Don't Dilute Company Culture: 3 Lessons from Football to Score Success As a business grows, it remains critical for leaders to be involved in recruitment, employee management, and maintaining culture.
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Written by Casper Henningsen, CEO and founder of GetWhy
People buy culture. Whether it's customers looking to purchase technology, potential employees seeking a new role, VCs looking to invest, or business leaders hunting for partnerships, a solid culture is what makes businesses stand head and shoulders above their peers. It's as critical to business success as any brilliant idea or innovative product being developed.
A recent LinkedIn study found that company values are increasingly important for professionals worldwide: in Europe, more than half (59%) of respondents would refuse to work for an organisation that does not share their values. As such, maintaining and enriching that culture should always be a priority, no matter what stage of growth a company is in. Founders and CEOs who delegate culture risk diluting or losing it entirely.
Of course, there's no use championing culture if the foundations are poor in the first place.
As an ex-professional footballer, I have spent my life being part of teams that work toward a common goal, building my foundations in the beautiful game. A strong culture of collaboration and navigating strategies contributes to successful results – here's how you can put what I've learned into practice.
1. Know when to slow down.
During a football match – or soccer, for readers across the pond – there are only 90 minutes to influence the outcome, so going all out is the order of the day. Conversely, in business, the time constraints usually aren't so short. There's space to slow down, take stock, and think strategically – something that took me a while to learn.
It can be tempting to rush into things for the sake of growth, whether that's new hires, partnerships, or expansion efforts – but sprinting without thinking can be a false economy in the long run. Instead, spending time to take things slow can prove the wisest of investments.
Understanding a team's capabilities and bandwidth is key here. Pushing too hard without considering people's capacity is a recipe for disaster, reducing productivity. To avoid burnout, it's crucial to assess team capacity accurately. That way, it'll be clear if the team can handle increased demands or if further support is needed, such as extra training or staff.
2. Know when to speed up.
Just like a football game is the time to go all out, there are crucial times when business leaders must energise their team to reach a specific goal. This could be in the months running up to a funding round, finalising a deal with a big brand – or when competitors are running rife. A business leader needs to know when to encourage a team and when to criticise; coaching is a fine balance of both.
Jürgen Klopp, the football manager of Premier League club Liverpool, is famous for the unique culture he creates, which is what powers his players to success. For Klopp, enthusiasm is a not-so-secret weapon; especially once a game begins, his approach is less about giving instructions and more about giving energy – a winning formula.
It's easy to focus on the tactics of a game or the strategy of a business, but leaders who overlook how people feel are missing out, as it's this collective consciousness that underpins culture. Bonding resources and strategy, culture is something a team learns to develop shared instincts, making it the ultimate IP – and that's what wins a game, funding round, or a new hire.
3. Culture is the only superpower that matters.
With that in mind, the beating heart of any business is its people and the culture created; this is the foundation on which all future innovation is built. Similarly, successful football teams are built around 11 players on a pitch working toward the same goal in sync; each team is only as good as its weakest link.
This is widely understood in football but often forgotten in the business world – particularly as a team scales, as that's when it's easy for founders, CEOs, and other C-suite executives to lose touch with the mentality of individual staff members. Klopp still meets any player before he signs them. As such, to maintain a competitive culture, C-suite leaders should remain involved with recruitment at every stage of company growth.
Recently, the botched ousting of OpenAI's Sam Altman shows how valuable culture truly is. The uproar following his forced exodus and subsequent return demonstrates that a company is defined by its culture, and doesn't exist without it. Companies might house the most incredible technology and ideas, but the legacy can crumble without a united workforce and a visionary leader. Business leaders and board members who overlook culture do so at their peril.
Moreover, in both business and football, culture is informed and shaped predominantly by a team's collective struggle. It's easy to feel content when things are going well but it's the darkest times that connect teams; when people are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, they come together and support each other. These character-defining experiences impact culture long after the difficulties have subsided.
Ultimately, entrepreneurs and C-suite leaders shouldn't dilute the culture that's got them this far. Like the best football coaches, they mustn't lose sight of their role in nurturing talent at all stages of a company's growth, rain or shine. To this end, encouraging transparent feedback fosters a culture of honesty and determination, underpinned by strong leadership. As any football coach will confirm, success here depends on nurturing relationships.
That's why, when it comes to business, the winners have the right balance of culture, pace, skill, and drive. Engaging directly with employees and prospective hires across all business functions enables a culture of learning, fueling growth. Culture shines the brightest when times are tough, and (as popularised by Billy Ocean) when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. That's when it becomes clear what culture is made of – and when the foundations are laid to win.