Culture is Key

In order to be a Top Flight Team, the team’s players must be motivated. Science tells us that to be motivated an individual must first have purpose, a reason why, a cultural imperative.

Before we delve into the science, let us look at the worlds of sports and business to where purpose and culture has provided the backbone for high performance.

Bill Walsh was a legend. When he took over coaching the San Francisco 49ers they were an under-performing bunch of also-rans in the American NFL. From 1979 to 1989, he turned them into one of the greatest sporting dynasties in the history of the sport. His belief was that to build a successful team that team had to have character. He has been quoted as saying ‘You get nowhere without character. Character is essential to individuals, and their cumulative character is the backbone of your winning team’. His ethos was that in order to build character, you had to have the right culture in place. His philosophy was that he was a teacher first and a leader second. He taught his players to be characterful. As the title of this book proclaims, The Score Takes Care of Itself. Rather than focusing on results, it was more important to work on the team and make sure it had the right culture to build character and succeed.

Vince Lombardi, another legendary American Football coach, said that ‘The challenge of every team is to build a feeling of oneness, of dependence on one another. Because the question is usually not how well each person performs, but how well they work together.’ Again, the ‘feeling of oneness’ is a shared cultural imperative.

More recently, culture has formed the central theme of another team with roughly the same shaped ball as the world of Walsh and Lombardi, but a completely different set of rules. Rugby Union’s All Blacks are the National Team of New Zealand and they have been the most successful team in history, winning more games back to back than any other nation and being the first to win successive World Cups in 2011 and 2015.

Unusually for a sports team, it isn’t just supreme skill, star players and genius coaches, that make the All Blacks so successful, it is the overall culture of the team that is the bedrock of its success. What it meant to be an All Black and to be a New Zealander is baked into the heart of the team.

Following a period of abject underperformance during the 2004 Tri-Nations tournament, when the All Blacks finished last behind Australia and South Africa, the new coach Graham Henry and his team reviewed the situation and realised that they needed to ‘create an environment that would stimulate the players and make them want to take part in it’. They came up with six words – Better People Make Better All Blacks.

Once they had struck upon this purpose, they had the reason to create a cultural imperative around it. In addition to this, they allowed the players to take ownership of creating that culture. As Wayne Smith, a member of the All Black coaching team, says ‘We had to put forward stuff that inspired us and that inspired the players’. Adding, ‘If you are going to set goals the players have got to set goals. If you are going to be vision-driven and values-based, they have got to be a huge part of that’.

Management Consultant Owen Eastwood states that ‘The emotional glue of any culture – religion, nation or team – is its sense of identity and purpose’. What drives the formation of culture with the All Blacks is the connection of personal meaning to public purpose. This is the way in which we connect ourselves to a wider purpose. If our sense of personal meaning aligns with the values of an organisation, that sense will impel us to work hard and achieve success.

In order to embed this as their cultural bedrock, the All Blacks have an ongoing interrogative process as a central theme, they question eveything. This, known at the Socratic Method, is employed as a method of hypothesis elimination and helps them find self-knowledge. The coaches employed this method, rather than instruction so that their charges could make their own judgement of situations, set internal benchmarks and form their own culture.

As I have found in my own coaching, this form of leadership creates adaptive problem-solving with individuals taking ownership of their situation and continuous improvement as a result. Having the humility to tell athletes or mentees that you don’t have all the answers, questioning the status quo through ongoing interrogation helps individuals connect to a value-driven and purpose driven culture and leads to vast improvement.

In 1962, when President John F Kennedy gave his enthusiastic speech about sending a spaceship to land on the moon, leaders at NASA had profound misgivings about the feat being possible. Only two years beforehand their first attempt to send an unmanned test craft to orbit the Earth had been a damp squid, lifting only four inches before settling back down and jettisoning its escape rocket which instantly deployed its landing parachutes which then fell into the sea. This was all whilst the US was losing the Space Race against the Soviet Union, who had already achieved the first Earth orbit, first animal in orbit, the first images of the far side of the moon and would very soon put the first man into space.

NASA was originally conceived as a research institution, with independent teams of specialists working on their own projects. The problem in its lagging achievement was that whilst these independent specialists were very comfortable with working on their own projects, they were not good at integrating efforts into a single project. This was essential for a project such as landing on the moon, which would require a team of 300,000 individuals working for 20,000 contractors and 200 universities in 80 countries.

