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Our Team Culture

Our Team Culture

As more and more great running teams and coaches credit culture as a key to their success, I think longer and harder about the culture that will enable our success. Before I get into this, I should mention that I’m especially tuned into culture due to my role atEnergage, where we provide businesses with the tools and services they need to measure and improve their culture.

Let’s start with some examples in the running domain. Check out the Northern Arizona University men’s cross country team who just won their third NCAA D1 championship in a row. At the helm is coach Mike Smith who believes much of their success can be attributed to a sustained focus on building the right culture for their program. It certainly seems to be paying off. A little closer to home is the North Allegheny high school program that just won the male and female team PA state championship. Coach John Neff states that “it's a special thing whenever people can come together and each contribute a little bit and do more together than they could ever do on their own." That is very cool to hear in such an individual sport like running. For me, this hints at a culture that emphasizes team contribution and support.

So what is culture? You can look up many definitions, but let’s go with it being a shared set of behaviors, interaction patterns, and beliefs. At Energage we say that a company’s culture is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage. I see it all the time with the customers we work with, and I hear about it more and more in the context of running and athletics. Coach Steve Magness, distance coach at the University of Houston, likes to talk about how important a focus on culture can be. He explains it like this: “True culture reaches many of the same desired outcomes of team unity, belief, and buy-in from a positive path. Instead of control, we have trust. Instead of isolation to create a team, we have a shared purpose that is bigger than ourselves. Instead of exploiting vulnerabilities, we create an environment that acknowledges and accepts all of our issues.”

While much of the current discussion centers on fostering great cultures at high school and collegiate programs, I don’t think the rest of us need to be left out. We have so many opportunities to be a part of communities that support our development as athletes and individuals. Recreational running teams, informal group training, coaching programs, and other groups can all bring us together. In fact, we have a ton of control over the groups we join, so we can consciously select opportunities that provide a culture that works best for us. There is no “one best” culture, only the culture that works best given the people and content you are operating in.

So what is the right culture for this team? What culture will attract and retain the type of people that will allow us all to thrive and succeed as individuals? As John Neff says, how can we come together and become something greater than we could ever be on our own?

When I think about the types of behaviors, interactions, and beliefs that produce the most success in runners that I know, I land on a 4-tier list:

  1. Social Support — help and encourage each other
  2. Personal Aspirations — know ourselves and fulfill individual desires
  3. Wisdom — learn from our experiences
  4. Performance — be the best runner we can be

In my hierarchy of what matters here, I put running performances on the list but I put it at the bottom. More important than athletic performances, in my opinion, is wisdom — I want us all to gain something important from our running experiences that we can use to help enhance our lives. And even more important than wisdom is personal fulfillment. Everyone has different motivations and reasons for running, and I believe it is important to understand and respect them. We are all responsible for our own personal fulfillment, but we are much more likely to attain it when we have people around us to provide support and encouragement. That brings us to the final value on our list: Social support. There are many things we can do together that we would never do on our own, or perhaps those things wouldn't be as meaningful if we didn't have others to share them with. If we do nothing else here, let's find ways to help each other out.

In summary, we strive to run fast, we learn important lessons from our efforts, we find ways to use running to fulfill personal aspirations, and we interact together to help each other succeed.

Please suggest ideas and challenge me so that we can shape our culture in a way that makes these our default behaviors. 


The following books are great ways to learn more about shaping the culture of teams, groups, and organizations:

The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace Hardcover – September 22, 2014

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups Hardcover – January 30, 2018

The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World's Greatest Teams Hardcover – May 16, 2017