For the Love of the Game

For someone who says he doesn’t care about “culture,” coach Deion Sanders looks to have created a great one, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

“Culture, culture, culture, culture, culture…. What the heck does that mean? I don’t care about culture. I don’t care if they like each other. I want to win. I’ve been on some teams where the quarterback didn’t like the receiver, but they darn sure made harmony when the ball was snapped.”

When I first read those words recently from Deion Sanders, the Pro Football Hall of Famer-turned-coach with the University of Colorado Buffaloes, it got my attention, to say the least. I mean, who doesn’t care about culture?

But culture is one of those words. Ask six people to define it, and you’ll get 12 different answers. Many times hard to describe, but always easy to feel.

Culture is the way an organization gets things done. It propels people from me to we, from self-interest to shared interest. It’s the organizational atmosphere enveloping purpose, vision, values, assumptions, behaviors at scale—and ultimately results. It fills the white space around formal plans, structures, systems, mindset, and abilities—in short, it’s an organization’s everything.

Ironically, despite its pervasiveness, Korn Ferry’s research suggests it’s the most underrated success factor in business.

Now, let’s get back to Deion Sanders.

A two-time Super Bowl winner, Sanders has earned his nickname “Prime Time.” His lightning-fast speed and swagger were second only to his unique style of play and larger-than-life personality. Now “Coach Prime” (as his players call him) is bringing that same electricity to his leadership at Colorado, a football program that for years has been mired in mediocrity.

But not anymore.

“You believe now? Do you believe!?”

With those words, Coach Sanders called out the doubters after leading Colorado to an undefeated start that’s been the talk of this college football season.

And that’s largely thanks to what Coach Sanders is doing—and unabashedly in his own way. He’s actually forging a new culture—not that he embraces that term. He simply oozes it with candor and confidence and lives that conviction.

Let’s put it this way: the changes he made to his roster in just one season arguably reflect the biggest turnover of talent in college football history. It’s nothing less than a complete overhaul with a new blueprint that touches everything.

Culture starts at the top and cascades everywhere, forming the left and right boundaries that keep everyone moving toward the goal line.

Culture, particularly in this new hybrid world, is a conversation we’re having frequently these days with our clients across the globe. While the details differ, the discussion often centers around how to propel culture forward.

And through culture, performance emerges out of distinct differences—not symbiotic sameness.

In fact, as long as people live and work in groups, there’s going to be conflict. We’re human beings—not human doings, and everybody is different.

Admittedly, all of this may sound counterintuitive. But actually, research reveals teams that are all “kumbaya” do not perform as well as those that embrace conflict. Constructive conflict creates collective genius.

And it’s up to the leader to make that happen—starting with authenticity, belief, and communication.

Authenticity. “The one thing that [Sanders] firmly believes in is he’s going to tell people the truth,” a fellow coach said about him. “He has not done anything since he’s been the head coach that he didn’t say he was going to do.” It comes down to having a say/do ratio of 1-to-1: We do what we say and say what we mean. That’s the kind of honesty that goes to the heart of authenticity.

Belief. When we believe we can make a difference our actions will follow. But if we don’t believe, we won’t achieve. No surprise then, belief ranks high on the agendas of the global CEOs our firm is speaking with. It really is that simple: If you don’t believe, no one else will.

Communication.  Communication is where leadership lives and breathes, and without question culture is shaped by leaders. As Korn Ferry research indicates, it’s in how they talk about the mission, the stories they tell, the key values they articulate, and the heroes they create. It doesn’t stop there. Culture is also influenced by how employees are recognized and rewarded. If leaders talk about the importance of collaboration, but only promote the strivers and Type A personalities, that’s a mixed message. Consistency matters.

Say it, mean it, act it, believe it… for the love of the game.

PS: Another win this past weekend. Coach Prime and Colorado are now 3-0!