How to Build Company Culture? Lessons From the NBA.

A few months ago, while flying across the country, I decided to binge on my favorite basketball podcast, The Woj Pod, hosted by Adrian “Woj” Wojnarowski from ESPN. The season’s end retirement of the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade was on my mind, so I selected his February 2017 interview. Then I closed my eyes to download the in-depth insights I reliably receive from Woj.

Less than 15 minutes into the interview, I was pulled from my podcast meditation, by a word that is like intellectual candy. Woj, who often asks his guests to talk about the identity and culture of their teams, prompted Wade by stating, “People talk about culture and it’s a cliché they throw around….but very few places is there a real culture…”

Wade responded, “Yeah, the standards don’t change no matter who comes in and out.” He then did a crossover stepback on any further discussion of identity and culture, and launched into a conversation about Head Coach Erik Spoelstra’s philosophy of staying in the present. Following his lead, Woj moved on and so too did my eager intrigue about the subject of culture.

The next interview I listened to, also conducted in February 2017, was with then Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle. Woj again brought up the topics of identity and culture. Eighteen minutes into the podcast, Randle said, “I just feel like culture is important..having an identity as a team of who you want to be is really important.” When Woj asked Randle to define culture, he described the three pillars of the team’s approach to defense — one of which he could not recall. He added, “It means, like, who you are. Your identity. We knew every night we wanted to be top 10 in the league in defense.”

Randle makes two excellent points — both identity and culture are important. But even while making those points, he is unable to comprehensively describe the specifics of either. That is no slight to Randle. The words identity and culture are as difficult to detail and define, as they are pervasive in the parlance of team sports. They are often mentioned by players, coaches and general managers when discussing the interpersonal dynamics of a team. What is usually conveyed is a cliched list of attributes: having a winning culture, selflessness, a leave it all on the floor work ethic, player development, strong defense and aggressive play. These attributes are desirable for any team seeking success. But with every team asserting them, they are not the distinguishing characteristics of any team’s unique identity or culture.

When I hear discussions about these words, I’m left more with an impression than an understanding. Teams desire a self-evident distinction that unifies everyone with a singular intent — winning. The concept of team, at its core, is defined by that distinction, unity and intent. This applies whether you consider the Navy SEALs or the Seattle Storm.

The NBA has a rich history of players whose identities have left an indelible mark on the league. Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s tailor-made swag converted stadium corridors into fashion runways players stroll across, in route to the locker room. Allen Iverson imprinted the hip-hop lifestyle onto the NBA perhaps more than other player. Rasheed Wallace was known for his volcanic volatility. John Stockton played with the stoic severity of a drill sergeant. The outlandish flamboyance of Dennis Rodman stood in stark contrast, to the barbershop precision of Mark Price. And if you juxtapose the larger than life, superhero persona of Shaquille O’Neal against the never back down, giant slayer bravado of Nate Robinson, it’s clear to see that the height of identity is measured by the ruler of self-determination.

Similarly, the NBA is replete with cultural influences from a multinational roster of more than 100 players from over 40 countries. The league operates in two North American countries with very different cultural profiles. Its 30 teams are based in 30 cities, each with its own patchwork quilt of diverse cultures. NBA preseason Global Games are played in Israel, China, Italy, Germany, Russia and the Philippines. Regular season games are played in Mexico, Japan and the United Kingdom. Scouts recruit globally. And one team is spearheaded by the first ever African-born individual to become a GM and President of a franchise.

Individual identity can be can be easily displayed, and cultural diversity can be as easily seen. However, without clearly defining what actually distinguishes one team from any other, the words identity and culture are reduced to being locker room platitudes and media catch-alls. They are spoken with the connotation of something that is actual and verifiable, but that becomes assumed and vague in explanation.

