Leadership & Culture, Performance | Nov 5, 2018 | 8 min read

Eight Factors to Help Turn Abstract Concepts of Culture into Action

Damian Hughes delivers some practical advice through the lens of Pep Guardiola’s successful stint at FC Barcelona.
John Portch

“Sometimes it’s a cultural problem, not a people problem,” Damian Hughes tells the Leaders Performance Institute. He is talking about the time Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernández nearly left – long before he would go on to earn legendary status at the Catalan Club. By 2008, Manchester United and AC Milan were his primary suitors and there was a very real chance that he could have been on his way.

By John Portch

That summer, Frank Rijkaard departed as Head Coach, leaving a faltering squad beset by internal disarray. Xavi found himself at a crossroads; Barça seemed to be stagnating and the man himself had felt for some time that he, as a 1.69m nimble ballplayer in a field of increasingly large and athletic players, risked becoming an anachronism. ‘Six years ago I was extinct,’ he told the Guardian in 2011. ‘Footballers like me were in danger of dying out.’ It sounds bizarre in retrospect given the renaissance of diminutive, technically-proficient midfielders in the past decade.

Yet this is one of the fundamentals Hughes addresses in his latest book The Barcelona Way: Unlocking the DNA of a Winning Culture. Hughes, a professor of organisational psychology and change, has worked with myriad sports teams, including English Premier League Manchester United, the Scotland men’s national rugby union team and the NRL’s Canberra Raiders.

The Barcelona Way takes Pep Guardiola’s instalment as Head Coach at the Camp Nou as its premise. It was the summer of 2008 and the Catalans had appointed a man whose head coaching experience mounted to one campaign at the helm of Barcelona’s B team; it left numerous observers scratching their heads in bemusement. Sure, Guardiola was a former player – an exceptional one at that – but the club, who had won the Champions League two years previously, eschewed a host of big names to pluck Pep from relative obscurity.

It was a risk, with many thinking he’d be gone by Christmas, but 14 trophies later, including two further Champions Leagues, Guardiola, who now coaches Premier League champions Manchester City, had earned a reputation as the most gifted, innovative coach in the game. On his watch, Lionel Messi rose to become the sport’s greatest player, while Xavi thrived at the heart of Barça’s midfield. Messi was the irresistible ‘false nine’ but it was Xavi who kept things ticking over with metronomic precision. As the enabler, some considered Xavi Barcelona and Spain’s most important player.

“But why did they nearly sell Xavi twice?” Hughes asks us. In answering his own question he says that Barça nearly fell prey to fundamental attribution error, another topic broached in The Barcelona Way. “The reason for considering the sale comes from the lens through which they were looking at him. If you value powerful athletes or guys who provide those special individual moments, Xavi doesn’t rank up there. But if you view it through the lens of Guardiola’s values of humility, hard work and a team-first attitude, then Xavi suddenly becomes a central figure. This is a guy who makes any team he is part of better; a guy who operates in the shadows and does the less glamorous stuff to create a platform for artists like Messi or Andrés Iniesta.”

Guardiola’s appointment was pivotal and provides some key pointers to the more tangible aspects of organisational culture, according to Hughes. “When people are cynical about the impact of culture and think it’s soft or abstract,” he continues, “the topic of recurring systems and processes is where culture conflates with tangible practice and relates directly to performance.” Here are eight factors that enabled Barcelona and Guardiola to transform their vision into a viable, living and practical culture.

  1. The directors avoided appointing a toxic head coach

Guardiola was not even close to being the most experienced and decorated coach on Barcelona’s shortlist but, in what seems like an act of supreme prescience, the club plumped for the coach of their B team, who ticked a range of other boxes. Here was an individual steeped in the club’s culture – a vital component of their 1992 European Cup-winning team – and a youth team graduate schooled at the club’s fabled La Masia academy. Hughes feels that the directors’ thinking was akin to American that of business magnate Warren Buffett. He explains: “Buffett said that if you want to recruit a leader you have to look at three criteria. You need to have the energy to see the task through, you need to have intelligence to be smart enough to know what needs to be done, and the third is that you need to have integrity, they need to be able to role model behaviours.

“Buffett’s advice was that if they only have energy and intelligence then don’t touch them because they might be toxic to your culture but clever enough to get away with being toxic for a long time. So what Guardiola had in his locker was integrity; he was Catalan, he’s been brought up in the club, he’d been there in Johan Cruyff’s European Cup-winning Dream Team and this was a guy that role modelled their desired qualities of humility, hard work and team-first behaviours.”

  1. Barça’s trademark behaviours had to be non-negotiable

Hughes argues that a leader must establish their essential characteristics: “You need to know what those trademark non-negotiable behaviours are otherwise it just becomes subjective and if you’re having a good day you might address it but if you’re having a bad day you might turn a blind eye to it; if you choose not to address it you permit it. One of the questions I often ask coaches is: if you’re good then why are you good? You come at it from the perspective that success leaves clues; so when you’ve been at your best what characteristics defined you?”

Barcelona’s were clear, as mentioned above: humility, hard work and team-first behaviours. “With those established, you can look at ways in which it manifests itself.” Guardiola, for example, asked that his players only drive club cars into training each day. “It goes back to humility; you don’t show off your status symbols of wealth, success or privilege.” Zlatan Ibrahimović, who was signed for a reported $94million dollars in the summer of 2009, flouted this rule and otherwise proved to be a poor cultural fit; the Swede was sold at a loss after a solitary season in Catalonia.

