by Andreas Grassberger

Looking back on my early days in the Austrian Volleyball League, I have learned some valuable leadership lessons on the court, which many years later I was able to apply during my military and business career.
As Leaders, we have a similar position as the Head Coach. Now imagine for a moment that you are the Coach of a Soccer or Volleyball Team. Of course, you would want you’re your team to win the Championship. The first responsibility of a sports coach is to create the right atmosphere. A strong and positive team culture that allows your team to thrive and win. But how can you do that?

Well, first of all: What you cannot do is play on the court yourself. That means once they set foot on the court on game day, you must trust that you did everything for them to succeed. You cannot tell them to pass the ball to the player on the left or the right, then run 2 or 3 steps, then pass the ball again and then score. The situation on the court is too fast and complex for one person to tell all the players in time what to do and when. You must trust their skills and decision-making that you helped to build to apply them to the VUCA world out there on the game court. Let your players do their job while you do yours.

Which, for strong and positive team culture, is based on 7 key ideas.

7 ideas for leaders to create a strong and positive team culture:

1. Pick the right players
Most of the time, recruiting interviews hover over skillsets and experience only. The most critical questions are rarely asked: What team culture do you need to thrive in? What makes you happy at work? What do you expect from your leaders? Mindset is more important than skillset because the latter is quicker to develop. The functional apparel brand Patagonia created successfully a “work is play” HR philosophy around this. Their founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard once said that hiring people with diverse backgrounds brings the flexibility of thought and openness to new ways of doing things, as opposed to hiring clones from business schools who have been taught a codified way of doing business. So always ask yourself: Are the candidates’ values and principles the right fit for your current or your desired team culture

2. Show that you have your teams back
Do everything in your power to get them the infrastructure and resources they need to do their job well. Especially when company resources are scarce, leaders struggle to stand up and fight for the teams’ higher budgets or resources. Teams love to follow leaders who put the interest of the team before their own interest. Your effort for the team will not go unnoticed, even if you fail sometimes. If the team members can feel that you have their back when the going gets tough, you create an atmosphere of safety in your team culture, that allows your team to grow and thrive.

3. Create a team banner
Make vision, mission, and goals as clear, visible, and understandable as possible. Put it in words, draw pictures… do everything you can to make it tangible. Bring the whole team together to participate in a mission statement workshop and encourage them to co-create a team mission statement through their strengths, values, and stories. Every sports team has a banner they are proud of. The team mission statement will be yours.

4. Spend quality time with your people
Make time for 1-on-1 meetings on topics other than reporting project progress and results. Offer meetings to explore each team member’s state of mindset and emotional well-being. Saying you can’t find the time to spend with your direct reports is like saying you don’t want to do your job. These meetings will ultimately save time, so it’s an investment in your high-performance team culture.

5. Create work principles
Together with your team, establish clear rules on how you want to interact as a team and what values you want to hold up. Write those values and work principles down and let everybody commit to it with their signature. Be prepared to have critical feedback talks with team members that do not follow those team rules. Create a safe zone for all your team members by showing transparently that you are not tolerating a violation of the values manifested in your teams’ work principles. Remember: The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.

6. Make shorter Feedback loops
What would happen if a sports coach gave feedback to each player only once a year? Why would good sports coaches give feedback right after the game, no matter if it was won or lost? Athletes need immediate feedback on their performance to adapt, grow, and increase their individual performance until the next game. Same thing with your work colleagues. By making it a habit to review and reflect right after a finished task or project in a constructive way about what happened, what was good and what are the areas for improvement, you will lay grounds for a healthy learning culture in your team.

7. Give them space to play
It’s a constant struggle for many leaders to walk the line between giving support and micromanagement. On the volleyball court, I have seen that coaches who give too many detailed commands from the sideline slow down the whole team. If you do your best as a leader to grow the skills of each team member in training, you need to put a little trust into your leading skills and your team-members learning curve.

Team culture for the win – Let’s bring it all together

Your main focus is on the mental and physical growth of your players… your main task is to make them better, not yourself.

What you can do to support your team as good as possible is:

  • Start by picking the right players suitable for the tactical, strategic playing style of your club.
  • Provide the best possible training facilities so your team can practice for the competition.
  • Care for them by providing healthy nutrition and doctors. You can analyze the tactics, strengths and weaknesses of the competition and then communicate them to your players. You would write your tactics down, make drawings on the whiteboard, and bring the game plan from the abstract idea level into the real world for your players to understand.

And, most importantly, you are responsible for taking care of their mindset, psychological health, and well-being. That also includes you are setting the rules on how they treat each other on and off the court. Inspire them to help each other and cover each other’s blind spots. Ultimately it will fall to you to sanction or remove those players who break the team rules repeatedly or who play selfishly and only for their own advantage instead for the team.

Always remember: You are the Leader and Coach of your people… lead them so that they can be the best they can be… give your all to make them Champions!

Andreas’ experience in the world of the military taught him one vital lesson: Trust is deeply engraved in the organizational DNA of all peak-performing organizations and their agile leaders take their elite teams along for the ride.
Developing a tribe-like culture, a family-like atmosphere where everybody feels safe leads within a few months to better Key-Performance-Indicators produced by a strong resilient organization that survives every change or crisis. And better numbers are something every CEO likes to see in those days!

Today, Andreas is working with leaders of organizations like OSCE, UN as well as Executives of international corporations to inspire their teams and clients by developing a high-performance team culture and a mindset that makes an impact.

Andreas Grassberger, Andreas Grassberger