In 1963 all this would change with the appointment of George Mueller to build the managerial foundation of the Apollo program, that of taking a man to the moon. Mueller’s vision was to create ‘joint cognition’ between all the teams within NASA and around the world working on the project. For this to be possible he needed cultural change. This change came in requiring all those involved to align behind one purpose, landing a man on the moon, and the communication structures needed in order to realise this.

Whereas before Mueller’s involvement NASA HQ would collect data from various field centres each month and have a few managers check for inconsistencies, he insisted on daily analysis and quick exchange of data. All data was continually on display in a Central Control Room and this received updates from teams and contractors on a constant basis. This has been likened to the Internet over 20 years before the Internet was created. The organisation also built a ‘teleservices network’ to connect teams and project control rooms together, providing the ability to hear in real time the problems and issues each was facing and how they would be solved.

By today’s standards of interconnected life, this seems trivial, but in the mid 1960s this was revolutionary and a huge cultural shift for an organisation that had previously been very silo orientated in its operation. To begin with this caused huge ructions with staff as they learned the new cultural imperative of the project. However, once they saw the utility of the information sharing, more and more of the initial opposition came around.

Another cultural change that NASA had to make at the time was that of dealing with outside contractors. Previously NASA had done everything in-house, however, this was a project so huge that NASA simply did’t have the capacity or expertise to do everything in-house. But the complex interaction of parts involved in this project meant that those provided by sub-contractors not privy to the full context were likely to create problems. The solution was to bring the contractors in-house and they needed to have a handle on the whole picture. That way they could continue to be specialists in their field but knew the wider implications of their output.

Of course, we know the story has a happy ending. The cultural oneness that was fostered in Mueller’s vision of ‘joint cognition’ proved to be the main reason for NASA’s success. So successful in fact that this is still used today and has been essential in projects such as the International Space Station and Boeing’s 777.

What science says

A study by behavioural scientists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in 2000 gave us their Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which argues that humans have three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, we are motivated. When these needs are denied us, our motivation and happiness plummet. Of the three pillars of SDT, autonomy is the strongest. Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice (purpose), whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self (1).

Recent studies have shown that autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burn-out and greater levels of psychological wellbeing (2). Researchers at Cornell University studied over 300 hundred businesses, half of which had a strong culture of autonomy for their employees and half of which had a culture of top-down direction. The businesses with an autonomous culture grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented businesses and had one third of the staff turnover (3).

Baby Boomers are now the largest demographic cohort in the majority of the Western World. During 2006 the earliest Boomers hit their 60th birthday, at this time in the United States alone one hundred Baby Boomers reached this landmark every thirteen minutes. As is human nature, with every landmark comes reflection. With this reflection, they soon realise that they still have upwards of 25 years left on this planet and start wondering when they will do something that really matters and make a difference in the world. During their twenties, thirties and forties the world was in an unprecedented economic boom. Yet their reflection tells them that they still have unmet dreams. They are still seeking purpose.

Sylvia Hewlett, an economist at Cambridge University, has researched purpose in different generations of human society. Her findings show that the Baby Boomer and Millenial generations now have the same view of purpose in their lives. She says that both these generations ‘are redefining success [and] are willing to accept a radically “remixed” set of rewards’. Far from rating monetary compensation from being the most important, they choose a range on non-monetary factors such as ‘a great team’ or ‘the ability to give back to society through work’ (4). In other words they crave purpose and cultural imperative more than financial rewards in their life.

What does this mean for me, you and our teams?

From various successful business projects, sporting exploits and scientific research, we can see that purpose and culture are necessary to get our teams to perform. In order to create this, we need to have a Socratic Method of asking ‘why’? Why are we doing things? Why do we want others to follow? Why do we need their help?

As Simon Sinek says, ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. He argues that what we feel matters more than what we think, because the area of the brain which handles feelings, the limbic, is buried deep within its pre-linguistic core. This means that, given a choice, we follow our gut. He says that asking ‘why’ creates a biological imperative, it drives us and inspires us.

Not only do we need to simply ask questions, but we need to form better questions to ask to draw better answers from those around us.

We also need to create an environment where our team can be autonomous in what they do and how they do it. By asking the questions and seeking why we build stronger bonds and attain higher achievements.

That way we can all align behind a purpose and build a culture of success.


  1. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, “Self Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Well-Being” American Psychologist 55 (Jan 2000)
  2. Ryana and Deci, “Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well-Being Across Life’s Domains”, citing many other studies
  3. Paul Baard, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, “Intrinsic Need Satisfaction: A Motivational Basis of Performance and Well-Being in Two Work Settings” Journal of Applied Social Psychology
  4. Sylvia Hewlett, “The ‘Me’ Generation Gives Way to the ‘We’ Generation” Financial Times, June 19 2009

Also credits go to Drive by Daniel Pink, Legacy by James Kerr and Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal.