Culture is the one aspect of an enterprise that it has total autonomy to determine. Culture and identity, when specifically defined and established, are the two greatest lures for top talent. The uphill climb of this challenge is as open-shot obvious, as it is open-lane overlooked. Words like identity

and cultureare similar to words like trust and hope, in one regard. Because they are so widely and commonly used, most people think they have an absolute and applicable understanding of them. But I have pressed thousands of people to precisely define them, and they can’t. My efforts to help them do so has led me to one irrefutable, truth: words form thoughts that lead to actions.

The inability to concretely define words leads to the inability to form concrete thoughts that lead to concrete actions. For example, in basketball, a “screen” is an action, a blocking move set by an offensive player on a defender to free a teammate to shoot, pass or drive. Tell someone who has never played the game before to set one, and stand-still confusion is what you’re likely to get instead.

Likewise for identity and culture. They don’t have to be ill-used words lobbed at interviewers like ill-timed alley-oop passes. They can be simply defined, so they can be caught by thought and dunked into action. To really understand a word, go to its origin — as any Scripps National Spelling Bee contestant ever covered by ESPN would advise.

Identity is about sameness and oneness. Sameness describes what is distinct and different. Sameness is why groups are formed from individuals with like minded perspectives and pursuits, which makes them comparable to and compatible with each other. Oneness is why individuals construct, project and defend their individuality to distinguish themselves from everyone else. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar are individuals who will forever be identified as Los Angeles Lakers (sameness), and as individuals who possess wholly distinct and different personas (oneness).

Culture means to prepare, develop and guard the growth of people, and to harvest their creativity and productivity. This is why culture is an all encompassing phrase that includes the language, customs, cuisine, arts, institutions, beliefs, morals, music, lifestyles and achievements of a specific people. These aspects are evidence of a way of thought and conduct, which led to their preparation and development. They are guarded by traditions, values, standards, principles, rights and rules. And they are the yield of what has been harvested from the hearts, minds and efforts of many people. The Red Auerbach era of the Boston Celtics defined a culture that yielded championships, as did the Phil Jackson era of the Chicago Bulls, and now during the Steve Kerr era of the Golden State Warriors.

Identity is who you are. Culture is how you live. Pick any two people in Paris and who they are can be easily discerned, but both live the Parisian way. Relative to sports, “who you are” speaks to the collective mentality of a team conveyed in demeanor and personality — its style of play. In that identity is the physical expression and projection of self-distinction, who the players express and project themselves to be on the floor, as a team, distinguishes the identity of the team. When Toronto Raptors’ Head Coach Nick Nurse speaks of having an “entrepreneurial” coaching style, it is clearly expressed and projected in the style of play of the team — everyone doing everything all the time to win. Entrepreneurial aptly describes the league-wide shift to a positionless style of play.

Ambiguity about a team’s identity results in a haphazard and jerry-rigged system to support that ambiguous identity. It also makes the possibility that apathy, dissension and losing will more likely define what distinguishes the team.

The ‘how you live’ part of that premise speaks to the operation, function and social engagement of the team as an entire organization. From president to GM, to coach to player, to trainer to equipment manager teams need to establish an environment with prevailing attitudes, stated expectations, defined qualities of character and uniform standards of conduct that systemize and ritualize everything from operations to practice to play. This is why people speak of the New England Patriots “way”, or the San Antonio Spurs “way”. You need only listen to Tedy Bruschi or David Robinson talk about their former teams, to know that they not only valued and adhered to the cultures of their teams, but continue to advocate for the “way” that continues to distinguish them.

Incoherence about a team’s values, principles and ethos all but guarantees that the personnel of that team will be unable to marshall a consistent and cohesive effort for excellence. It also cancels out one aspect of culture that all but guarantees it actually exist.

Brad Stevens, in his March 2014 interview with Masslive, breaks down his understanding of culture. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to measure it until we’re down the road, even standing here at this time next year. But I think the one way that you can measure it is, the guys are still connected. Even with all the change that we had midseason, I’ve been really pleased with how connected they are.”

This aspect of culture, that prevailing and enduring connection, is something that both Stevens and Wade allude to, as proof of the presence of a substantive culture. Perpetuity. When the pervasive, defining culture of a team perseveres through changes of personnel, statistics and identities, it means that it is the expected and accepted way of conduct for that entire organization.

