How They Build Cultures of Success

A five-minute read

By Executive Scheduling Associates CEO Mitch Santala


I'm always impressed and curious about companies that appear to have vibrant internal cultures. When employees are especially positive and knowledgeable, I often wonder about their approach. Is there a formula their leaders use to create such environments?


I put that question to a friend, Coach Greg Grandell, who recently retired as one of California's most successful high school football coaches. He led teams for 20 years. His players changed, but the results remained the same – winning. "How did you do that?" I asked. His response went straight to this issue.


"It's a cultural thing," Greg said. "I constantly talked to our players about living, not just playing, '10 and 0.' We spoke of being winners in how we approach everything we do, not just football. 'Are you going to be 10 and 0 today?' I would ask them. 'Or are you going to be satisfied with five and five?' Five and five is halfway to the goal. But I'm not interested in halfway."


I thought of an analogy. "I see your point," I said, "about approaching everything with a winning attitude. I certainly want my surgeon to walk into the operating room with that mindset."


He chuckled and said, "That's what I'm saying. Do I want to go to a 10 to 0 surgeon or someone who is five and five?"


"Culture is a mindset," Greg continued. "It's an attitude about which we regularly reminded our players. We wanted them to wake up every day acting like champions – in their thinking, their conduct toward their family and friends, in the classroom, and on our playing field."


I asked for another example of how he built a consistent winning culture across two decades.


"I challenged our young men to talk championship talk. I think this principle is applicable in every office as well. Championship talk begins with a climate of openness. And it means staying in hard conversations when things aren't going well. It means being receptive to constructive criticism. I spoke regularly to my players about leaving their egos at the door and being ready for critiques, challenges, and growth. Allow your coaches to help you get better, I said. This is championship talk."


I responded that any leader trying to build a team and rally people toward a common goal must also take the time to listen for the tone of their company culture. Where are we aligned in our values and mission? And, more importantly, where are we askew? We must find ways to speak into those areas of misalignment, guiding our teams back to the organization's vision. That's in our job description as leaders, to be attentive and responsive to culture-making.


Greg agreed and said listening has sometimes led him to make hard choices. "I've had to let coaches go who were good friends and still are. But we were not aligned. Cultural orientation rests on a foundation of goals. Who do we want to be? We shouldn't start coaching without knowing what we want to accomplish overall, not just on the scoreboard."


On the subject of goals, Greg's sense of humor kicked in again.


"I wanted to be an NFL player," he smiled. "But at five foot seven inches and 225 pounds, I needed to adjust my life plan. However, I still told my freshman players each fall that I used to be six foot one."


"The point about goals," he continued, "is that I needed to find a way to make use of my passion for football without thinking the pros were going to recruit me. So I picked coaching."


I smiled and told him I understood…I had once hoped to be a Brooklyn Dodgers catcher.


Some business cultures succeed, while others don't. For Coach Greg, the keys to building a thriving culture include inspiring a mindset of 10 and 0 thinking, setting a climate of championship talk, creating a safe place for constructive criticism and hard conversations, realistic goal setting, and, when necessary, saying goodbye to those whose culturesdiffer.


If you would enjoy listening to this entire conversation, click here.

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