Creating a Great Team Culture: Culture Change Starts at the Top

I started playing rugby in college. I went to my first practice and ran more than I had in years. I thought I was going to die. When I got to play in my first game, I'm pretty sure I missed every tackle and ball that came my way, but I was hooked. I've been playing ever since.

After college I started playing for a local men's team. About midway through my first season there, the team's coach abruptly left and we found ourselves in search of a new one. After a few months the club's leadership hired a new coach. And boy, did he have his work cut out for him.

Our old coach was brilliant, probably too brilliant for our team at least. He had us watching professional rugby matches from teams in New Zealand and Australia; analyzing their plays and strategies. He wanted us to play at that level and to be able to think about the sport with that level of understanding and nuance. The problem was, most of us had only been playing the game for a few years at most. These players whose games we watching had likely grown up with a rugby ball in their hands. The expectations were very high. On top of that our old coach wasn't the best with people, to put it mildly. I remember one game where we admittedly didn't play up to our fullest potential and we all gathered on the sidelines and our coach started shouting how we all "played like a bunch of wet hot dogs." Only he threw in a few more words that would make this blog very NSFW. Our team morale definitely wasn't in the best of places.

So into all of this mess our new coach walks in. His first goal was recreating the team's culture. In our first team meeting he outlined the sort of team he wanted to create. He opened with a power point that on the very first slide outlined the team's core beliefs and strategic values. Moving forward, I'll be writing a few pieces about what some of those values and beliefs were and how they can be translated from the rugby pitch to our organizations, but for now I want to focus on the presentation of the values themselves.

When our new coach rolled in and presented those belies and values, they weren't just afterthoughts. They weren't "Oh we'll get to these if we have time, after we do everything else." They weren't optional. They were the very first slide. They were going to be the foundation of our club's culture going forward. We were going to be rebuilding our team based on those values.

The lesson for us today is this, if we want to change the culture of our organizations and teams, we have to put culture change first. It's not an afterthought. It has to be the first slide, and it has to come from the leadership. We as players could try to create a positive culture in our club, but if the leadership wasn't on board, then we weren't going to get anywhere.

In speaking with companies that are trying to change their culture, whether they're attempting to transition to lean manufacturing methodologies, or pursuing continuous improvement practices, or whatever their goals are, the success or failure of those changes is dependent on the company's leadership. Companies that aren't willing to place culture change as their first priority, in six months, a year, five years, they'll still be exactly where they were when they started. Culture change starts at the top. Only when we as leaders are able to define our organization's values and beliefs and act on those, then are we able to truly lead our teams towards the culture we are trying to create.

If you're looking for a way to change your organizations culture and shift towards continuous improvement or lean manufacturing, check out Huddle. Huddle is our Lean Team Development module that tracks your teams progress towards operational excellence. Check it out!

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