The Truth About “Changing the Culture” By: John Leonard


Four phone calls in the last four months to me from coaches who want to “change the culture” at what is for them, their new club. Meaning that the club has been in existence for a bit, but the coach just got hired. Each coach was struggling to achieve that. My first question to each (since they were Board Owned Clubs) was, “did your Board hire you to change the culture?”. The answers – two “I don’t know’s”.

So that’s the first problem. Assumptions that teams/organizations want to change are simply not valid. You interview for a job, FIND OUT WHAT THEY WANT. In many (most?) cases, the club is perfectly happy with their culture, they just want a new coach. Preferably one that comes equipped with fairy dust that makes fast swimmers on 3 days of training a week and doesn’t need to be paid since they are independently wealthy. (the coach, not the club…) Failing that, they hired you.

They don’t want culture change. They want a better “something”. And that’s completely legitimate. They own the club. If you go in and want to change the culture, you’ll be calling UHaul very quickly to move to your next coaching position, where hopefully you’ll do a better job of interviewing. (Next time, call Guy Edson in our office at 1-800-356-2722 to learn how to interview the club.)

The other two calls had clear answers, “yes, the Board says they want to change the club’s culture.” One of the two knew WHAT sort of change the Board wanted. One did not. She just knew they wanted “change”. 2nd problem. You can’t change what you don’t understand. Know what changes…where were they, and where do they want to go. AND, very importantly, what are they willing to do to enact that change? (and what are they NOT willing to do….).

Now, the Harsh Reality. Change is very very hard. The “keepers” of the culture are many. It may be long term part time and loved staff members. (huge issue for a new head coach.) It may and likely WILL BE, the senior swimmers on the team. Here’s a hint: if those swimmers wanted a different culture, they’d already have it. Senior swimmers are RARELY the key to the door of culture change. They are still swimming because they LIKE what is there now. (or they’d have changed teams or quit swimming.)

So, you want to know, How DO I change the culture?

  1. #1. It begins with the staff. Hard as it may be, you have to get EVERY STAFF MEMBER on the right culture bus. If you have to change staff, well, thank you very much for your prior service, but that’s what you need to do. You cannot change culture without ALL the staff being on the same culture bus.
  2. #2. Get it done with the age group swimmers. They are the only ones pliable enough on culture to buy into your new vision and new culture. The ONLY ones. Sell it. And Sell it…and Sell it some more.

What/why/how and why is this better? Build your new culture from the age group up. In a few years, they’ll be your seniors and you’ll have a new culture. “Wait, I have to wait YEARS to change my culture?” Yes, my friends, you do. All things of value take time. Culture change is one of them. Its not a slogan you slap on the back of a new team tee-shirt. Its deeply embedded and loved new philosophies and ways of doing things. And there is no short cut.

Now, one last thorny issue. What to do with all those “old culture” swimmers?

  1. Not their fault that the culture they love is not the one you want.
  2. Be kind and gentle. See #1.
  3. Explain to them the differences between the culture they have and the culture you want. Ask for their cooperation as you change. That translates to,“I know its hard for you to change. I’d like you to try. But at the very least, I hope you’ll support my efforts to make changes with our age group swimmers. In return, I’ll work with you as effectively as I possibly can, or you can transfer clubs with my blessing.”
  4. Not one easy thing about that conversation in #3. Do you want honest and open culture change or don’t you? And go back to the discussion on Board Commitment and understand now, with some perspective, my comment on “what are they willing to change for new culture and what are they NOT willing to change?” This is where that particular rubber meets the road.

Summary : Change is hard. Cultural change is the hardest.

  • Do you have official support to create culture change?
  • How strong and deep is that support?
  • Culture change won’t come from those who are strongly invested in the old culture.
  • This is not a war. Be Kind. Seek best solutions for everyone.
  • Culture change must be accomplished at the age group level.
  • And wait for them to grow up into the culture leaders you want.
  • Things of value take time.

Culture is not the one click on your iphone mechanism. You’ll need to invest time, energy and heart.

All the Best, John Leonard

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