6 Key Components of a Championship Culture

By Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

What does it take to build a Culture of Commitment, Accountability, and Ownership in your program?

In taking an in-depth examination of dozens of championship programs like North Carolina women's soccer, Duke men's basketball, Arizona softball, UConn women's basketball, the New England Patriots, the San Antonio Spurs, and several others, you will almost always see these six key components being executed at a high level.

1. Credible Leaders

The Primary Creators, Champions, and Caretakers of Your Culture

Credible leaders are the first and potentially most critical component of developing a Championship Culture. You and your team leaders set the tone for the program by designing, developing, and driving the culture through the rest of the team. Whether in the form of a coach, athletic director, team captain, school president, military commander, teacher, principal, or CEO, Championship Culture building all starts at the top.

In a championship program, there is almost always one primary leader who serves as the key catalyst and coordinator of all the multi-layered leadership efforts. This person is typically the head coach, who is obviously best positioned to have this kind of influence and impact on the rest of the program. As we look at Championship Cultures across the sports world, you can clearly see credible, iconic leaders who are the key catalysts of their winning programs: Mike Krzyzewski, Anson Dorrance, Pat Summitt, Mike Candrea, and Nick Saban.

In addition to the head coach, there are usually other intentionally cultivated key leaders who impact the team including assistant coaches and team captains. The team captains especially play an absolutely critical role in molding, monitoring, and maintaining the culture of the team. They exert a continual influence on their teammates of what is acceptable and unacceptable at practices, weights, classes, parties, etc.

Because leaders have such a powerful and pervasive influence on a program’s culture, they are most often credited with success and blamed for failure. And, in many cases, rightly so. In fact, 92% of respondents in a survey of businesses believe that leaders are the most important key in influencing an organization’s culture.

2. Clear and Compelling Vision

The Passionate Purpose Driving the Culture

Championship Cultures have a Clear and Compelling Vision. This means you and your athletes must know exactly what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it. Your purpose for your program is clear - be it a conference, state, national, and/or world championship. This clear and well-articulated Vision helps everyone focus and streamline their efforts on doing what it takes to achieve the program’s goal.

In addition to being clear, even more important is that the Vision is something that is highly compelling. Your Vision must be something that people are innately drawn to, passionately yearn for, and are willing to make sacrifices for. People should be so caught up in and excited about your Vision that it passionately motivates them on a daily basis and maintains their commitment in the long run. Your program’s collective Vision should be one that excites everyone and provides you with meaning and purpose for your actions. It is a cause you rally around and are willing to fight for.

3. Core Values

The Bedrock Principles that Support Your Culture

Core Values are the unshakeable bedrock principles that your program believes are absolutely foundational to your success. They are what your program definitively values and stands for - no matter what the situation. These nonnegotiable, sacred values define the essence of your program and are expected to be shared by everyone because they are so central to what your program is all about. These Core Values serve as the true North for your organization, and all decisions you make should revolve around them.

Says North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, “People who make a living from studying what makes organizations excellent usually boil their consistent success down to the group living a powerful set of Core Values. There are certain principles of behavior that produce extraordinary results. Every year when I meet with the rising seniors each week in the spring our discussions center around our Core Values and what they can do to live them and how they can help drive everyone within the culture to live them as well.”

4. Standards of Behavior

The Daily Decisions that Drive Your Culture

Emanating from your Core Values are your program’s Standards of Behavior. These Standards revolve around the specific actions expected of each team member in a variety of contexts. The Standards of Behavior, in essence, are the daily choices and actions that either maximize (support) or minimize (undermine) the chances of your Vision becoming a reality - and your Values being practiced and upheld.

To have a Championship Culture, your Standards of Behavior must be set at a very high level. Rather than complaining about these high Standards or looking to subvert them, your coaches, captains, and team members should fully embrace them because they are necessary for high-level success. The high Standards are seen as an edge and as important differentiators in outworking, out-training, and out-competing your opponents.

Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski says it best when he talks about the importance of establishing and embracing standards in a program. “A major part of becoming a team is the establishment and collective acceptance of your standards, based on your team’s makeup and centered on your unique goal. Once a group of individuals formulates and agrees to their standards, they become united, single-minded in purpose.”

5. Committed and Unified Team Members

The Heart of the Culture

Championship Cultures contain energized and engaged team members who fully embrace the Vision, Values, and Standards of the culture. By building a Championship Culture, your team members will take pride in being a part of your program and accept total responsibility for passionately playing their part. They will know that they are a valuable and vital part of your team’s successes and will give their full commitment to the program.

Additionally, team members in a Championship Culture become unified around your Vision, Values, and Standards and willingly subvert their individual goals and agenda in service of something larger than themselves. They selflessly place the group’s best interest above their own.

Because of this willingness to dedicate themselves fully to the team and its common Vision, Values, and Standards, a deep connection, unity, and respect is forged between the team members. They not only perform for themselves but work hard and give their all out of respect for their fellow teammates. And, when success is achieved, they are more likely to share and deflect the credit to their teammates.


6. Aligned Systems

The Structure to Sustain the Culture

Championship programs implement a variety of systems and processes designed to develop, reinforce, and sustain the culture. These dedicated and well-designed systems provide the internal skeletal structure of your culture and ensure that key principles are emphasized and important processes are completed in alignment with your Vision, Values, and Standards.

Championship Cultures create several specific systems for selection, enculturation, execution, evaluation, recognition, correction, and succession. All of these various systems are developed, tweaked, and perfected over time to promote and support the Vision, Values, and Standards of your program on a daily basis. By developing and aligning your systems, you build a sustainable, self-perpetuating, virtuous cycle that ensures you get, develop, and keep the right kind of people and practices within your culture.

These six areas comprise the Six Key Components of Championship Cultures. When you can successfully put each of these components in place, get them operating at a high level, and sustain them over time, you will create a marvelous and magnetic culture where people thrive.

For a 10-Step Blueprint to Build a Championship Culture of Commitment, Accountability, and Ownership in your program, order Jeff's book How to Build and Sustain a Championship Culture.


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