Jake Thompson | Dallas Keynote Speaker and Peak Performance Coach

Create Your Own Championship Culture

championship trophy

All successful business leaders have a created championship program within their office. It’s something any new or seasoned leader should want for their company. What defines a championship office culture and what can we do to create one in our own company?

Sports coaches want to compete for championships every year, with a program where winning is the mark of our culture. Business teams want a successful culture to attract superstar employees, retain and grow our current employees, and excel in the marketplace.

I’ve seen more companies in the last two years hone in on selling their culture and perks to potential employees than ever before. More vacation! Work from home privileges! Fitness classes IN the office! Each group trying to one-up the next as to why their company culture is the best place to be. We want to be known for having THE place to work as much as we do winning in the marketplace.

So how exactly do we create a Championship culture in the work place?

First we need to know what a Championship culture looks like – and the warning signs of one that isn’t. Below is a list of characteristics that define championship teams – both in sports and business – and examples of how this can be applied to your organization.

Championship teams put their members in the right roles to win.

Dysfunctional teams refuse to adapt to their members’ strengths.

In the 1980 NBA Finals, league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar severely sprained his ankle and was forced out of a pivotal Game 6. In most situations, teams would panic when their best player goes down, but championship cultures understand it’s about the “next man up.” Rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a point guard, switched positions and started the game at Center, filling in for Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson went on to score 42 points (along with 15 rebounds and 7 assists), leading the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title (source).

Similarly, when Carson Wentz tore his ACL during the 2017 NFL Season, backup Nick Foles stepped right in, and with the help of his teammates and coaching staff’s playcalling, led the Eagles to their first ever Super Bowl Championship.

In both cases, the coaches knew their team and adjusted the playbooks to fit their team’s new or adjusted strengths. Magic at the Center position spread the athleticism across the court in a way that Philadelphia couldn’t match. Doug Pederson and the Eagles called offensive plays that played to Foles’ strengths so could execute for the benefit of the team.

The culture created is about “the next person stepping up” and making sure we put that person in a position to win.

Questions to ask your team:

  • Are you in touch with the pulse of your organization and making sure employees’ career path upward through the organization is what best fits their skill set?
  • Are you organizing teams and projects with a diverse skillset in order to create a complimentary unit?

Championship teams build each other up.

Dysfunctional teams look out for themselves and attack each other when threats arise.

We’ve all seen it on TV. A player makes a mistake and is caught by cameras on the television screaming at another teammate. The heat of the moment catches up with everyone. If the sideline fighting continues, you start to see division in the locker room, with cliches forming and everyone looking out for their own – instead of standing united as one unit.

In a Championship culture, teammates are about lifting each other up because the focus is We > me.

“What can we do together to a) fix the situation and b) reach our goals?”

Disputes are handle through conflict resolution. There’s an ongoing respect among teammates – and if someone isn’t performing up to their capabilities, the leaders of that culture will address it. All players have hit a slump at one point in their career. A championship culture is full of players who understand that and use the opportunity to encourage and assist the player struggling. Consider a shooter who has an off-night and is missing shot after shot. In many situations, her teammates know she is only one shot away from getting on a hot streak so they continue to feed her the ball, believing in her ability to make the shot.

When facing adversity, Championship teams speak in “we” language:

We just didn’t get it done tonight as a team.

It’s not ________’s fault we lost. We all missed opportunities to put the game away.

It’s one game. We’ll collect ourselves, watch film, and make sure we’re ready to win the next one.

Compare that with a dysfunctional culture where finger-pointing and blame is consistent. Common responses are:

It’s not my fault.

I would’ve made that play.

Who cares if we lost, I got my yardage.

Questions to ask your team:

  1. When a setback strikes the office, does your team blame each other or ask where they can rally to improve next time?
  2. Is blame shifted from person to person, or do individuals step up and own their mistakes?

Championship teams aren’t afraid of failure.

Dysfunctional teams are scared to take risks.

