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Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


Even when you have an organization brimming with talent, victory is not always under your control. There is no guarantee, no ultimate formula for success. It all comes down to intelligently and relentlessly seeking solutions that will increase your chance of prevailing. When you do that, the score will take care of itself.

– Bill Walsh, NFL 49ers Coach, “The Score Takes Care of Itself”

Like many Aussie kids, I grew up surrounded by sport. Now at Culture Amp we’re surrounded by it in a different way. Today Culture Amp works with 12 of the 18 AFL teams, several SANFL and WAFL teams, Cricket Australia, and even a NFL team in the US. And that’s just some of the peak sporting bodies on our client list.

Some of the fundamentals of the way we work with sporting bodies are the same as any other organization. Most of the time, they're just like every other company. They have the same issues, the same thoughts, the same challenges and the same desire to build a stronger culture.

There are, however, some unique aspects in working with elite athletes. Here are some of the interesting and unique elements of culture in a sporting environment:

1. Sport is a zero-sum environment, business is not

In most industries, the success of one business does not mean the failure of another. Success can grow the industry as a whole. In professional sport, if you’re not winning, you’re losing. And in a winner-takes-all competition, most teams are losing most of the time.

For example, in Australian football, the draft is an equalization mechanism designed to ensure no one team wins all the time. In a mathematically perfect world, each team would win just once every 18 years. That means, if we work with 12 clubs, improving culture can’t just be about a culture of winning. Mathematically, it’s hard to avoid the reality that every club will spend a lot of time losing.

It’s what a club is willing to do when not winning a premiership that defines its culture. What keeps the club going the other 17 years? What is everyone in the club willing to fight for when not at the top, but at the bottom of the ladder?

Long losing streaks will test anybody, but that’s when the club can reach deep and articulate what they stand for. This varies wildly between the different clubs, and must be something that can be shared across the different stakeholders within the club.

2. Sporting stakeholders are very different to business stakeholders

Sporting organizations have multiple stakeholders that have to be treated in different ways. When we work with professional sporting organizations, we need to consider three distinct groups:

  • The playing group (players, coaches and those directly involved in getting to the championship), who are under immense pressure and have to perform intensely within a very limited timeframe
  • The greater club, made up of business people, support crew and families
  • The supporters and fans

Should these groups have the same culture? Can you have multiple cultures within an organization? It's an interesting dynamic working out how to help the team, as well as getting everyone else on the same page.

3. Elite athletes are not representative of the general population

Sporting teams are filled with professional athletes who have often worked single-mindedly from childhood, striving to be the best at their game. They are not representative of the standard workplace.

We can learn from their willingness to push themselves to the limit to achieve their goals. But for these people, the game is all-consuming and it will last only a few years. Regular people have interests and goals outside of the workplace and they will be working for 50 or 60 years of their life.

Members of professional sporting organizations represent an extreme on the bell curve, whereas an organization has a far greater variance of diverse people and personalities.

4. On-field feedback is very different to in-office feedback

It's a mistake to look at a great professional sporting team and think a manager should treat their people the way the coach treats their players.

We often see only the most public examples of how a coach works with the players – on the field, during a game, in extreme circumstances. The coach barks out orders and the player follows them, or suffers the consequences.

When elite sportspeople get extraordinarily critical feedback, they can accept and deal with it because they are trained to do so. That is not the way people in an organization work. A manager has to engage in a more balanced and nuanced way; if you treated people in the workplace the way the coach treats their players, they will generally not respond well.

Dr. Amanda Green at Richmond Football Club says an important conversation for all organizations is what types of behaviors are acceptable in what types of environments. The way somebody gives feedback on the field is dependent upon, and driven by, the requirements of the field.

As Amanda explains, “On the field the players are time poor. They've got the psychological contract established with each other to give very direct feedback. But this does not necessarily work when we move from the field of play into the business areas of a football club.” Off the field, out of the public eye, the feedback is likely to be more considered and constructive. Different environments require different styles of feedback.

For more insight from Dr. Green, check out our case study with the Richmond Football Club

What can we all learn

Despite the differences, there are some valuable lessons we can learn from the modern sporting organization.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the traditional idea of a dictatorial coach make way for a rise in coaches who are much more focused on a Culture First style of leadership.

They're motivating different players in different ways, teaching a system, and promoting a culture that will lead to success. There is a lot to learn from that approach.

In football, once the game starts, a coach can give orders and move people around, but it's down to the people on the field to kick the goals. This is universal. A manager’s job is to prepare their people, but at the end of the day, it’s the people that have to win the game.

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