Whether professional or collegiate organization sport coach, strength and conditioning (S&C) coach, medical staff, executive, senior administrator, department director, etc., the role of somebody in a position of authority is to consistently establish and introduce the strategic platforms and advances that will result in successful team outcomes. A career in athletics also necessitates an obligation to foster a high standard for the positive development of the organization’s administration, workforce, and athletes both on and off the field of play.
Many opportunities are available to continually improve one’s professional craft, including educational seminars, internet searches, reviews of scientific and non-scientific literature, webinars, travels to successful athletic programs, discussions with successful professional peers—the list goes on and on. Improvement also requires persistent professional practice, the experiences that occur over a career, and of course, positive outcomes.
A sports organization’s pursuit of the “Holy Grail” of sustained success appears to be limitless as well. This includes the relentless search for renowned professionals for executive administration, department heads, coaching, medical care, S&C, nutrition, “specialty” staff, and technology, to name a few. During the many conversations that have occurred throughout my career with various medical, professional sport, and collegiate peers, the topic of creating a strong organization and team culture was rarely discussed. When these infrequent “culture” conversations do arise, they usually contain limited substance as to the specifics of achievement versus the often-stated theoretical attainment of a resilient culture.
Whether currently occupying or desiring a future role of authority (e.g., head coach, department head, executive management, etc.), the realization of success is very unlikely without the presence of a strong organizational and team culture. Culture is essential to ensure the frequent and effective desired achievements that lead to success or to transform the kiss of failure into one of triumph.The realization of success is very unlikely without the presence of a strong organizational and team culture. Click To Tweet
The following summation is founded upon my various experiences as a corporate CEO, department head, head S&C coach, athletic trainer, and practicing sports physical therapist. Also included in the content of this article are my experiences and relationships with prominent professionals, including corporate CEOs and senior-level business executives, nationally recognized medical and healthcare providers, and Hall of Fame sport and S&C coaches.
What Is the Cause of a Once Successful Organization’s Demise?
When placed in a position of authority to establish a resilient culture within an organization, one should recognize that a strong correlation exists between the operations of a sports organization/sports team and that of a corporate business entity, and vice versa. As significant financial revenue is produced from TV contracts, season ticket sales, playoff games, bowl games and national tournaments, team apparel sales, concessions, parking, marketing and advertising, etc., isn’t a team sport organization in reality a business enterprise?
There are various explanations for an organization/athletic team’s decline from its once successful ways, and one significant reason is the deterioration of a strong culture. The demise of any business organization often transpires in a progression of “stages,” as described by business CEO and author Les McKeown. A sports organization and sports team are no exception. The following is a representation of each particular stage founded upon my experiences as applied to a sports organization, department, team, etc. that is failing and perhaps hostile as well.
Having Fun Stage
Once the sport organization, collegiate institution, or sports team has surpassed the initial early struggle stage (a phase omitted from this discussion) of building and establishing a consistent level of success, the organization enters what is deemed the fun stage. During this period of sustained success, the organization has likely assimilated exceptional personnel with the utmost proven ability and skill level into their senior management, administration, work force, medical staff, spectrum of coaches, and team athletes. This is also where all previous efforts result in on-the-field “wins.” As these wins continue to accumulate, the “big dogs” of the organization will now emerge. There is also a persistent exemplary presence of the organization’s vision, processes, policies, systems, education and skill training, accountability, and, of course, culture.
Over time, if the sports organization does not adhere to the established details and culture that have provided persistent success, these accomplishments will be jeopardized to eventually enter the whitewater stage. This is the period where the established processes, policies, systems, and culture are brought into the spotlight and questioned. An attitude of complacency may also ensue, with an evolving mindset of “Why do I have to work so hard now that we’re winning? Haven’t we achieved our objectives?” It is imperative to avert this apathy, as it is vital for the organization to endure in its vision and continue to enhance the platforms, commitments, operations, and culture that achieved initial success.