“One of our sayings is ‘have a desire to excel and no fear of failure.’ Part of that is the coaches responsibility, and I mentioned that we’re not going to yell and scream at kids, and cuss at kids. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do, and I also don’t want to make kids afraid to go make a great play.”

“If someone misses a tackle or drops a ball, they don’t need to be yelled at, they need to be taught the right way to do it so it doesn’t happen again. Once you take away that fear of what might happen if you make a bad play, it really frees you up to go make great plays.” – Scott Frost, Head Football Coach, University of Nebraska (source)

Playing it safe won’t get the job done.

In a championship team, members are encouraged to take calculated risks. Some will work, some won’t. But the member is encouraged to reach a bit beyond themselves to obtain success. One key feature of this is that championship teams won’t make the same mistake multiple times, but they understand to lead an industry, you have to take risks. A Champion won’t let the fear of failure won’t prevent them from trying.

Rick Welts, COO of the Golden State Warriors, said it best:

“Don’t fail at the same thing twice, but you have every opportunity…some things are going to work, some are not going to work, but if you really want to be thought leaders and industry leaders, that doesn’t come without taking risks. And for an organization to embrace that thinking, we’re going to get it right more often than not but we’re not afraid to take risks to get to that better place.” (source)

Game winning shot. Pass breakup. Stealing home. Big moments are made from taking a risk. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but Champions understand you have to take calculated risks and not be afraid to fail if you want to succeed.

Questions to ask your team:

  1. Does your culture promote growth and reaching bigger than what’s standard? Or are people walking on eggshells, afraid to make the slightest mistake?
  2. How did you handle the last time an employee made a mistake on a project? How could you handle the situation differently next time to promote a Championship culture?

Championship teams are accountable – to the culture and themselves.

Dysfunctional teams lack accountability to anyone.

All Championship teams are made of people accountable to 1.) each other and 2.) themselves.

To each other (your teammates)

One of the best examples I’ve heard of this involved now-Los Angeles Lakers head coach during his rookie season as a player with the team. As Walton told the “Open Run” podcast, the rookie showed up to practice one morning hungover from a night of partying the night before. Team leader (and league assassin) Kobe Bryant smelled the booze on Walton and then instructed the team to stay away from him the entire practice. Walton was his. Kobe went on to destroy Walton in practice for a lesson in work ethic and accountability that will forever stay with Walton.

Walton’s partying the night before broke his commitment to his teammates to be accountable to their goal of winning a championship. By showing up hungover, he was telling them that having fun and his own desires were more important than the team’s. As team captain, Kobe used the opportunity to remind Walton that he was accountable to the team. (Lesson learned as it sounds like it never happened again).

This also clearly ties into the concept of We > me because it is up to each teammate to hold the others to the same agreed-upon standard of excellence.

To themselves

But what about when no one else is around? Champions are accountable to themselves.

There are two types of players who show up to football’s mini-camp every year. The ones who spent all off-season training hard in preparation for the new season, and the ones who didn’t. You can clearly spot the latter when conditioning sessions end and they’re found with their head in the trashcan, throwing up their breakfast.

The players who were accountable to themselves and the standard they’ve set for their lives do the work when no one is watching in anticipation for the time when everyone is. This is a key characteristic that Championship teams look for when building their teams – and the same can be said for championship corporate cultures when hiring new employees.

Questions to ask your team:

  1. Do we look for examples and experiences during our interview-process of how someone holds themselves accountable?
  2. What are some ways we can build better team accountability?

Entrepreneur Magazine has a great list of five ways to promote accountability within your workplace.

Championship cultures don’t “just happen.”

It’s not a matter of adding a single superstar employee (just look at the Lakers this season) or magic formula. It’s the result of intentional actions, strong leadership, and open communication. 

In my keynotes, I talk about how teams can apply a Competitor Mindset to make better choices, and in turn make championship impacts on their organization. I’ve worked with c-level executives, franchise owners, first-time managers, and students, and I am passionate about helping them raise their level up impact by becoming a Championship Performer.

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