How do you create the right culture to succeed?

By David Gourlay

Systems               Symbols               Behaviour           Leadership

Four simple words, but all of them simply have to be “nailed on” to achieve that winning culture!

Sport is always a trusty analogy when it comes to writing about business culture, so let’s consider the fate of two of Rugby’s powerhouses at the Rugby World Cup. As the fallout from England’s World Cup started, Head Coach Stuart Lancaster made no secret of his attempt to emulate New Zealand and his focus on building the right “culture,” on the premise that if you get things right off the pitch the rest will take care of itself… apparently not!

Most of us have worked in businesses that claim to have a great culture, but somehow something isn’t quite right, whether it’s a frustrating process, an outdated finance system, some annoying bureaucracy, or just a general feeling of disquiet around the office. Or maybe the processes and systems have just had a multi-million pound makeover but the frustration is arising from poor leadership or some dominant behaviours within the organisation that are both unproductive and disruptive.

Either way, you have a problem! How often is there a major investment in creating improved and more efficient systems and processes, without an improved culture magically appearing? And how often can you have great leadership and behaviours that are undermined by poor systems and processes?

As English rugby starts its investigation into how and why its national team failed to excel at their own tournament, it’s interesting to consider the parallels between building a successful culture in a sports team and in a business. What are the common areas that determine success and, in this case, failure? Where better to focus than on the all-conquering All Blacks?

Whether you are a New Zealand fan or not, one universal truth is that you simply have to admire them, for not only what they’ve achieved on the pitch, but also off it. And this is the point: success rarely comes to those who have an abundance of talent, but don’t have their structures, systems, and leadership in place off the pitch, or vice versa.  For years, New Zealand had the talent – they always do – but were relative underachievers, failing to deliver the value that their “shareholders” and “stakeholders” demanded.

So what changed and how did it create success?

The reality is that a healthy dominant culture is one in which people share positive beliefs about the business, its people and its objectives, crowding out less positive sub-cultures. This can only exist if there is a marriage between having both productive systems and processes, and your people exhibiting the required leadership and behaviours.

The All Blacks realised that something had to change. They already had the right systems and processes in place to produce a winning national team, so the problem was more about leadership and behaviour. Therefore, they thought long and hard and decided that their mantra was going to be ‘Better people make better All Blacks’. This is underpinned by two beliefs that they believe are pivotal to ensuring they establish the right culture:

  1. ‘No dickheads’ – not tolerating people that were disruptive and didn’t adhere to the levels of professionalism and respect demanded in being an All Black.
  2. ‘Sweep the shed’ – always being prepared to do the basics yourself, get your own training equipment out and put it away yourself, nobody pandering to you just because you’re an All Black, and demonstrating this by the way we tidy up our own changing room at the end.

New Zealand rugby had already invested in getting the right systems and processes in place, just as a business might invest heavily in a new accounting system. Now that they’ve sorted out the leadership and behaviours, they are now being debated as the greatest sports team in history. That’s a good return for the stakeholders!

Stuart Lancaster had great intentions, but he arguably forgot about the importance of that strong marriage between ‘systems and processes’ and ‘leadership and behaviour’. That’s how you create a winning team or business.

At LKS Quaero, we help leaders to create the right culture through systemic change and leadership development. If you’d like to know more, visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.