The phrase “success breeds success” only becomes real with an unrelenting work ethic, a fierce determination for continued advancement, and a thirst for competitive success. The whitewater stage is a very difficult one to endure, and it is here where organizations and leaders may begin to suffer a lack of confidence.The phrase “success breeds success” only becomes real with an unrelenting work ethic, a fierce determination for continued advancement, and a thirst for competitive success. Click To Tweet
Personnel may plateau and perhaps even regress in their role, requiring reevaluation and possible replacement. As staff and player contracts terminate, renewals may or may not be renegotiated. Staff as well as athletes may vacate, trades are made, and competing organizations may poach executives, administrators, coaches, and athletes in an attempt to reverse their own particular failures. These deleterious circumstances now place unfamiliar stress upon the organization, resulting in a consequential repetitive restarting of the personnel process. The restarting process will likely resemble something similar to the following:
- Identify the new personnel or athlete.
- Acquire the new personnel or athlete.
- Develop (education and train) the new personnel or athlete.
- Replace the personnel or athlete.
Each new member of the organization must adapt and adhere to the cultural mindset of the organization. Without the sustainment and, if necessary, reestablishment of a strong culture, the reoccurring restarting personnel process cycle will likely become persistent.
Predictable Success Stage
This stage follows the whitewater stage, and it is during this period that all members of the organization must continue to work in unity for the same common cause in accordance with the established organizational objectives. Due to the fluctuating environment, the adjusted strategic objectives must be achieved. At times there may be a hesitation in vision, creativity, risk-taking, and initiative; however, with the continued establishment and maintenance of the ideal foundation of organization personnel, processes, accountability, and culture, success is usually predictable. Predictable success also allows for the addressing and correction of the most recent risks, dangers, and threats that may arise as a possible disruption to the organization’s success.
If the sports organization enters the treadmill phase of this continuum, the organization has probably begun its preliminary demise. Personnel at all levels have continued to become too “comfortable” with their level of sustained success and consequently create an attitude of daily “routine.” The new mindset of “routine” brings with it the consequences of persistent amplified mediocrity and apathy.
NFL Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells has taught me that there is a big difference between routine and commitment. When entering the treadmill stage, the workforce becomes less “committed” and is stuck in a repetitive daily performance of “routine,” as little if any positive progress is established. Those still expending a great deal of energy and effort find little if any forward momentum. The organizational culture wavers to place too much emphasis on policy, process, and data, thus reducing the emphasis on direct operational contact, communication, and especially action. Procedures and methods are executed as always but with a corresponding lack of advancement and subsequent poor accountability.
The Big Rut Stage
This stage is the final chance for the organization to avoid a dismal environment; however, for many entering the big rut stage, it may already be too late, as the organization has regressed to its previous losing ways. The ability to be self-aware is lost as animosity now develops between management, coaches, and athletes. Attitude, performance, and culture spiral downward. A rectification is desperately sought as staff is terminated, athletes are released, and new staff and players enter the organization, reinforcing the repetitive restarting process. The restarting process becomes a vicious cycle that initiates time and time again, as failure is now almost certain.
Many professional sport franchises, collegiate sport teams, and business organizations have gone through this unfortunate process of failure to eventually take the appropriate steps to properly reorganize and reestablish themselves as a successful organization. The revival of a once dismal situation is not just an emotional touch, it’s a comprehensive takeover of mediocrity, apathy, and poor culture, and, depending upon the severity of the situation, the filling of empty hearts as well.
The following are recommendations to consider when attempting to reverse a deteriorating sports organization, department, or team into one of sustained success.
Determine the Strategic Platform and Objectives
A successful makeover in organizational culture will require the executive management team, along with the senior administration and head coach, to collectively devise a new organization platform strategy. The foundation of this new platform is based upon the four “P” pillars identified as follows:
- Position – where to go
- Perspective – what is seen
- Plan – what to do
- Projects – what to prioritize
Strategic platform objectives should be established for the parent organization, each department, and the athletic team, as the achievement of these planned objectives will give rise to the overall success of the organization. The strategic objectives should also be achievable, measurable, and specific, and not generalizations such as “Our goal is to win a championship,” as isn’t that every organization’s aspiration? The preliminary objectives may also not be intended for the achievement of an immediate championship, but instead present a fragment of staged objectives with noted timelines of achievement.
