Culture: an elite athlete perspective

I received permission to share an email (below) that one of my clients circulated among the staff of his organization…the day after an intensive culture workshop I facilitated. So often it seems that leaders are looking for a light switch process to “turn on” culture improvement…rather than go through the process. However, it is the process that works the depth of true transformation…painful though it may be.

At the start of a person’s journey from inactivity to elite athlete they have to expend high levels of their energy to do relatively little because they are not in very good shape. At the same time, they make big improvements in their fitness and ability to achieve in their sport.

As they get more fit, that same level of energy expenditure does quite a lot more and they improve noticeably. It’s a nice linear progression and as long as you only want to be good at the sport you can work reasonably hard and be in quite good shape.

However, if the goal is to be an elite athlete then moving from the 90th percentile to the 92nd percentile doesn’t take just 2% more energy, it takes almost as much energy as was expended to get from 0 – 90%. Getting a tiny bit better takes high levels of intense energy and focus. The work to go from 10th best in the world to on the podium is massive.

I think this is more accurately what we are experiencing. I think our expectation has been (or at least mine has) that as we get better and better, the energy and emotional investment required will level off and we’ll sail along on an even keel and it will be all good. However, if we use the metaphor of getting to, and then maintaining, elite athlete status the energy required feels even more intense in the elite stage as it did at the start. If we aren’t careful, we can misconstrue that as having made no progress. “Here we are still struggling along!”  It makes us ask questions like, “I know how other organizations are and we are doing so much better, so why are we so screwed up?”

Personally, I do NOT see us wallowing in the same issues we’ve always struggled with. I do think perhaps we repeat some similar patterns of dealing with these very different issues. So on an emotional level, the pattern feels the same and that feeling tends to make us think the issues must be the same as well.

Rather, I see wonderful changes in, and among, our staff. I see us gaining traction on making a difference in the lives of our people, as well as in the city and other places around our world. I think “achieving” our values is as much process as it is destination and in that I see a lot of movement toward the values. Our cultural practices are another example of high level, elite athlete “technique” that we are working hard on implementing so we can get from 10th to the podium. To be honest, outside of books I’ve read, I’ve never heard of any organization or company that works as hard as we do on getting things done for the right reasons, not just the right results.

So in that light, I’m continuing to look forward to this coming year and beyond with great anticipation!