Four Elements of Great Cultures

Sometimes I think it’s really easy as coaches to get wrapped up in what we teach to others.  We’re excited to share great lessons we’ve learned and just know they will help whoever will listen.  At times, this thirst to teach comes at the expense of remembering there are plenty of opportunities for us to learn too.  That’s one of my favorite parts of my job- I’m able to learn from an incredible diversity of people who offer so much.  Over the last year I had the privilege to learn from three great cultures, and I think some of the qualities they display would benefit your teams as well.


Let’s do a little visualization activity.  Imagine a culture where there’s an understanding of and respect for the process and how long it takes.  What do you see? What’s it sound like? What does it feel like? Imagine an environment where risk and failure are encouraged.  Same. What do you see, hear, and feel? Maybe even think about taste or smell. How about a culture that engages and develops the total person?  One that doesn’t just focus on the contribution you make to the group. What would that be like to you? Finally, imagine a culture that focuses on how each individual can improve while keeping a sense of what is best for the group and developing it as well?  Same- what would this look like?

Chances are what you envisioned was sports related.  Maybe it was a moment on a team you were fortunate to be a part of in your past as either a player or coach.  Maybe it was a team you’ve read about or watched play. The cultural characteristics I described actually are elements of three of the best cultures I was around over the last year, and none of them are athletic teams.  They’re performing arts groups, and I think we can learn a lot from them.

We have a really good group of performing arts at our school.  Our talented and gifted drama class won a state championship and competed at the regional level.  The choral program regularly produces amazing performances and performers, with many making regional and state groups.  Our dance program is outstanding as well. They don’t have any competitions that I’m aware of, but they have multiple concerts yearly that are largely student-driven and are great,  Although more of my time was spent with athletics, I was around enough to have the pleasure of learning from all three and got a snapshot of three tremendous, student-centered cultures that allow for growth.

Each of the groups has all four characteristics present in our visualization activity.  The first is an understanding of and respect for the process and how long it takes. There is a daily routine of sorts that is intentional in what it does for students and the group.   They also really get that it takes time to develop a great performance or performer. I think a major factor for this is the split of practice and performance time. It’s overwhelmingly skewed in the favor of practice.  You may work an entire school year for something you perform once or, at most, a handful of times. Compare this to sports where you compete weekly and as much as four times in a week. This demands patience, persistence, and a direction- it demands a process.

The second characteristic is they all create environments where risk and failure are encouraged.  One of my favorite interactions of the year came during a session with a biology class. Our discussion was about stress, and we were talking about how stress can be good. One of the students I knew from sport psychology was a member of the choir program, and here's a piece of our conversation:

Me: Yall go for it and try new things in chorus right? Student: Oh yeah. Me: Like it? Student: Love it. Me: Why? Student: Because I want to learn! Me: Why else? Student: Because we can do it and fail and it’s okay because it’s safe.

That was such a cool thing for anyone to say, and it was all the more impressive coming from a 14-15 year-old freshman.  What makes it even better is that if you asked any random assortment of 10 choir students about the same concept an overwhelming majority would speak similarly. Oh yeah, and safety is actually one of the three traits of great cultures Daniel Coyle discusses in Culture Code. That made it even cooler.

A third characteristic present in all three groups is an environment that allows for talking about other things and values the total person.  That’s something I think some teams miss at times. There’s so much focus on being busy and focused on whatever skill or drill being executed in our strict amount of time that we forget to take a deep breath and realize we have people playing sports who all hold other valuable roles in their lives.  Because it’s unrealistic to “just act,” “just sing,” or “just dance” for hours upon end, there is some inevitable down time for drama, dance, and choir where it doesn’t look busy. Students are sitting around talking about other things. This down time is crucial for getting to know each other though and creating an environment of trust.  Trust is yet another essential component to great cultures. The conversations allow for group members to see each other as more than whatever role they may have in the group’s performance. This is great culture.

Finally, all three of the groups mentioned do a great job of developing individuals within the group concept.  If I ask one of the teachers about a student, they will have a story about how that student has come a long way and how proud they are of the student.  These stories are equal in how they value performer and person. Each group allows students to take leadership roles and fosters accountability. Drama, as an example, has a group of students who are in charge of everything related to stage management and tech.  Dance will have many pieces that are choreographed by students. Chorus had the ability to function really well even as the teacher was out for weeks with a serious knee injury. We talk a lot about taking control of your process and responsibility for your performance- this is it!

That’s a lot on the what and how of some great cultures, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the all important “why” to what makes these cultures.  All three of their teacher leaders are incredibly selfless with their time and energy in working with the students. Like coaches, they spend many a morning, lunch, and late evening giving more of themselves that what is requires.  And they don’t even get that huge coaching stipend!  Beyond that, they are learners who practice what they preach with regards to the great expectations they have for those in their groups.  They’re three special people, and we’re lucky to have them at our school. If you’re a coach reading this, chances are you have people just like this around wherever you work.  I’d recommend seeking them out. The lessons may not be quite as clear as those from your coaching buddies, but they may just be more valuable in building the kind of culture you want.

Last but certainly not least, challenge yourself to incorporate some of these characteristics of culture on your teams. Do you have an environment where it's safe to try new things? Do you allow for the development of individuals within the team concept? When's the last time you had a conversation with each member of your team about something that had nothing to do with your sport? Does your team and its individuals really have a process for improvement and performing? Just a few things to consider. Chances are there are areas you're doing a great job with, and it's okay to pause and celebrate that. You probably could do a little better with at least one. That is okay too. Great cultures are constantly in development.

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