Perpetuity requires a leadership mandate from top to bottom. It must foster a total buy-in effort directed by a singularity of purpose. Both effort and purpose must be resistant to any competing interest, and dismissive of any superficial commitment. This mandate is established to maintain the standards, atmosphere and shared goals of excellence that players and staff invest in, rely on and uphold.

This is what protects the innermost sanctum of the team, its locker room, from toxic personalities, adverse media, undermining tension, destructive dissension, and the exemption and normalization of socially unacceptable, counterproductive conduct. Strong cultures are reinforced when challenged by such problems. Weak cultures crumble.

How can a strong identity and culture be created?

The origins lie with the mission, focus and instruction of an individual with commanding leadership influence, and clear organizational objectives that can be articulated as policy and applied as practice. If a leader’s influence is negative, demeaning, combative and duplicitous then these will become the dysfunctional directives for the team. If a leader’s influence is positive, encouraging, collaborative and earnest then these will become the functional directives for the team.

Whether the leader is the owner, the president, the GM or the coach, they curate — formulate, authorize, implement and validate practices, routines and systems that institute the beliefs and principles of the organization. Ultimately, a team’s identity and culture is the manifestation of the leader’s core values, which guide the thoughts and conduct of everyone in the organization.

The applied mandate of the leader must be reliably consistent and equitably enforced, in order for it to become fully adopted and habitual. The habitual behavior of a team reveals the consistency of its capabilities, the resolve of its character, the strength of its cohesion and the adherence of its principles. Ultimately, this will forge an identity that distinguishes a team from all others, and institute the culture that will sustain it.

NBA teams overuse cliches and familiar phrases. Instead, they can do the hard work introducing and repeating a new shared vocabulary that commissions conduct. Just as every football team has it own play book, every team can have its own concepts and terminology for the identity and culture it seeks. If it incorporates and reinforces the objectives of the entire organization through the daily duties of everyone involved, it will codify the maximum development of each individual and yield the maximum benefit for the team. It can preserve, protect and promote the highest motivation of everyone, towards developing the strongest bond for achieving the shared goal. This new vocabulary will become the language of the organization, spoken and repeated with frequency for it to become imbedded in the thought DNA of each player and staff member.

Specific behaviors don’t become standard conduct without infrastructure to support it. When standards of conduct are well conceived, well conveyed and well maintained without exception, the behaviors become habits. Policies, practices and protocol can be clearly stated, employed and implemented. Initiatives and events can be periodically sponsored to adjust, improve and correct any misalignment. Interdepartmental communication can be open, constant and cooperative. The needs and requests of the team are addressed with the greatest expediency, to insure that the focus required for excellence and adherence remains sharp.

Every team is at risk of difficult dynamics and problematic circumstances. By engineering ‘pillar protectors’ to curtail and disqualify counterproductive behavior, poor conduct is unlikely to spread and infect the entire environment of an organization, and impair all efforts for excellence. Drafting clear guidelines about comportment, and assigning and enforcing specific penalties for noncompliance provides a boundary.

The most helpful guiding question for every member of the team is this: “If everyone in the group suddenly behaved this way, would the team be better for it?” If the answer is no, triage and treat to immediately stop the spread of the disease. Everyone can inoculate themselves with a degree of personal responsibility and accountability that rejects misconduct. Preservation of the culture can supersede the significance of any individual. It’s the last line of the wolf pledge in Jungle Book, “…the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” The team is the pack, and each individual’s conviction to the identity and culture of the pack is what makes it strong.

When a team is ready to express their identity, and leadership is dedicated to curating a culture, then a team’s identity and culture will be distinctly defined and generationally preserved. And when more teams are able to do this, the league itself will evolve with even greater distinction and durability.

Special advisor to leaders, recipient of NBA Championship ring for her role as special advisor to the President, GM and Head Coach of the Toronto Raptors.