetually hold themselves accountable to that standard to bring everyone on board. The team needs the leader’s integrity, principles, and consistent involvement to realize those expectations. This creates the foundation for a strong, unique culture.
These standards should be founded upon strong operational principles. Principles guide culture. A company is comprised of a bunch of people carrying out an amalgamation of processes; but if it were that simple, robots could replace all of our jobs. Much of our work, regardless of the industry, relies on judgement. Companies employ us because of our judgement. When seeking a team tailored to the needs of the company, they are screening candidates for their values—would they handle a situation the way the company culture dictates. Defining the values, or principles, that will shape the company culture stands among the most important roles of the leader. Operational principles are there to guide you to do the right thing the right way. What values do you, as a leader, consider indispensable? How do you want customers, employees, partners, or even the general public to view your company?
Prepare Effectively for Clear Communication
Next, how does an excellent organization set and communicate clear and challenging goals? What steps to prepare effectively help make challenging goals achievable? Leaders may find that taking on challenging projects provides the team room for growth. Such projects often entail many moving parts and quickly approaching deadlines. Leaders will find it essential to clearly define the goal and communicate it to the team in various, reinforcing ways. The first step is to understand the task at hand and each individual’s roles. As suggested in our last article, these roles are best assigned based on their unique sets of natural strengths. Clarifying each member’s role in the project will encourage them to engage with their work. How can leaders, teams, and individuals in your organization prepare to make your goals achievable?
Another component of having a strong culture is assuming a mindset that anticipates and responds to changes and embraces challenges. With strong operational principles established and in the forefront of everyone’s mind, the company can be quick to adapt to new circumstances. The team is not stuck on their age-old processes but focused on doing the right thing the right way. The result? A clear organizational structure, in which individuals’ roles become mutually understood so that teams and leaders trust each other, and everyone has a positive mindset, eager for growth. Such a team can encounter a challenge and be confident that they will grow to handle it with grace. Leaders may feel more comfortable taking on bigger challenges.
Encourage a Culture of Growth
A culture of excellence requires a culture of growth. Leaders and teams with a growth-oriented mindset constantly seek new opportunities to learn and embrace greater challenges. Faced with a seemingly impossible challenge, these types of organizations begin by asking how they can make the most of it. If the leader becomes content with the status quo, the team cannot be expected to grow. Even if the projects are routine, the company can seek better solutions to their challenges in order to continue growing because they are doing the right thing the right way. They have positioned themselves to absorb difficulty and change and use it as an impetus for growth. What is your company’s usual reflex to difficulty? In what ways does your organization lean toward being content and sacrifice opportunities to grow?
From “Good” to “Champion”
Let’s be clear, Coach Lombardi was complex. At times, he yelled and screamed, but he taught many thoughtful lessons and principles. Jerry Kramer, a key player for the Packers at the time, wrote that Coach Lombardi “was our most valuable player, and I am going to miss him, even his screaming and ranting… I think I would have been a good football player even if Julie Andrews had been my coach, but I don’t know if I would have been a champion without Coach Lombardi. He made us think like champions.”
Companies may cultivate a great culture by consistently achieving their peak performance. The sights of a peak-performing company are always set on a larger goal. Vince Lombardi inherited one of the worst performing teams in the league. Under this leadership, lessons, and principles, they became good, then great. And then they became champions.
Likewise, champion organizations can achieve and even exceed their goals because they are continuously reviewing their practices, ensuring they implement ‘best practices’ whenever possible. The result is consistent organizational excellence. Consistency is key to strategy. Leaders are generally better able to create a realistic strategy for the organization when they know they can count on their team to deliver their best when they need their best. What changes in your organization could raise its current performance to achieve excellence? If your organization can commit to that kind of change, what new results from peak performance become possible?