How to Build a Winning Culture (Lessons From My Visit with the Seattle Seahawks)

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(It’s not every day you get to stand next to a Lombari Trophy.)

This past June I found myself in the enviable position of meeting Tom Cable, the Assistant Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Tom gave the Seattle chapter of EO (Entrepreneurial Organization) a private tour of the Seattle Seahawks facilities that culminated in a presentation/discussion about the Seahawks’ way and how to build a winning culture. Walking into the VMAC (Seahawks’ state-of-the-art training facility) with my Russell Wilson jersey on, I honestly had no idea what to expect.

After a photo opp with the Seahawks’ Superbowl trophy our group was ushered into the Hawks’ team meeting room. Yes, the same room that their players and coaches meet in. Let me paint a picture for you of what we experienced as we walked in. The room has seating for about 100 but all you initially take in is the music coming out of a massive sound system that’s belting out a mix of top 40 songs. As you start orienting, you’ll notice a full-size basketball hoop just to the left of the stage. Above the doorway that leads to the practice area hangs a sign that simply says “I’m in!”. We were now seated and with our heads still spinning, Tom Cable made his entrance. The former offensive lineman walked onto the stage with the purpose and “aura” that only a former NFL player and coach can possess.

The following are my takeaways from Tom’s brilliant presentation that day on how to build a winning culture:

1. Compete Every Day.

As the music died down, Tom asked for 2 volunteers. From the sea of hands he called two very lucky boys up to the stage (we were allowed to bring our sons to this??). Out came a basketball and he marched the boys out to the “free throw line”. He announced that the boys are getting a chance to compete and with that they started shooting. 2 rounds and a sudden death playoff later we had a victor.

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I’m paraphrasing here, “You boys didn’t realize this but you just had a championship moment.” Tom went on to explain that it’s the Hawks culture to treat every endeavor as a championship moment. If you do, it’s his experience that it becomes the norm to compete with full intensity. More importantly, “No issue is ever too big.” Not even a Superbowl. Tom had just showed us how every Seahawks practice starts and allowed us to experience what “Compete every day” means.

2. Get the Little Things Right.

Although this quote isn’t from Tom Cable it captures Tom’s message about the importance of getting the details right.

“The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
Tom Waits

The Seahawks’ formula for getting the little things right is actually quite simple.  They take repetition and turn it into to an art form.

Their work week starts with “Tell the Truth Monday” when they review the film from the previous day’s game and point out the positives and negatives that the film reveals. Following “Day off Tuesday” is “Competition Wednesday” and then “Turnover Thursday” before “No Repeat Friday” and “Review Saturday”. The culmination of their week is “Gameday Sunday.”

Take “Turnover Thursday”. The defense practices getting the ball, and the offense practices protecting it. It’s that simple and it works. In their Superbowl winning season, the Seahawks led the NFL in turnover margin which just happens to be one of the key metrics in winning.

3. Grit.

“It’s far more important than talent.”
Tom Cable

The Seahawks have a very specific profile of player that they want on their team and that starts at a DNA level with “Grit”. Angela Duckworth, who recently won the McArthur Foundation Award (equivalent of a Nobel Prize) for her research on and discovery of “Grit”, defines this trait as “Perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Angela does a fantastic job of fully explaining “Grit” in her 6 minute Ted Talk – here.

Tom emphasized that every player that puts on a Seahawks’ jersey has tested at the top of the “Grit” chart. (You can take the “Grit” 12 question assessment yourself here.) During the Q&A part of the presentation, one of my fellow EOers asked Tom if they had ever seen a player with a lower Grit score succeed.

Tom, “No.”

If any of you remember Richard Sherman playing the 2nd half of the NFC Championship game and the Superbowl despite sustaining a brutal injury to his left elbow you understand what “Grit” is. Interestingly, one of the groups that Angela studied to discover “Grit” was high performing sales professionals.

4. Allow Individuality.

The Seahawks are legendary for being a team of individuals and this starts at the top with Head Coach Pete Carroll, who famously follows the beat of his own drum. Tom shared the Seahawks’ formula which is to strictly enforce the vital rules and ingredients required to operate as a team and ultimately win. Their “All In” moto and “Compete every day” philosophies being centerpieces of what it takes. If a player can follow and live up to these standards the Seahawks will  allow their players freedom in most other regards. To paraphrase Tom again, “I want players with a personal philosophy.  If they have a philosophy that jives with what we’re trying to do and the player lives by that philosophy I can work with that guy.” He also shared that the concept of individuality extends to the coaching staff. Pete allows each coach a high measure of freedom while working towards the bigger goal.

A perfect example of an individual that the Seahawks allow a lot of latitude with is Marshawn Lynch. He famously answered dozens of questions on media day before the Superbowl with the same exact answer, “Thank you for asking.” Tom’s take on Marshawn? He loves Marshawn. In his experience he’ll do almost anything for his teammates and he prepares as well as anyone for gameday. If he doesn’t like talking to the media but he’s a great teammate,  who cares?

My own take on this is a twist off of “Get the little things right”. I see this as “Get the right little things right” or “Don’t get caught up in the wrong little things.”

5. Stop Blaming and Start Accepting Accountability.

I’m paraphrasing but Tom shared “We don’t talk about opponents around here. Put your attention into what you are supposed to be doing right now.” Further, “Do you know what blaming gets you around here? That gets you thrown out of here. We don’t allow it.”

What they do instead is speak the truth. If you had an assignment and you missed it, you’ll see and hear it on “Tell the Truth Monday”. No yelling, no hysterics. The players that take personal accountability and fix their mistakes stay. The ones can’t, get replaced.

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6. Building a Team.

At the start of this blog is a picture of a slide that Tom showed us titled “Challenge of Hiring”. He broke up an organization’s talent  pool or potential employees into the three groups listed on the slide. Those groups are the: “No Brainers”, “Can go either way” and “Under achievers”. He went on to say that there’s not enough “No Brainers” or in his world, 1st and 2nd round draft picks available to build a company or team with. To be successful, you must avoid the “Under achievers”. “We’re not doing anything fancy here”, Tom said. I’m paraphrasing again, “just getting the details right.”

The right culture, he says, is the vehicle that can inspire the middle group, the “Can go either way”, to perform consistently at a high level. It’s really that simple.

Taking Action to Build a Winning Culture.

Leaving Tom and the VMAC that day, I thought about all of the uninspiring meetings that I’ve attended or worse, led in my career. Sharing these lessons that I learned from Tom with my readers through this blog has further inspired me to build and lead in a much more intentional way. I hope that Tom’s lessons inspire you and your team as much as they’ve inspired me.

Finally, I want to put out a big “Thank You” to my local EO chapter and specifically, Matt Watson who played on the offensive line with Tom at the University of Idaho. That relationship allowed our chapter to experience a truly Once In a Lifetime event.

Go Hawks!