How to Create a Winning Team Culture

The following story illustrates two different styles of leadership and points to several crucial factors in building a team culture, namely:

(1) Identifying and defining your guiding values.

(2) Creating a “new beginning” by clearing old habits and patterns.

(3) Assigning roles and galvanizing your team around key role models from within the organization.

(4) Engaging your team around a common goal.

(5) Creating an environment of trust and accountability.

(6) Focusing your team’s efforts in a step-by-step process towards the desired goal.

(7) Measuring and rewarding success along the way.

(8) Implementing a self-correcting mechanism to restore the desired course if deviations occur.

This story is from my childhood, growing up an athlete in a communist country.

Shortly after I started playing volleyball we got a new coach. He was ambitious and eager to prove himself in a system that only rewarded flawless results. The team he inherited consisted of a spirited, often rambunctious, group of eleven and twelve year old girls. The coach’s first order of business was to make some cuts. A few girls were gone within the first week. The remaining ones took notice and upped their game. But merely “upping your game” wasn’t going to cut it.

The coach required total sacrifice for the sake of winning. Anything less, he would not accept. At one point, there were only six of us remaining – just a starting line up, no subs!

He brought us together and said: “Look around, there’re only six of you and what this means is that if one of you misses a game, the whole team will automatically lose the match. If one of you is even a few minutes late for practice, the rest of the team will run laps until she shows up. But if you’re here, and you do the work, I guarantee you we’ll win the National Championship. You go home now, talk to your parents, and make up your mind if you want to be on this team. I’ll be here tomorrow.”

All six of us showed up the next day. What do you think happened at the end of the season? We did not win the National Championship. We lost – in the semi-finals to the eventual Champions. The coach brought us together again: “Even total sacrifice is not enough,” he said, “even when you totally sacrifice everything, nobody – not even I – can guarantee you the win at the end. You have to earn it.”

And with that, we started another year of relentless, exhausting, muscle-crushing, and will-building practices. We won the next National Championship. And we won every year after that, until I graduated from high school. We were willing to go where no other player or team would.

One day I visited the home of a girl who played on a rival team. I saw the medals hanging on her wall. There was one gold medal and a whole bunch of silver and bronze medals. I realized that single gold medal was the one we lost in the first season and the rest of the gold medals that were missing from her wall, hung on mine.

I took the lessons of winning, of total accountability, of willingness, of sacrifice, of hard work with me to college, where the team I joined had never won the conference title but in the four years I played there, we won every single year and carried the longest home-winning streak in the country at the time.

Did I learn how to win? I sure did. But there was a price to pay. I became quite perfectionistic and the inner standard I set for myself (and often others) did not allow me to slack off anymore… and there were more lessons to learn.

After winning that very first National Championship and playing for two years for that first coach, I had to switch teams and play on another team with girls who were younger than me, far less experienced, and with nowhere near the work ethic I had developed. It was crushing to see the apathy and lack of effort around me at practice. The coach of this team was big on fundamentals, caring, and wanted to win just as much as the other coach but she wasn’t willing to lose the slackers in the process. She believed she could… transform them. But it was a tall order.

Two months into the season, the girls’ lack of skills was catching up with us and we started losing matches. I was devastated and unable to get my teammates to learn fast enough or even care enough to try harder. So one day I decided to stop trying to control or even lead my teammates and began to just hustle as much as I could, run after balls that seemed impossible to get, and make myself sweat just to stay in shape for the next season when I would get to go back to my other team. I wrote this season off.

At the end of this practice however, our coach got us together and she said: “Girls, look around and point out the person who was working the hardest this practice?” All fingers were pointed at me.

She continued “Girls, who do you think is the best player on the team?” All fingers pointed at me again. She paused to let that sink in… “Now, girls, why do you think it’s the best player that’s working the hardest” she asked, “and who do you think should be working even harder than her?” All heads bowed down. The message was clear.

A shift took place and from that day forward the younger, less experienced players were on the hunt to outwork me, which kept me trying even harder! They were pushing me and I was pushing them – all coming from within, the best type of motivation a coach can hope for!

The struggle wasn’t over though, and it took every minute of every practice to get the whole team good enough to claim the National Championship that year. It only came together in the very last match, where I saw my teammates’ “dancing feet” in front of me, moving together as one, diving for balls that seemed impossible to get.

The season that I had written off as a “practice” season and was merely trying to stay in shape for the next year, turned into one of the biggest learning experiences for me. For the first time I understood the difference between a total authoritarian, soul-crushing style of leadership that got results and the wise, inspirational, mentor-like style of leadership that produced the same results but did not crush any souls in the process.

Putting it all into a system, that can be applied across a variety of sports and circumstances, is the basis for my upcoming session “The Keys to Becoming a Successful Mentor” at the Play Like A Champion Sports Leadership Conference in June on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. I hope you can join me!

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