The staging of objectives is also instituted with the intention to rapidly change an “unstable” situation to one of “stability.” An example of such a staging may comprise a progressive plan of action to eliminate a lengthy playoff drought, attain success in the playoffs, and progress to win championships. The transformation plan should be specific to the circumstances presented, as a “cookie cutter” or “cut and paste” approach will likely not attain the success desired.
New leadership will plan enhancements for the existing processes, procedures, informative data, and other vital information. There may also be a need to fill the organization’s voids—i.e., additional specific skill-set staff, establishment of departments and/or programs, collection and distribution of new information for attaining the desired objectives, and a new culture to warrant the achievement of the strategic plan objectives to ensure a successful transformation.
Unfortunately, there are also events that happen where the initial planned objectives may be prioritized to steer the organization from disaster to stability, including a defined role to assist in restoring stability to the surrounding community as well. Such ominous circumstances include an organization on the verge of financial and emotional disaster as realized during the somber events of the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attack on New York City, the 2008 financial crisis, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the present COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, my professional experiences include all of the above-mentioned events. Whether the objectives are to achieve a gold medal, hoist the championship trophy, or reverse a crisis, the odds of achievement increase dramatically when the organization establishes, and conforms to, an appropriate and strong culture.
Who to Hire?
Only when the organization’s new platform and objectives are determined can the selection of the most suitable candidates to lead this campaign transpire. During arduous times, the current leadership is likely to be removed, and candidates then vie for these newly vacant positions. These candidates will arrive from “within” the organization or from “outside” the organization. Each of these scenarios has advantages as well as disadvantages.
Promoting from within the organization is often appropriate. It is beneficial to have someone at the helm who the organization is familiar with and deems trustworthy—someone acquainted with the organization, as well as the former objectives and present operations, and who has established relationships within the workforce and team athletes. These candidates must also display confidence in their demonstrated ability to reverse the organization’s current undesirable performance.
However, “in-house” candidates may also be limited in “outside” experiences. Some may be restricted by their lone prolonged experiences within the same organization, placing a possible constraint upon their abilities. Candidates from within the organization may also be regarded as “guilty by association” and perceived as partially responsible for the current organization/athletic team demise.
There is an old saying that an “expert” is defined as someone from out of town. “Outside” candidates do provide some advantages for the new leadership roles. These include, but are not limited to, proven unique experiences in present or former leadership roles, the familiarity with proven strategic platforms, planned processes, and the establishment of organizational culture. Many “outside” professionals present a proven “resume” for turning dismal organizations into successful ones. Coach Bill Parcells was well respected for his proven ability to accomplish this task.
Outside candidates are able to make informed unbiased decisions because they lack personal relationships within the organization. These candidates also lead to an opportunity for additional “outside” relationships, staffing, and athletes to now be available to the organization. It is recommended that if an outside candidate is selected to lead the organization, a department within the organization, or the team itself, they should be allowed to employ some of their relationships as well. Newly hired leadership should not be expected to remain isolated on their own island without familiar professional peers who will both conform and believe in the new strategy plan and culture to be implemented. The addition of familiar workforce staff and athletes will contribute to the acceleration of a successful transformation.
One last thought on organization employment. When assembling this new workforce, it is important to not lose focus on the concept of “team.” Many organizations may hire the “best” executives, department heads, staff, and coaches, as well as sign the “best” athletes, yet never achieve the success desired. Although all personnel must possess both the knowledge and skill proficiency to perform their responsibilities admirably, it is not required that they all be regarded as the “best” professionals in their field. However, this new workforce must demonstrate the ability to provide 100% of their skills and efforts each and every day. Therefore, the accretion of such talent may not necessarily include individual “world-renowned” professionals, but on the contrary, the organization will now embrace the best team of professionals in the sport league or conference. There are also occasions for the preference of a hire or signing who displays a bit less talent, but who presents the right fit in an organization’s culture.
