Leadership & Culture, Performance | Apr 3, 2018 | 11 min read

What Sets the Best Cultures Apart in High Performance?

Bestselling author Daniel Coyle reveals the secrets behind high performing cultures.
Luke Whitworth

“Everyone struggles with this stuff,” says Daniel Coyle when asked what makes a great culture. “From afar we look at a Pixar, a San Antonio Spurs or the US Navy SEALs and they look ideal; as if everything is smooth. But that’s an illusion.”

By John Portch

The Leaders Performance Institute is talking to Coyle about his latest book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. In the highly anticipated follow-up to 2009’s The Talent Code, Coyle goes inside some of the most effective organisations in the world to see what makes them tick and identifies the key factors that can generate cohesion in any walk of life.

“One of the common words leaders use a lot is ‘disaster’; they really felt if something didn’t go well then the next few years could be a disaster. Ed Catmull at Pixar said that, the navy SEALs said it, RC Buford at San Antonio too,” says Coyle.

So what separates a great culture from the vast majority? “I’d argue that these organisations are great because they’re really in tune with the challenge they face and because they face them every day. They don’t try and shy away from big problems right under their noses.” This premise forms the basis of The Culture Code and for the next hour we talked culture with Coyle with a view to unearthing some practical tips for the rest of us.

Embrace awkwardness and difficulty

For Coyle, good leaders weave a sense of safety through their environment that gives others a sense of security and freedom to speak openly, particularly when problems emerge. “Any culture can function when there are no problems,” he observes. “Culture is a living thing; a set of relationships walking towards a goal and, like any relationship, there are constant tensions and problems that come up and great cultures are able to deal with them in a more knowing, direct, intentional way than the rest of us.”

Coyle cites the example of the Spurs, where General Manager RC Buford and Head Coach Gregg Popovich have worked in tandem to develop one of the most highly regarded team cultures in elite sport. “It is a wonderful culture, no question, but you can take that to mean happy and shiny, with everyone delighted all the time, and that’s not it,” he says reflecting on his visit. “Fulfilment comes in a number of different flavours; you’ve got shallow fun and shallow fulfilment but then you’ve got these deeper commitments that don’t register as being high-spirited or happy. People solving tough problems together – that’s what you get at the Spurs. They have fun but there is awkwardness and difficulty; and the degree to which they embrace and go through those moments together makes them strong. They don’t shy away.”



Signals of safety

The conversation turns to the famous 2017 clip of the mic’ed up Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr delivering words of encouragement to Steph Curry during a timeout. Curry’s field goal percentage, three-point percentage and assists had all dropped in the absence of Kevin Durrant but Kerr sidled up to his star man, spying an opportunity. “Here’s what I’m going to show you,” begins Kerr, brandishing a sheet of stats. “That’s your shooting totals; that’s your plus-minus, alright? So it’s not always tied together; you’re doing great stuff out there; the tempo is so different when you’re out there.” Still pointing at the page, he adds: “Everything you generate for us is so positive; it shows up here, not always there, but it always shows up here. You’re doing great.” Kerr’s parting words as Curry rose at the buzzer were: “Carry on, my son.”

“That did not happen by accident and it wasn’t just praise,” says Coyle of that interaction. “Kerr was very specific about the words he chose and the moment he chose to connect.”

During the same game, Kerr told a smiling Curry: “I would love to feel whatever the hell you’re feeling right now, just once in my life. For me, if I went five from six or four threes – that was about the best I ever did.”


“Culture is a living thing; a set of relationships walking towards a goal and, like any relationship, there are constant tensions and problems that come up and great cultures are able to deal with them in a more knowing, direct, intentional way than the rest of us.”


Coyle says: “He connected over a specific action and he did it in a way that wasn’t feedback like ‘nice decision there’; it was ‘I love to watch you play’ and you can see the relationship and confidence build in real time.

“In any organisation, whether you’re a sports team or a team of honey bees, you’ve got to connect; you need to have a safe and secure connection to the group to know you’re in just as other people are with you. That happens in humans by the exchange of signals of safety, signals of connection, signals that say ‘I see you as an individual and we share a future and a connection’.”

Going back to San Antonio, Coyle explains that Popovich, his coaches and the players will dine together more often than the players will eat with their families. “At the end of the year the team will present the players with an album of menus and wine lists; those meals are treated as a special time that connects the whole person.

