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I'm a fanatic . . . about culture . . . but it better be real!

Yep, I could be  that guy!  I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by  Martin Reisch  on  Unsplash

Yep, I could be that guy! I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

I admit it. I’m a fanatic. No not a ranting, in your face, zealot. I’m from the midwest after all. Our zeal is a little more tempered. Stoic. Nice. That reminds me, our state once thought the best tourism tag line for our state was to promote this . . . “Nebraska, nice.” Ugh. Doubt it helped much. Anyway, back to me, the fanatic. I bear all the hallmarks of being a “true believer,” I have the gear, I study carefully everything about my passion, I’m drawn to others who share a similar love for the object of my obsession, I’ve done it all . . . except the tattoo. But then again, I’m from a different generation and, again, midwestern.

So, what is it that I am fanatical about? Well . . ., before I tell you and some of you sign off—concluding that your passion is not mine, and thus irrelevant—let me say, this post is not about the object of my fan-dom (fan-dumb?) but about the power of culture You see, the entity upon which my interest is focus is, right now, not worthy of such devotion. Ouch. It hurts to even admit that, I’m such a homer when it comes to college football.

The truth is the truth however and it is undeniable that my beloved team—the Nebraska Cornhusker football team, or “the Huskers” for short—has been awful. Last year? 4-8. The year before? 4-8. Dismal. Yet, this team has a top 15 recruiting class this year. They have been projected to finish in the top 20 by a number of prognosticians. Enthusiasm is high among the fans. Hope is abundant. What gives? Well a change in leadership but perhaps even more importantly the establishment of a new culture.

You can feel it. In the way the players talk, in the way they play, in their belief in the team and coaches and their willingness to voluntarily commit their discretionary effort to the team’s goals. Just watch their body language. A few years ago, under a different coaching regime . . . we won’t name names, I saw players on the side lines with their heads down, looking away or even pushing past . . . and thus avoiding . . . coaches who were trying to talk to them. It was not surprising when, over time, they began to look like they weren’t united in trying to win and the results began to mirror that disconnect. My observations were confirmed when a friend, and former division I quarterback, made the same observation, “You can tell they don’t want to play for this coach,” he said, “Just look at how they act when they come off the field.” Finally, someone close to the program also stated it. “They lost faith in the coach.”

So what has given this new culture its legs? Not success . . . not yet. Unless it’s the reputation of past success which these leaders have or the progress being made. But, success in the present? No. The team started out 0-6. The first time in the history of the program. Amazingly, the team continued to fight. They appeared to improve over the course of the season. They fought no matter what the circumstances and even looked better when they lost. It was clear that they “had each other’s back” and the team was, in fact, a Team. Having played both for teams that were not united or had a successful culture as well as teams that were very high functioning (including a national coach of the year) here are a few observations (from an outsider’s view) of what has made this work.

  1. The leaders have a deep understanding of—and deep connection with —the broader context of the program and how to utilize the context to promote success. The Coach grew up in Nebraska. Population 1,325. The “Walk On Program” here at Nebraska—the recruiting of local kids—is at least as important as the getting the “blue-chippers”—highly ranked recruits— in the context of Nebraska football. He gets this. He praises the fans and the culture as being “like no other” and highlights its strengths—joking about how “blue-chippers” think they’ll see a football stadium in the “middle of a corn field.” Early cohorts talked about valuing the walk on program but in practice . . . they didn’t get it.

  2. The leaders demonstrate a commitment to one thing—success. I hear statements like, “We are going to be good.” or “ We’ll see if he can contribute.” Even doubts, “Some may not be with the program” It’s clear that the goal is the focus and they believe reaching for that goal will help everyone who buys in. You could call it the “while no one is an ‘expendable crewman’ . . . some are more expendable than others.” But the message is clear. This is about being successful as a team. You can “get on board” or not but it is the single clear focus of the program.

  3. Hard work is the route to success. How do you go from 4-8 two years in a row to the 13th ranked recruiting class? Hard work. Weight training. Husker Power. Strength Coach Zach Duvall. The coaches have not shied away from saying that players were not where they needed to be. In fact after the final game to our Iowa neighbors, the coach said it hurt to see that they were bigger and stronger than we were. How’s that for honest clarity? Yes, the coaches are careful to allow that there are many paths to success (that other coaches may have tried) and that previous coaches may have had a different focus and emphasis, but it’s clear that the team did not meet their criteria for strength, speed, and commitment. It’s also clear that anyone wanting to be a part will dedicate themselves to these attributes.

  4. Finally, over everything else, the emphasis is on people. The clear message—and one that resonates as not just being "coach-speak”—is that this is about the players. Helping them become better men. Developing their potential. Becoming a close-knit group and having fun together. Yes, fun. In fused in everything is this belief that hard work, dedication, team chemistry, and success is fun and worth the effort. The mission is not just winning on the field it’s being successful as a person.

In Coach Frost’s own words . . .