Have a Comprehensive and Precise Plan of Action
It is important to remember that hope is not a plan of action. It would be very disingenuous to believe that the reversal of a dismal culture will happen arbitrarily. I am also not aware of any head coach or business executive who has access to a crystal ball. Therefore, at the time of the initiation of this transformation process, an “absolute” prediction of the future is unfounded. Nevertheless, a strong and concise detailed plan of action—one that specifically correlates to the achievement of the new and measurable objectives—is always favorable for implementation.It is important to remember that hope is not a plan of action. It would be very disingenuous to believe that the reversal of a dismal culture will happen arbitrarily. Click To Tweet
The new strategy must address the role, expectations, and accountability of all in senior management, the workforce, the spectrum of coaches, and athletes. The components of the prescribed plan of action should include, but not be limited to, the following:
- Identify the current state of the organization and how it measures up to other successful competitive organizations in the sport league or conference.
- Identify the immediate as well as any significant problems and/or conditions to be resolved along with the corresponding achievable and measurable objectives to ensure this correction.
- Identify the primary organization departments and personnel best suited to assist with this campaign of culture transformation.
- Provide the details of the processes, as well as any and all “staging” of this new strategy, including timelines for anticipated achievements.
- Provide all additional financial costs and structure necessary for the implementation of this strategic plan of action.
- Provide in detail how this new strategy will reverse the present breakdown in culture and attain success.
- Describe the advantages of this new strategy and how it positions the organization when compared to other similar competitive organizations.
Culture is the foundation and backbone of any organization. When a change in leadership takes place, there will likely be an associated change in culture as well. It is important to point out that culture changes through a process of transformation. This transformation is necessary, as the greatest threat to the organization is not the present-day downward spiral but addressing the crisis with yesterday’s logic.
Changing culture requires an acknowledgement of what a strong culture is. With regard to team sports, the physical qualities necessary for athletic success—i.e., strength, power, speed, etc.—are not considered a culture, as these physical qualities are beliefs for athletic achievement. A strong culture encompasses the entire organization and workforce, not just a few segregated departments.Changing culture requires an acknowledgement of what a strong culture is. Click To Tweet
As an example, how would the enhancement of physical qualities assist the departments of human resources, accounting, legal and compliance, marketing, and technology? Culture necessitates the resilient attributes of cooperation and effort from the entire organization to lead to the appropriate self-accountability (more on this later) of all departments and members of the workforce. This commitment ensures that the obligations and contributions of all departments within the organization will cooperatively assist the team athletes to become stronger, more powerful, and faster.
Culture is also considered the character and personality of the organization. It provides a feeling of unity that positively impacts the organization by solidifying values and objectives while also increasing morale. As Henry Ford stated, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” An individual commitment to a group effort is essential to establish a strong culture and result in success.
The following 10 behaviors require no talent and will assist in a positive transformation of an organization’s culture.
- Be on time.
- Bring a strong work ethic.
- Provide your best effort daily.
- Exhibit positive body language.
- Exhibit positive energy.
- Have a positive attitude.
- Exhibit passion in your work efforts.
- Be coachable.
- Do the extra.
- Always be prepared.
Establishing a strong culture encompasses many parts. To keep this dialogue brief, I will highlight the importance of organizational communication and accountability.
The practice of good communication lays the groundwork for a strong and resilient organizational culture. When a change in leadership occurs, the various workforce members who have had experiences with a change of leadership versus those who have not should be acknowledged. People react differently to perceived stressful situations, and some individuals may require an altered approach in the communication of the new expectations now placed upon them.
Everyone in the organization is to be informed of the organizational operations. Regardless of the operational methods of the past, this new strategy will now be the precedent moving forward. That stated, those in positions of authority should be open to input from all colleagues and staff for whom they are responsible. These opinions and assessments should be respected and acknowledged; however, these discussions should not alter the foundation of the strategic plan moving forward.
As changes transpire within the organization, some individuals may not have an affinity toward these new adjustments. However, change is the only mechanism that will ensure the transformation of culture and success. It is important to keep the workforce and athletes constantly informed, as daily communication will eventually eliminate the distrust that may be present at the initiation of this cultural transformation.Change is the only mechanism that will ensure the transformation of culture and success. Click To Tweet
Be explicit and clear with all expectations placed upon each member of the organization, as nobody should have to guess at their role and expected accountabilities. Every associate should understand that their energies are for the greater good of the organization. Inquire each week, “What did your staff love, and what did they loathe?” Employ this information wisely and appropriately.