“It’s not to say that these people are going to say ‘I’m never going to cut you’ but it sends the clear signal that we have high standards, you are part of it, I believe in you, and I’m telling you this for the best of the team. Watch how many belonging cues Pop sends in an hour of practice, how many times he walks onto the court and puts his hand on a guy who just had a terrible shooting day, how much he yells at someone then turns and makes them an invitation to dinner; or he sent a handwritten note to someone’s wife who just suffered a tragedy. Count how many belonging cues he sends in an hour – it’s not an accident.”

Coyle observes that elite coaches such as Popovich are aware of the relational landscape within their organisations. “I see that in great coaches and I would put Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians at the top of this list. They think and reflect for a very long time about their players and their relationships; they’ll spend days thinking about a 10-second interaction with a player who hasn’t been trying hard recently. They’ll test it on other people in the team, asking ‘What do you think if I did that to him?’



“They approach communications with a huge amount of intent; they’re thinking about the concepts that are being delivered, they’re thinking exactly how to word it; should I be funny? Should I push them a little bit? Should I have someone else do it? They really approach communication as if it’s both an art and a science.

“In the Kerr video, the cool thing is to think about him thinking about it; he’s thinking about what he’s going to say, looking for a chance to say it, and then he’s saying it with love. And he could be saying some pretty tough things but he can be saying it with a lot of connection inserted.”

Great leaders, Coyle explains, also use the first day as a defining moment. “One of the most important moments is when we first arrive at an organisation, when our brains are deciding if we’re in or out. If it clicked it’s because you felt a connection.” This can be particularly important in teams drawn from any number of different places. Coyle says that successful organisations seize on that first day, using their team’s story to generate a sense of meaning, purpose and connection.


“In any organisation, whether you’re a sports team or a team of honey bees, you’ve got to connect; you need to have a safe and secure connection to the group to know you’re in just as other people are with you.”


He cites the example of Pixar, where the same thing happens on your first day regardless of your role: “If you get hired at Pixar as a barista or a director they’ll ask you to take a seat in the fifth row – where the director sits – in their auditorium; then the president of the company comes to say a few words: ‘whatever you did before, you’re a filmmaker now – we need you to make our films better’. It’s a hell of a moment.”

‘I screwed that up’

In The Culture Code, Coyle launches an extensive exploration of vulnerability, both in leaders and those being led. He found that strong cultures do not hide their weaknesses, rather, they make a habit of sharing them so that they can improve together.

Why vulnerability? “Vulnerability is how human beings cooperate,” he responds, adding, “we often think that trust will spend time together but that’s not how it actually happens. Trust only happens when there’s a mutual signal passing back and forth that says I am open; I am going to show you my weakness and you are going to respond by doing the same.” Our mind returns to Kerr’s words for Curry – “I’d love to feel whatever you’re feeling right now”; he may be a multi NBA-winning coach but here he was admitting he never reached the same heights as his star player.

And touching though that scene is, there was, Coyle says, more to it than emotion: “When you think of vulnerability you can sometimes think it’s emotional but it’s really just a piece of information that says ‘hey, I’m open, you can tell me the truth and I can tell you the truth’.”

He goes on to cite the example of Dave Cooper, the US Navy SEAL whom he describes in The Culture Code as “a combination of Vince Lombardi and Jason Bourne”. Cooper led the mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden in March 2011 but he is never afraid of admitting his fallibility. “He says the four most important words that any leader can say is ‘I screwed that up’ – it’s a hell of a thing to say.

“Authoritarianism can work, it can solve simple problems and there’s no question that it has; coaches have for many years been authoritarian. I can’t imagine Vince Lombardi being open but that stops working when problems get really complex – and it stops working when you need a group mind to solve problems. You need the intelligence to be out there on the field; that’s why vulnerability isn’t an option, it’s a biological necessity.”



Coyle says that the SEALs have perfected what he refers to as ‘the vulnerability loop’. “They want to circle back and share what really happened on a mission with candour and getting in touch with a shared truth is how you grow your skills. The better groups even crystallise that into a daily habit, the SEALs and their After Action Reviews [AAR]; they ask what went wrong, what went right, and what we’re going to do different next time. It’s a short meeting but it’s incredibly powerful and it would have great application in sport; if after every practice the coaching staff circled up and, for five minutes, did an AAR. They’re led by the enlisted people – not by the leaders; it’s about trying to diffuse this authoritarian paradigm and create conditions where everybody can speak up.”

He does not deny that it is not always easy: “It ends up working like cultural calisthenics. Are these meetings awkward? Yes, it’s awkward, it’s hard; these meetings are not the most comfortable, but the willingness to do them enables you to get faster, stronger, smarter.”

