In January 2008, Mike Smith was appointed as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL. He had the challenge of turning around a team that came from a very poor season, had had 5 coaches in 7 years and hadn’t reached a single back-to-back winning season in their history.
Against all odds, the Atlanta Falcons coach led one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NFL history making the Falcons a winning team over the following years and he did it by focusing on one single aspect: transforming the team’s culture.
Here is what coach Smith did in order to create this winning culture, which can help those trying to build a high performance team in business, sports, or in life:
1. Evaluate less on performance and more on character
“I started evaluating players on their characters and attitudes in addition to their football skills. I made changes in the roster not solely based on the players abilities on the field, but also the intangibles that each player would bring to the locker room”. In a world ruled by performance evaluations, looking at the intangibles and focusing on having the right people can sometimes give us the push we need. Or, as they All Blacks call it, “Better people make better all blacks.”. Even if this implies taking people off the bus…
2. Don’t lose the focus on culture
Results are achieved when the organization’s culture is well shaped, and this is a daily job.
“Culture drives expectations and beliefs; expectations and beliefs drive behavior; behavior drives habits; and habits create the future. It all starts with culture.”
To turn a team (or any organization) around, the first step is to focus on transforming the culture and you need to be the first one to believe it, something that Simeone worked hard for when he signed for Atlético de Madrid and managed to transform an average team into a winning team, with only a few changes in the roster. Big organizational changes are made of small changes.
3. Be accessible
Coach Smith: “I spent the majority of my time those first few months as head coach with as many people as possible, to introduce myself and have conversations about their specific jobs. I didn’t want there to be one culture in the locker room and a different culture in the rest of the building. I wanted us to be one team, with one culture.
Let people know that your role is to assist them. You can measure a leader by how they meet with their employees in private. Servant leaders make their employees feel important, listened, and loved. Even if you can just give them 15 minutes, make sure that during this time they feel you are not in a rush and that they are the most important person in the room.
4. Make it a sustained culture
“There is no such thing as an overnight success” (Jon Gordon)
Culture is what produces wins over time. Therefore, in a world dominated by short term objectives, the ability to be patient and loyal to your values is essential. Organizations with sustained cultures have sustained success.
Changes are made in victory, not in defeat. Adversity is the period for observation (Marcelo Bielsa)
A good way of maintaining our culture is being agile and unconformists in victory and observant in defeat.
5. Copy and improve
“When I became the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons I borrowed ideas, routines, and principles from the great leaders I worked with and admired but created a framework and approach that fit my leadership style and personality.”
Innovation consists of copying and improving until we find our own style. When you know what you stand for and you are predictable, you can find the right people who stand for the same things as you and your team will increase their trust in you. Also, when you (and your team) know what you stand for, decisions are easier to make because everyone will expect that from you. Take time to become more self-aware. Explore until you are comfortable in your own skin.
“You have to be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
6. Focus on quick wins, not on goals
When the season of any big league starts, many teams have the same goal: to win the championship. Yet only one will make it. In leagues like the NBA, with 82 regular season games plus playoffs, it becomes a challenge to stay motivated towards such an ambitious (and far away) goal. Ironically, many head coaches forget about this goal in order to achieve it. Instead, they break up the season into blocks of 7 games and they establish small milestones: to win 4 out of every 7 games. By doing so, they’ll succeed in making it to the next goal (playoffs) and players will stay motivated during the entire season because they can see the finish line all the time.
How would ironman runners keep their motivation otherwise? Long distance athletes follow the same strategy: they break up the distance into shorter milestones and they give themselves a treat after every quick win (ie: a sip of water every 5k, a bit of energy bar every 10k, a gel every 20k, etc.)
In order to develop your high performance culture at work, in your team or at home, remember to look for the quick wins and to celebrate every small win with a treat for yourself or your team, because what we don’t celebrate, we end up forgetting.
These are just 6 steps to create a winning culture in your organization. Which ones are you using?