Influencing Culture:  In Sports and in Business

Culture Picture


There is a widely accepted myth in sports and in business that culture is created from the top down.  We take our cues from our leaders.  It is coaches, captains, CEOs and managers that create the culture to which we choose to embrace and thrive within or not.

Thirty or forty years ago, this might have made sense.  Today, in the age of innovation and continuous improvement, it doesn’t hold a lot of water.  In the 1960s and ‘70s, it wasn’t uncommon for people to spend their entire careers with one company, in one stream of work.  It was also very rare to see athletes change franchises during this era.  That was the landscape of the times, and ironically, when most of the business models that we continue to follow were first created.

In today’s innovation-driven landscape, change is the only certainty in life.  How you minimize the impact of change and use it to grow will determine the amount of success you achieve, both as an individual and as an organization.  There is no better tool to ensure sustainability through change than culture.

So how can you develop and sustain a strong culture in the age of change?  You can start by abiding by these three simple rules:


It will never be perfect

No matter how hard you work at it, culture will never be exactly what you want it to be.  It’s just the nature of human interaction.  Being able to accept this is the first step to developing and sustaining a strong culture.


The process is the output

One of the biggest myths surrounding culture is that there is a beginning, middle and an end.  In reality, culture is a living thing.  It’s not something you build and stand back and admire.  It involves continuous work. As the pieces of your team change and the environment of competition changes, so does the culture.  It’s an ever-evolving concept.


It’s all about me

You can’t sit back and expect someone else to create the culture in which you intend to thrive in.  You need to be proactive.  You need to step up and contribute.  This is the number one reason culture fails in business and in sports.  There aren’t enough “leaders” who are willing to become drivers of their own success.


As an individual player or employee below the traditional “leadership levels”, how can you influence culture and ensure inclusiveness?


Here are 8 simple ways how:


1.  Improve Communication

The number one cause of failure in any situation is communication.  The easiest way to break down barriers and promote cohesion is through open and honest communication.  What is even more important is to understand that this is a two-way street.  In order for communication to be successful, you have to be able to embrace and encourage feedback.  When people aren’t feeling comfortable to voice their opinions and feel like they have been listened to, they won’t really get on board.


2.  Develop and Promote Your Teammates

Developing team members is something that has always been tasked to coaches and managers.  This mindset is extremely short-sighted.  Some of the best stories of development and promotion come from colleagues and team members helping each other.

When I stepped onto campus in college, one of the first people to take me under their wing was a fellow player, Ken Scuderi.  Ken began to teach me what it meant to “be a pro”.  Promoting my skill-set didn’t directly benefit Ken as a player.  If anything, it posed a bit of a threat—we were both competing for ice time against each other.  Ken understood that by helping to build up everyone around him, he was creating a close-knit, leadership-based culture.  The more successful each individual is, the more successful the team becomes.

One thing team success promotes, whether in sport or business, is individual opportunity.  There is a saying, “Treat everyone above, below and around you like gold, because you never know if they will become your boss one day.”   It’s the strong relationships that you build in life that will help you persevere in the most difficult of times.


3.  Improve the Atmosphere

Studies show there is a direct correlation between visual stimulation and production.  Whether it is sprucing up your workstation or decorating your stall at the rink, you can help to influence your mood and mental mindset.  As a player, I used to post a list in my stall of quotes from people in my life who told me I couldn’t achieve certain goals.  I used this list of naysayers as motivation.  Today, in my role as a Business Analyst, that list hangs in my office.


4.  Be Proactive

There is no greater pain than the feeling of regret.  I once had a great coach in pro hockey that asked us if we had ever been “Screwed over in our careers.”  Nearly everyone put their hand in the air.  He just shook his head and said, “If you really want to confront the person who screwed you over, just look in the mirror.”  It took a while for it to sink in, but eventually I understood that he was right.  There are times when people are generally out to “screw” others over, but the majority of the time, we hold ourselves back by not becoming the driver of our own success.

Looking back on my own career in hockey, there is a slew of defining situations where I hindered my own development by not being proactive.  There were a lot of things I could have been doing to further my own development, but I spent too much time sitting back, waiting for success to come to me.  When you are around others who are proactive, it is addictive.  On the flip side, when you are surrounded by people pointing fingers, with their feet up on the desk, it is hard not to get caught conforming.


5.  Be SMART

Whether it’s a short-term or long-term goal or objective, you are better prepared to achieve successful outcomes using the “SMART” methodology (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound).  By using this approach, you are facilitating a positive atmosphere through a healthy sense of accomplishment.  This approach also helps you to align your personal goals and objectives to the core values of your team.


6.  Worry About What You Can Control

Nothing is more debilitating to an individual or a team than insecurity and fear.  In most circumstances, this is initiated by worrying about what you are unable to control.  As a player, I spent the majority of my career looking over my shoulder and obsessing about the possibility of failure.  I was constantly worried about my job and my status on the team.  It consumed my life and severely limited my potential for success.

In the business world, I see it every day.  People spend so much time obsessing about job security and changes that could or could not happen.  Worrying about things beyond your control is a slippery slope that almost always leads to low morale.  A great book that has become somewhat of an everyday bible for me is Dan Millman’s “Way of the Peaceful Warrior.”

According to Millman, Life has three rules:  Paradox, Humor and Change:

  • Paradox: Life is a mystery; don’t waste your time trying to figure it out.
  • Humor: Keep a sense of humor, especially about yourself. It is a strength beyond all measure
  • Change: Know that nothing ever stays the same


7.  Control Your Body Language

It’s no secret that body language accounts for over 80% of all communication.  If you exude negative body language cues, it is ultimately going to trigger negative assumptions.  In sports, poor body language often says a lot about a player’s “character”.  In hockey, players who sulk and slam their stick are viewed as selfish players, or “cancers”.  Sometimes this is a misrepresentation of what the person is all about.  So why leave it to chance?

Make a conscious effort to control your body language and communicate better through your powerful non-verbal cues.  Before you go to work or to the arena each day, put on your “CAPE”—be Confident, Accountable, Proactive, and Empowered.  Always remember, there is someone out there who is counting on you.


8.  Check Your Ego at the Door

Understanding weakness is a valuable strength to possess in life.  Knowing when to ask for help or assistance, without fear, indicates a strong sense of self-worth and emotional health.  You don’t have to be good at everything to be great.  We spend so much time focusing on correcting weaknesses instead of striving to be the best at what we do best.

If you don’t like math and spending your days filling out spreadsheets, chances are you aren’t going to make a very good accountant.  If you are 5 foot 10 and 170 pounds, chances are you aren’t going to be a physical, shutdown-style defenseman.  Play to your strengths and develop your true passions and talents without fear of making a few mistakes along the way.




Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

About Jamie McKinven

Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

View all posts by Jamie McKinven →

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