Why Culture Is Crucial To Success — In Business As Well As In Sports


Anybody who follows English football will be familiar with how frequently Premier League clubs change managers. Indeed, dismissals are so common that many fans start betting almost from the start of each season on who will be the first to go. However, the recent departure of Antonio Conte from Tottenham Hotspur still stands out. The Italian effectively sacked himself by indulging in a lengthy rant after the London side slipped from a 3-1 lead to draw with the league’s bottom-placed club, Southampton. In his press conference after the match, he questioned the mentality of his players, calling them selfish, and also questioned the culture of the club.

Although few could have predicted that things would end so dramatically, football followers will not have been surprised that Conte did not last that long at the club. Many others have come and gone as the club endures a long wait for trophies. Conte had an additional problem in that, although he had enjoyed success elsewhere, it was generally with a more pragmatic style than that typically associated with the swashbuckling Spurs.

While some might also take issue with the tales of Conte’s gruelling training regime, the idea that having a group of talented players is not enough on its own to win things would no doubt ring true with Matt Mayberry, author of Culture Is The Way. Briefly a National Football League player before injury cut short his career, Mayberry has made a second career for himself as a keynote speaker and adviser on leadership development and culture. In his new book, he cites an article in The Athletic magazine about how some of the best coaches prioritize building a strong team culture and just how important it is to a team’s success. He adds: “There is no telling what could happen if more business leaders had the same perspective on culture as some of the greatest sports coaches. Not only do I believe we would build more workplaces that don’t struggle to attract top talent, but I also believe we would see more companies play a significant role in making the world a better place and positively shaping every aspect of their employees’ lives.”

To back up his argument he sets out “three key lessons” from great sports coaches that business leaders at all levels can apply as they attempt to build cultures.

  1. Develop a burning desire to improve culture. The best leaders put everything they have into building the culture. “You can’t just be interested in creating a great culture,” says Mayberry. “Leaders who are committed outperform leaders who are only ‘mildly’ interested.”
  2. Generate and bring positive energy daily. Leaders are responsible for generating energy and setting the tone for the rest of the organization daily. Stressing that there is nothing easy about this, he says that altering the mindsets, behaviours and attitudes of those being led demands “a certain level of bold, positive energy.”
  3. Don’t just manage people, coach your people. Great coaches do a lot more than set the team’s vision or oversee the day-to-day operations of the team. They work with individuals to bring out the best in them. They might be tough but only because they want the best for them and the team.

Mayberry goes on to describe exactly how leaders can build those effective cultures. But his really important point is what he stresses over and over — that culture is not some add-on that is to be left to HR or to be set out once the financials have been sorted out. It is far too important for that. He quotes legendary football coach Bill Walsh as putting it best: “The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions. They have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.”

That is something the board of Tottenham Hotspur might want to ponder before they appoint a permanent replacement for Conte. Some might say that Conte and Tottenham was never going to work as a relationship. But if they had allowed Conte to bring his demanding management style to the club the hierarchy could perhaps have signalled that they were no longer going to sacrifice success to style. As it is, it appears that the club is still effectively trying to have its cake and eat it — in much the same way as Manchester United have worked their way through a succession of coaches following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson (surely a coach worthy of the admiration of Mayberry) in an effort to achieve a swift return to the glory days. The irritating thing for Tottenham, of course, is that their near neighbours and great rivals Arsenal are, after a long period out of the prizes, currently top of the league under the guidance of a young manager who — despite a shaky start — has stuck to his principles and by his demeanour and attitude is an example of living up to Mayberry’s three key lessons.

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