It is natural for people to want to know why they are unique, why are they special. Everyone in a position of authority should encourage, acknowledge, reward, and reinforce positive achievements, exceptional performances, and especially results. The appreciation and recognition of these achievements should occur in a “public” manner.
Acknowledgement should not be limited to a single department or the athletic team alone, but involve all departments and workforce within the organization, including senior management. It is also significant to recognize that communication frequency trumps quality. Superior culture, work proficiency, and desired outcomes are achieved via the frequency of daily communication versus a single “high quality” end-of-year review.
“The single most powerful characteristic of the Predictable Success organization is the existence of a culture of self-accountability.” –Les McKeown
To successfully achieve the desired transformation in workforce culture, every person must be held accountable for their specific role and achievable objective responsibilities. As culture is always evolving, accountability must then advance to a level of self-accountability, an environment where each person is acceptingly accountable to themselves. Self-accountability transforms the perspective of a job as solely a source of income to an opportunity of enthusiasm for the relaying of messages of importance to peers. As each workforce member realizes their own self-accountability, success will come about more easily and rapidly.
Self-accountability also acknowledges all efforts are for the “good of the whole” and not individual accolades. Then again, the success of the whole will also bring forth the individual accolades that many desire. During my time as the head S&C coach at St. John’s University of New York, Hall of Fame Head Basketball Coach Lou Carnesecca often reminded our teams, “Athletes who play the game for fame and fortune will likely achieve neither, but players who strive for championships will likely achieve both.” Everyone in the organization must work in unity for a common vision of success, as none of us is as smart as all of us.Everyone in the organization must work in unity for a common vision of success, as none of us is as smart as all of us. Click To Tweet
The advancement of self-accountability also leads to trust. The establishment of trust within an organization is imperative to ensure the success of any sports or business entity. Trust can’t be bought, traded for, or spoken about in passing—trust is earned. Trust demonstrates the steadfast dependability of an individual’s contribution of consistency of performance.
As new leadership continues to evolve, additional circumstances may arise that require attention. As previously conveyed, certain individuals in the workforce may not be comfortable or may even contest organizational change. Those refuting the planned organization transformation will require a direct conversation to reinforce the new strategic system presently in place.
As these discussions take place, personalities who may be “stuck in their old ways,” not onboard, and perhaps even disruptive may be exposed. Those who are noncompliant will need to determine if they can conform and remain or leave the organization, informing their direct report accordingly. If a particular individual is regarded as an esteemed member of the organization with a valued skill set, an additional consideration may be a reevaluation for a possible amicable adjustment in organizational role and responsibilities for which they are still held accountable.
Most individuals likely have aspirations for their present and future careers. Those not conforming to the new strategic plan and culture should be confronted with a focused discussion on the effect of their unsuitable and/or defiant behavior upon their personal career opportunities. These opportunities include, but are not limited to, remaining on the team roster or within the organization; playing time; draft status; professional advancement including executive, senior administrative, department head, head or assistant coaching opportunities; future job references; and a poor overall professional reputation, to name a few.
A more positive result for culture “buy-in” will likely take place with an appropriate and respectful conversation based upon an individual’s personal opportunities versus their poor conduct and its effects upon the organization. Although the latter should also be acknowledged, expressed personal interest in the individual emphasizes a sincere appreciation of concern that is often acknowledged with gratitude at the time of these discussions.
Accountability not only correlates to rewards for outstanding performances but consequences for those failing to meet their communicated roles and expectations. Expectations are placed upon the achievement of objective responsibilities. These objectives are to be measured, as quantifying ensures fairness, accuracy, and accomplishment; affords accessibility to pertinent information; and, of course, reinforces the old adage that states: “What gets measured gets done!” Objectives are measured with the purpose of the achievement of progression as well as the attainment of valid and useful information, and not simply for the sake of measuring. Individual popularity, length of tenure, etc. do not allow for “modifications” in accountability, as all in the workforce are expected to conform to the newly recognized standards of the organization.
There are other possible causes for poor individual performance. Absent organization divisions/departments, obsolete equipment and processes, limited number of skilled staff, absent or inadequate education/training methods, poor communication, etc. should also be appraised as contributors to poor performance versus a lack of an individual’s effort or ability to achieve their assigned responsibilities. When these organizational inadequacies are realized, they should be rectified as soon as possible.