  1. Guardiola set out his stall before signing

In the days following his appointment, Guardiola saw there were players who stood as impediments to the team’s improvement. Newly empowered, the new Head Coach used his inaugural press conference to announce that three of Barcelona’s biggest stars, Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Deco, would be departing imminently. “He announced that those three would have no part to play in the culture he was looking to build,” recalls Hughes. “He said I don’t want their blood on my hands but we need to get rid of them so we can make a fresh start. Those guys had become toxic and dysfunctional within the team culture. Guardiola was smart enough to negotiate – and this is advice for any coach – you’re never more powerful than before you start the job because you’ve not lost any games; so that’s the time if you have a clear idea of what you want to create. Negotiate for what you want before you actually start working towards the goal rather than coming in and reacting to situations.”

  1. The club found its cultural architects

Aside from casting aside bad influences, Guardiola needed a totem in his team and Xavi, alongside club captain Carles Puyol, perhaps best represents the values his head coach espoused. “Xavi is a player who has Barcelona DNA: someone who has the taste for good football someone who is humble, and someone who has loyalty to his club,” said Guardiola. Such players, says Hughes, “become emblematic of what the culture represents and are able to articulate that in behavioural terms.”

  1. Guardiola spotted opportunities to fashion the environment he wanted

Role modelling the likes of Xavi and employing the company car rule are examples of Guardiola tweaking the team environment. “When you think about the behaviours you want to build your culture on, you then start to think about opportunities to shape that behaviour,” says Hughes. “It might be that one of the behaviours at your club is that we all stick together and are united; if so, are you providing adequate dining facilities? Are you putting breakfast on to encourage people to get there early to have breakfast together? Just the idea of breaking bread creates the social glue and cohesion that you need.”

  1. The club identified its keystone habits

For those of you thinking ‘but didn’t Samuel Eto’o win a treble with Barcelona in Pep’s first season?’ Yes, he did. The Cameroonian forward, who had become something of a bad apple under Rijkaard and was called out in that first Guardiola press conference, reapplied himself and went on to score Barça’s opening goal in their victorious 2009 Champions League final. Eto’o responded positively to the environment Guardiola was creating and knuckled down; one of the reasons was his adoption of the keystone habits his head coach was cultivating. Hughes says: “The first thing you need to do is identify two or three keystone habits that you want everyone in your team to nail and perform. The second thing is then to apply feedback loops that you measure relentlessly.” For that feedback to have its desired effect, Hughes explains the dynamic that exists between what he refers to as ‘evidence, relevance, consequence and action’ in repeatable actions. “At Barcelona, their keystone habits were the five-second rule, the idea that when you lose the ball the opposition are at their most vulnerable for the first five seconds; so it’s high-intensity pressing, making life intolerable and uncomfortable.

“The second one is possession, so if you retain possession for 70% of the time you have an 85% chance of winning. Possession doesn’t become a warm-up drill, it becomes central to what you practise; that’s where the rondo ball drill becomes important.

“First of all, you give players evidence that is relevant; ‘we’re going to measure what your possession stats are in training because we understand that we need to retain possession 70% of the time. Then you give people a consequence; ‘if we don’t do that then we’ll lose’; you get people to change their behaviour to invest time in training, to really focus to switch on to their training. The feedback loop is a really simple way of getting the evidence.

“In elite sport these days, the ability to measure information, data and stats is all there for us; so the question is are you measuring the essential things that you need and are you giving people real-time feedback so that they can change it?”

  1. Barça did well  – but don’t just replicate what you see

This is crucial: if your keystone habits or values don’t relate directly to you and your team then they become nothing more than a gimmick. “This is one thing I hear coaches say all the time,” begins Hughes. “I’ve heard coaches say ‘we sweep the sheds’ and you ask why they do that and they say it’s because they read that the All Blacks do it. I can ask: what’s that got to do with you? That’s irrelevant to you.

“If you told me that one of your values was to leave the shirt in a better place then it makes perfect sense that you’d sweep the dressing room because there’s a clear alignment between your values, behaviours and what you stand for. But if you’re doing it because you read it in a book and you’re not linking it to those behaviours in every possible aspect then it just becomes a gimmick – and players see through gimmicks very quickly.

“A coach recently said the All Blacks never let their shirt fall on the floor and I said, yeah, that’s fine for them because that’s a sacred part of their upbringing, but no one grows up dreaming of playing for a League 2 club, with all due respect to fans of those teams. Don’t just replicate what Barcelona or the All Blacks do – create your own cultural symbols that reinforce the behaviours you stand for.”

  1. Guardiola has the humility to learn from others

Guardiola has continually cited those who have inspired him, from legendary Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa to Spanish novelist, screenwriter and director David Trueba. Hughes tells us Guardiola met Trueba at a poetry reading when he was 24 and, some years later, sought out Bielsa – a man he once described as ‘the best coach in the world’ – in his native Argentina for a day of frenzied football talk behind closed doors. “This is a guy with an awful lot of humility who is prepared to listen and learn from other people,” says Hughes. It was a trait evident in Guardiola’s playing days when he saw out his career at Mexican side Dorados de Sinaloa simply because he wanted to play under their Spanish Head Coach Juanma Lillo.

Away from football, Trueba is just one of his numerous influences, with another, Manel Estiarte, taking a supporting role on his coaching staff at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City. Estiarte, a former Olympic water polo champion, has become a trusted confidante. Hughes adds: “I think that says that the best coaches are not just looking to learn from their own industry. It also goes back to those trademark behaviours; that’s pure humility, that’s someone not assuming they have all the answers but humble enough to accept that they don’t always know.”

The Barcelona Way: Unlocking the DNA of a Winning Team is available now from Pan Macmillan.

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