As I was writing this blog, an Omaha World Herald article by Sam McKewon came out where Coach Frost talked about the importance of culture. Here’s part of what Frost was quoted as saying . . . “Culture eats scheme for breakfast . . . I can put the guys in the best scheme, the best offensive plays, the best defensive plays we can come up with. But at the end of the day, if we don’t have . . . people holding each other accountable, and we don’t have our team making smart decisions and grinding and working hard, [i.e.; the right culture] I’m not sure the best scheme in the world matters.”

Frost boils it down to two factors, 1. players making decisions in the best interests of their teammates, and 2. a desire to excel and no fear of failure.

Will this, ultimately, lead to the success the coaches want? If we’re talking wins . . . it’s unknown. In fact, due to the variables at play in such an endeavor it could be argued that their is no way to determine what causal factors lead to success on the field. Fair enough. But if you just look at the players behavior, other on and off the field, you can already see a clear and vital difference. It’s clear that this focus on culture has brought a new energy, a willingness to commit voluntary effort to succeeding, and cleared aways a number of hurdles that were detrimental to success. A strong culture, at the very least, increases the likelihood that success is possible—in athletics and in business.

P.S. I was told by someone who worked with transportation for recent Husker teams would leave the bus “trashed” when they got done with a trip. Not anymore. The Coaches, from the first, made players clean up after themselves and appreciate the service they were being given. Coaches talk about representing the state, university, and each other. The message is clear—even in this minor detail, “We will treat people, including ourselves, with respect.” Sometimes it starts that small to build a great culture.

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Mr. Rex and Ego?

Photo by  Vern Ooi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Vern Ooi on Unsplash

The Best Team Players? They know It's not about them.

Those of you who participated in athletics know that, as an athlete, you get to experience a lot of real time "psychology on display through behavior" as player's egos become involved in competing. Hopefully, for most people, the need to "stroke one's ego" gets resolved by the time we reach adulthood . . . but not always.

A few yeas ago I was playing "noon basketball" with a cadre of guys at a local gym. One of the amazing things about this group was that two of the most talented players were over 70!  Yes, 70! By "most talented" I don't mean that they had the most stamina, speed, or leaping ability when compared to the younger players,  but boy did they have skills and the experience to be a great asset to whatever team they played for.!  Both still played on traveling teams against player across the nation. Very impressive.

One of the players, I particularly liked. He was very laid back, competitive, yet encouraging to other players--a guy who was confident enough to play well himself and encourage the best out of others, both those on his team and the opponents as well, a real team-player. The other? Let's just say . . . that it didn't take a Psychologist to tell that his game was a little bit more about stroking his ego than just having fun competing--not that ego doesn't play a role for most of us at some level, some people just hide it more reliably. :)  Anyway . . . let's talk about .

The Day The Ego Demanded "it's Due!"

We were playing one day, as usual, when a new player joined us. His assignment was to guard Rex. Now, a new player, especially a younger one, would have no reason to believe that this would be a difficult task. After all, this is your grandfather--someone your should be able to outmaneuver, out jump, and out hustle. But Rex was an athlete, with a capital A. He could make shots all over the floor and from "way downtown"--far distant from the basket.

His favorite shot was a hook-type delivery off a drive to his right. Those of us who had played with Rex for a long time knew that the best strategy was to overplay his right side, and force him to go left where, although still capable, he was far less dangerous and effective. It was common knowledge and everyone who defended him more than once knew this.

The new player who joined us that day, however, didn't know this. As he tried to guard Rex, this septuagenarian shark, repeatedly drove right and drained the basket . . . time after time . . . scoring easily and, I think, frustrating the younger man's increasingly strenuous attempts to stop his scoring. Finally, the younger man, once again, beaten to the delivery of the shot, exclaimed, "Rex, you are unstoppable!" Rex beamed. But, unfortunately for Rex, the moment didn't last. 

Another player, let's call him Doug, who was known for his less-than-sensitive-candor, impulsively reacted. "It's not hard to stop Rex," he commented dourly.  "That's easy. He can't go to his left."  A statement, that over-simplified guarding this athlete, but never-the-less did communicate the best approach to stopping Rex's game. An awkward silence hung in the air, as players absorbed this Doug's "attack" on Rex's abilities and demonstrated Doug's own need to stroke his ego "against" a player, in Rex, that definitely had superior skills. Some glancing at Rex, uncomfortably, and wondering how Rex would respond.

Well, Rex wasn't one to let such blatant disrespect to pass. He said nothing, at first. I was surprised, but remained watchful.  The next time Rex's team had the ball, Rex, playing point guard, took the ball, drove to his left, executed his signature hook shot, banking it into the basket off the backboard, the pointedly directed a comment to Doug, "So, I can't go left huh?"

Flashes of Junior High School

"What is this, Junior High School?" The thought flashed through my mind.

So, Rex proved he could go left. Doug was "put into his place," and Rex's ego could remain intact--although why it was threatened so much by the comment remains unknown. Or so it seemed for a moment. Doug, unfortunately, didn't have the wisdom to let it go either, and the rest of "noon ball" was marred by a general pensive, irritation punctuated with some general aggressive playing and "bad will."

