How Culture Wins
Last week, I spoke at an event sponsored by REX Roundtables for Executives on the roof of Petco Park – home to the San Diego Padres. Since the audience members are leaders in the health and fitness industry, the sports venue was a fitting place to talk about the difference between winning and building winning cultures in sports, business, and life. A visit to the REX Roundtables website inspired this framework, as they bring business owners and executives together to build high-performing organizations that will stand the test of time. With the NCAA tournament just underway, the timing worked nicely as well.
Early in my talk, I asked how many people in the audience filled out a bracket or were following “March Madness!” An overwhelming number of hands filled the late afternoon sky. I asked, “How many of you picked regional #16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson to beat #1 seed Purdue? One hand went up. I followed with queries about whether anyone selected #15 Princeton to defeat #1 Arizona or if they predicted that Arkansas would prevail over defending national champion Kansas. Nothing. There were no upsets in the women’s bracket at that time, but they would come soon as Stanford and Indiana were knocked out later.
My point was that neither Purdue, Arizona, nor Kansas became a worse team because they lost one game. All three schools and everyone else invited to the tournament had to earn their way there. They are all great teams with a lot to be proud of. None of us wins every day, so in the absence of that, we build cultures in business, sports, community, and family that put us in a position to achieve excellence over time. As REX Roundtables asserts, “That’s what we focus on.”
UCONN Women’s Basketball
As we know now, the University of Connecticut (UCONN) women’s basketball team, who for the past 30 years has been among the most successful programs in all college sports (men or women), lost in the round of sixteen. It’s the first time UCONN hasn’t advanced to the Final Four since 2007. That’s right, until this year, the team has been to the Final Four 14 consecutive times. To put that in perspective, the current record held by South Carolina is three. By the way, UCONN has made it to the Sweet Sixteen since 1994 and counting. They’ve won 11 national championships and hold the record for the longest winning streak at 111 games.
UCONN had more injuries and challenges this season than one can imagine. Some were well-known to the public, and others likely operated behind the scenes. No complaints. No talk of a rebuilding year. Just hard work, a Big East Championship Tournament win, and a trip to the Sweet 16 – a successful year for any program.
This moment should not be about questioning UCONN’s loss; it should focus on marveling at what they have accomplished. As fans, we’ve become spoiled because they made it look easy for so long, including six undefeated seasons. But the reality is that it takes work, and so is building the culture that produces such results possible. So, let’s look at what that entailed at UCONN.
How UCONN Built Its Culture
A Clear Purpose
More than 30 years ago, when head coach Geno Auriemma recruited Kerry Bascom and later Rebecca Lobo, the university was very different from what it is today. The players didn’t come there because of its winning tradition, stellar facilities, and academic reputation. It was just the opposite back then. Auriemma was trying to build something, and he challenged these players to become a part of it – to be the foundation of what would later become the most successful basketball program in college sports history.
Auriemma was criticized once for only winning national championships because he had the best players. He replied, “Of course. Show me a program that’s winning national titles with bad players.” What he and the coaching staff came to understand, however, was which players to recruit to UCONN from a sea of great talent. The difference between being recruited by UCONN and playing your college ball elsewhere involved proving a commitment to being a great teammate. The “it factor” brought together gifted players who were committed to one another – something that proved to be a killer combo.
Attention to Detail
Someone once told me that at UCONN, the team doesn’t practice something until they get it right; they practice it until they can’t get it wrong. That may be an overstatement in a literal sense, but the essence of it is spot on. They pay attention to the little things that can make a big difference.
Preparation for any Situation
A squad of talented male basketball players plays practice games against the women, and it’s not always 5 on 5. Sometimes it’s 6, 7, or 8 on 5. The point is to put these players in pressure situations that are more difficult than anything they will ever experience in the game. It helps them be physically, emotionally, and intellectually ready to make tough decisions in next-to-impossible circumstances and play their way out of them. It also builds unity and confidence among team members about what they can handle in a game.
Commitment to Getting Better
The players at UCONN are among the best high school players in the country when they arrive on campus. However, they soon learn this isn’t high school anymore. If they’re going to play, they have to work at getting stronger and better every day during and off-season. Dave Logan and his co-authors would describe them as a Stage 5 culture. No matter how many points they beat their opponents by, they work relentlessly to create even greater distance between themselves and everybody else.
Today’s players become acquainted with what’s expected of them every day when they walk into the gym and see 11 national championship banners alongside the retired numbers of the players who made them possible. But, interestingly enough, the team’s standard isn’t just about winning games; it’s about leaving fans feeling like they’ve witnessed something extraordinary every time they leave the arena.
Of course, Geno Auriemma, Chris Daily, and the entire team behind the team who takes the floor deserve some credit, too. They drive everything that has made UCONN an exemplar of what makes great teams consistently great. Building outstanding organizational cultures in any field requires a relentless commitment to excellence. This is what REX Roundtables means when it says, “We are talking about consistent year-over-year performance, not just a one-time peak.” So let’s take a moment to appreciate the outstanding examples that UCONN and every other great team in business, sports, and life bring to us and follow their lead.
Written by Leo Bottary.
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