I’ve always been fascinated by the way teams work. Early in my life I always wanted to be part of a team, working with others to achieve a goal. This was especially true with sports.

When I was quite young I was captured by the magic of sailing. I learnt to sail a single handed boat, which I loved, but I enjoyed crew boats even more. I adored racing and would prefer to crew for someone, trying with them, to extract the most out of the boat in order to beat our opponents. Working in harmony with my crew mate to use the equipment and wind to its fullest. Learning my crew mate’s strengths and weaknesses. How they read the situation and having input into that to make us as fast as we could on the water.

As a got a little older, my attention turned to rowing. This is the ultimate team sport. A rowing crew is only as strong as its weakest link. If one member of a crew is inefficient with their rowing stroke or not as fit or strong as the others, the boat will only go as fast as this member will allow. He or she will be the limiting factor in ability. In other team sports such as rugby or football with many players on the pitch, a team can still achieve a win on the strength of one or two star players. Individual skill can win a hockey, Aussie Rules or basketball team the game. In a crew rowing boat, this is simply not possible. All crew members must work in unison to propel the boat as fast as they are able. If one of the crew is slightly out of time, underpowered or not as physically fit, it limits the possibilities. It is this that I find fascinating about the sport of rowing. So much so that I have now coached Elite rowing for over 10 years.

I was a very average rower myself. However, I have had success as a coach. My crews have competed and won at International regattas. I have had athletes go through my programme who have competed for their country, such as Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Tonga and Estonia, at World Cup and World Championship regattas. Some of my club women’s crews were only beaten by the Great British National Team during their season for two years on the trot. One of my crews beat a crew full of Olympians.

I have found during my years coaching rowing that the crews which performed the best were those that worked together as a team, extracting the most out of one another as well as themselves. I have had crews that have competed and beaten opposition that were, on paper, superior to them, simply because they worked together as a crew better.

In my other life, I have worked in the business world for nearly 20 years. This began in a startup before the term had been coined, it was simply a small technology business distributing bleeding edge IT products from Silicon Valley and Israel to the UK. I subsequently moved in to my Family’s Business in the Property Sector, where I spent 9 years and grew the business twice over. The second time after we lost the majority of our customer base following the financial crisis when my team and I doubled turnover from £3 million to over £6 million in the space of 18 months by creating and launching an innovative product.

As someone who always wants to improve on a situation, call me competitive, I have a deep interest in new ways of doing things. My fascination has only increased after, having left my Family’s Business to pursue other opportunities in 2011, I became a helpless bystander as the company was forced to close due to being unable to change its core business when it badly needed to.

Over the years of reading and research into how to improve performance in sport as well as in business, I have come to realise that it is the team which is one of, if not the most important aspect. In business, it is the Rock Star Entrepreneur who grabs the headlines, but scratch the surface and you will find that his or her exploits would not have been possible without the team around them.

Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak, Jonathan Ives and the rest of the Apple team to realise his vision of the tech industry. Mark Zuckerberg needed Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin and others to start what became Facebook whilst at Harvard. Jonny Wilkinson won the 2005 rugby world cup for England with one kick to score. However, he couldn’t have been in the position to score without his team mates who went through several phases of play, inching their way towards the opposition’s line. Ben Ainslie is largely credited for overturning the huge deficit that Team Oracle had against Team Emirates New Zealand in the 2013 America’s Cup. However, whilst he gave the calls on tactics, he still had to rely on those sailing the boat – helm and crew – to enact on his word.

Very rarely do you hear about the team, whether the subject is about Lewis Hamilton, Roger Federer, Tim Ferriss or Elon Musk. All these household names have a team of unsung heroes behind them, working furiously towards success.

From my own experience of coaching high performance teams in rowing and the business world, I believe that although innovation, entrepreneurism, inspiring leaders and collaborative workspaces are some of today’s in vogue topics, they would all be for naught if it were not for the team which make a vision real.

I think that sports, academia and business can all learn from each other and parallels can be drawn from each. I want to learn more about the subject of building top flight teams and using them to perform at their peak to achieve their goal. I want to bring what I learn to you, as I feel that it is essential to take these lessons on board if we are to deal with tomorrow’s challenges.

I hope you enjoy sharing my journey into what makes and sustains a Top Flight Team.

Thank you