The funny thing is, for all the posturing egos on display, that day . . . nothing had really changed. We all still knew that the best strategy, when guarding Rex, was to force Rex to go left. No one thought less of him as a player, since all players have strengths and weaknesses to their game. And we were all sure that Doug would continue to comment on things that others would think but definitely not say. While Doug would rush in to fill the void. We also knew that Doug, no matter how long he played--would he even be playing in another 30 years?--would never be as good as Rex.

What did change was that it was clear that Rex's ego was tied up in his ability as an athlete (and so was Doug's, but that's another story) and that Rex would get defensive, react with somewhat controlled anger, if challenged . . . and this trait, could be turned against him, by unscrupulous opponents. That Doug, or others, could easily "get under his skin" with just a comment despite the fact that he was a great player. I can imagine some competitors I have played against in competitive venues, making comments,  "What's the matter, can't you go left?" and goading him into "proving them wrong" ---thereby taking him out of his best game and using his emotion against him—and disadvantaging his team.

Ego vs. Team

When Doug made his comment, and Rex visibly reacted, my intuition and experience told me that Rex would have to prove himself by forcing the next shot . . . going left. He did, and it worked, he made the basket. But what if that had not been in a "pick up game" but in a game that counted for something. Was that the right time and place to take the shot?  Maybe. Would a defender, as I did, anticipate his need to go left and position himself to block or alter the shot.  Possibly. But ego doesn't consider what is best for the team only what is demanded to keep the ego intact. 

Rex, it appears, didn't trust the team. He didn't believe that that everyone already saw him as a superior player--even if they recognized that he preferred shooting going to his right. He probably was fearful that others would "believe" John's view or that perhaps it would make it harder if the young man guarding him forced him to operate going left. Some subconscious fear drove his need to respond. Ultimately, however it was driven by his own fears about himself and his ability.

Another ego and it's effect . . . a starter on one of my high school teams "lost it" when his shoe came untied and the coach didn't call a time out to let him fix the problem. He responded by kicking his shoe off, sending it flying over the bench, and starting to hack (foul) other players. He fouled out of the game in the first quarter. I have never seen such a ego-driven temper tantrum quite like it before or since. Playing the rest of the game without our number one point guard and a great shooter certainly did not help the team and we lost the game.  Those whose ego strength, to continue the use the Freudian term, isn't sufficiently strong will not be able to laugh at themselves, apologize, admit mistakes, or put the team first.  They may be very talent and accomplished but, in some fashion or another, they will always be a one man show.

Leaders, Employees and Ego

When consulting with organizations you inevitably will run into people whose ego is a barrier to them being the best leader they can be. Whether as an employee or a boss, their fragile self-worth will manifest itself in defensiveness, rejection of valid criticism, and a stubborn refusal to examine mistakes and learn from them.  Often, these are very bright and accomplished people who has skillfully found ways to mitigate some of the negative effects--perhaps they are superficially charming, or hard working, or they maintain and aloof distance--but, like Rex, everyone knows of the ego-weakness and how it effects their work and the organization as a whole.

Attempts to point out the weakness results, again like Rex in the story, in them proving (at least to themselves) that the have a strong ego and the problem is not them but is the problem of the person pointing out the impact of their behavior.  

You can spot this trait often when a person "flip-flops" on responsibility when they can no long dismiss it. So, if problems are pointed out by another colleague or employee this person may simply dismiss it, or aggressively refute it. But if the problems amplify to the point the behavior is threatening the organization and they are forced to face their behaviors . . . the "Ego-challenged" person will admit a problem, superficially take responsibility for it, perhaps even apologize (if necessary) and verbally agree to a need to change.

But watched closely, and over time, they will reverse course . . . reverting back to their baseline, ego-protecting view, that "the problem isn't me."  When this happens, you can be sure that you are dealing with someone who, to reach their full potential, has a need for significant work on the ability to take constructive criticism, be self-critical, and learn to grow.  In Patrick Lencioni's words They suffer a lack of humility . . . thinking, albeit somewhat subconsciously, more about themselves that the good of the organization. In those moments it is, once again, all about them.

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When a leader needs help . . .

Leaders have problems. Others in the organization have to figure out how to help them. It can be difficult. Do they need more training? Perhaps a referral to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? Is this simply a disciplinary issue? Or perhaps a complex personality trait? Maybe it's none of the above, it is simply a business problem.

It is not uncommon for leaders to wrestle with "what to do" when one of their managers or senior leaders is struggling. Below is a decision chart designed to help clarify your thinking and give you a direction to pursue. (You can download the file off our resources page.) I hope you find it helpful.

Please note: Every situation is unique and the chart is meant only to help you with your thought process. It should not be used as a final determinant as each individual person deserves a fair and thoughtful consideration of their unique situation.

Available eBooks:

Private Practice through Contracting: Decreasing dependence on insurance.

Engaging Your Team: A framework for managing difficult people.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

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