Conversations with my peers from various business and sport organizations also reveal an opinion that the enforcement of accountability includes treating all personnel as equals. As this point of view is acknowledged, it should also be recognized that individual backgrounds and personalities vary, the severity of “violations” is wide-ranging, and repeat violations do not materialize from each person within the organization. Therefore, when addressing accountability, there’s no obligation to be fair, there’s an obligation to be right. Each violation of accountability should be addressed based upon the individual and each distinct incident.
It should also be noted that there is a significant difference between discipline and rules. A good friend of mine, now retired, was previously employed on a professional sport team coaching staff that had just gone through a change at the head coach position. The new head coach asked my friend to remain on his new coaching staff, to which he agreed. On one particular occasion, the new head coach called my friend to his office and stated, “I’ve kept all of our players’ fines and records from the time of the previous head coach until now. I’ve fined our players three times more than the previous head coach. Why do you think these problems are still occurring?” The response was simple and direct, “Coach, that’s because you have rules, the previous head coach had discipline.”The presence of self-accountability also correlates directly to an awareness of self-discipline, resulting in the requirement for very few rules. Click To Tweet
The presence of self-accountability also correlates directly to an awareness of self-discipline, resulting in the requirement for very few rules. Hall of Fame Basketball Coach Bobby Knight, considered one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time, had one rule for his basketball teams and one rule only: “Don’t do anything that you think I might not like.” The genius of that one statement is that it covered an enormous amount of territory. Coach Bill Parcells places the “discipline” versus “rules” conversation in the proper perspective: “Discipline isn’t about punishing people. It’s about creating an atmosphere where you don’t have to.”
Accountability also correlates to the athletic team’s anticipated performance. I have witnessed athletes being awakened by the coaching staff to confirm class attendance and coaches pursuing athletes to attend team mealtimes even though these meals are provided free of charge, as well as other absurd scenarios. When inquiring why this conduct is tolerated, one implied concern was if the athlete becomes “disgruntled” because they are held accountable, they may transfer to a different institution. The concerns that arise from such scenarios are as follows:
- Coaches have more appropriate uses of their time than ensuring their athletes attend class or eat meals.
- Athletes who attend class, attend team meals, etc. demonstrate self-discipline, responsibility, and the willingness to prepare. They earn the trust to be depended upon and the expectation of consistency for their best efforts during team training, practice, and crucial game situations. Can the same be said of an athlete who needs to be “hunted” to attend class, team meals, etc.?
- If the noncompliant athlete is fairly popular, their inappropriate behavior may spread to their teammates, potentially making a bad situation even worse.
- All of the team athletes will eventually see through the facade of accountability and no longer tolerate the expected team culture. Such a large setback will eventually establish a large team divide. The cultural foundation is now severely compromised, placing the team at high risk for failure with any additional episodes of adversity or high-pressure situations.
To reflect upon this type of situation from a different perspective, let’s assume that there are staff and team athletes who deliberately violate an organization’s culture and are not held accountable for their actions. As the organization and locker room becomes segregated, the cultural foundation will begin to crumble. The team may win a few games, but it will likely never achieve the level of anticipated success. This state of affairs will likely result in the termination of some combination of senior administrators, head coach, staff, and athletes.
However, the situation won’t end there. There will be an assessment of the organization and team landscape by the newly hired personnel. Upon review of the state of affairs, the new authority will likely release all of the remaining members of the organization and team who continue with their nonconforming conduct, while also questioning how these individuals were ever allowed to remain. Therefore, the accountability that should have initially transpired eventually does transpire, unfortunately at the cost of employment, scholarship, or position on the athletic team.Successful sports organizations usually have one factor in common—the recognition of and adherence to a strong organizational culture. Click To Tweet
The sustained success demonstrated by some sport organizations is not established by coincidence. Successful sports organizations usually have one factor in common—the recognition of and adherence to a strong organizational culture. During the stressful occurrences of an organization’s demise, the establishment of a new strategic platform that includes measurable objectives, leading to a workforce and athletic team environment of self-accountability and self-discipline, will result in the reestablishment of a strong organizational culture and the eventual return to sustained success.
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