There is a difference in Coyle’s mind, though, between what he terms ‘warm candour’ and ‘brutal honesty. “I found that brutal honesty ends up sending the message that the group is brutal,” he says. In The Culture Code he walks the reader through his visit to New York Gramercy Tavern, owned by restauranteur supreme, Danny Meyer, and the first day at work of a waitress, who was told by the Assistant General Manager: ‘So here’s how we’ll know if you’ve had a good day. If you ask for help ten times, then we’ll know it was good. If you try to do it alone…’ The Assistant GM in question was Scott Reinhardt and Coyle tells the Leaders Performance Institute that this seemingly awkward interaction worked on a far more profound level: “He said it in a way for her to be able to act and have an impact; he set this expectation that she was going to fail but he said in in a way that says ‘it’s going to happen, and when it happens, ask me, I’m here for you’. It’s a really subtle distinction that makes all the difference.”


“Stories are the way that humans in a group choose direction,” explains Coyle. “If you don’t have a story you don’t know what you’re about; a story helps us organise thoughts and choose priorities.”


‘Pound the rock’

The San Antonio Spurs loom large in the conversation, particularly the visual metaphor of ‘pound the rock’ that Popovich has appropriated. Its origins can be traced back to 19th Century Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis, who wrote: ‘When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.’

“Stories are the way that humans in a group choose direction,” explains Coyle. “If you don’t have a story you don’t know what you’re about; a story helps us organise thoughts and choose priorities.” There is a rock and a sledgehammer encased in glass at the Spurs’ practice facility for all and sundry to see.

The Spurs also support their story with an intentional alignment of language and actions, such as the manner in which they refer to individual skills sessions as ‘vitamins’. Coyle says: “It’s a far superior way to describe what’s going on than a ‘drill’, which sends the signal that you just need to repeat and be like a machine. That’s not what they’re looking for; they’re looking for someone to grow and get stronger, like a vitamin would make you stronger.

“That for me is an example of the level of awareness and reflection that goes into every single action. The larger piece there is that every interaction counts; they treat every interaction as if it counts because it really does.” This can involve the use of catchphrases, which the Leaders Performance Institute suggests can sound cheesy or hackneyed. Coyle agrees but adds: “They’re not meant to inspire – they’re supposed to help us navigate, to help focus the mind; what you aim at determines what you see. Catchphrases are a way of guiding the perception of the group as it encounters problems and navigate through them together.”



Catchphrases also provide a way to articulate priorities, which goes someway to defining ideas, behaviours and, ultimately, how you react to problems. “Any culture can function when there are no problems but these catchphrases come into play the second there’s a problem and a priority. What’s the problem? What shall we do? What matters? What doesn’t matter? In the moments before a game distraction is your worst enemy and you have to create priorities around your most important things. Leaders create that constantly by over-communicating priorities and catchphrases. When the moment comes there’s no hesitation; everyone knows what’s important.”

We wrap things up by asking Coyle if there was a trait common to each of the high performing cultures he visited. “One of the things that make them great is that they want to learn. RC Buford would open his door and teach me what make the Spurs special but he was intensely interested in what made the Navy SEALs special; what made Pixar, Zappos, IDEO or the others special. So there was mutual learning that went on in each of these places.”

No organisation claims to have cracked the code – and therein lies the secret.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups is available now from Penguin Random House.

Are you more Bill Belichick or Pep Guardiola?

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle discusses leading for high-proficiency (“[helping] a group deliver a well-defined, reliable performance”) and leading for high-creativity (“helping the group create something new”). Both are common in sport. “The sport will determine your balance of proficiency and creativity,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute.

“In a sport like American football proficiency is required; there are some moments where you can be creative but for the vast majority of moments you need to know what to do and how to do it. When you’re trying to create something that’s never been created before, it’s a completely different leadership style.”

He contrasts Belichick with Manchester City Head Coach Pep Guardiola, who is noted for pushing the boundaries of soccer and creating teams renowned for their aesthetic quality. “Bill Belichick and Pep Guardiola are different as coaches because Pep needs the creativity; there’s some proficiency there but he’s creating an environment where people feel supported to explore, learn and get better every day.

“When leading for proficiency you want to lead like a lighthouse beam; you want to send a really clear message of knowing exactly what to do. You need to really define what the right way is and what the wrong way is and how to respond to the problem.

“But if you’re Pep Guardiola you want to lead more like an expedition leader; a summit of Mount Everest. You want to make sure your people are supported and you want to celebrate when they have a success. You don’t necessarily want to lay out exactly how to do it because they are going to be the ones doing the discovering.

“The medium of the game determines the message of the leader.”


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