4 Steps to a Winning Culture: Lessons Learned from the Golden State Warriors


Comparing success in sports to the corporate world is not typically a relevant comparison. The winner-take-all, crush the competition mentality just isn't the same in sports as to the nuanced goals of sustainability, partnerships, long-term relationships and incremental business growth. But this isn't a post on "pushing the ball over the goal line" or having a "singular focus on beating the competition" but rather, an inside look into the formation of the wildly successful culture of the Golden State Warriors, winners of 3 of the last 4 NBA championships. This team was mindfully created and shaped step-by-step, much in the same way a great business can create their own culture.


Step 1: Hire Intentional Leaders

Steve Kerr became the head coach of the Warriors in 2014. He was by no means a "slam dunk" candidate. The Warriors, under coach Mark Jackson, made the playoffs two years in a row and experienced more success than they had in decades past. Much like Jackson, Kerr was a former player and broadcaster with no experience as head coach. Many questioned the upside of replacing a successful coach with another of a similar background. However, ownership felt Jackson was not a good cultural fit for the organization. Kerr was not only a great basketball mind, but had a knack for finding great people to work with as assistants and in other positions throughout the organization. His focus was not just on gathering talent and refining skills, but also on creating a cohesive culture that the entire team and organization would embrace.


Step 2: Create Culture Around Your Existing Characteristics

Just months into his tenure, Kerr decided the dream culture he desired would embody the persona of their star player, Steph Curry. They would strive to make one of Curry's defining traits their cornerstone. It would be a constant, felt in the practice facility (where music thumps) and film sessions (where jokes fly) and far beyond. It would be one of the few qualities that, in the age of analytics, remains difficult to tally: Enjoyment.

Whether Kerr knew it or not, he had pulled straight from the business culture playbook. There are eight key styles that can apply to both organizations and individuals, based on your team's level of personal interaction and response to change. These styles are: Caring, Purpose, Learning, Enjoyment, Results, Authority, Safety and Order. Most cultures have a primary style supported by two or three others. But none of these styles are properly applied when solely prescriptive and not descriptive. Your style must describe the personality and interactions already taking place in your organization. If an existing leader embodies one of these traits, that is your best place to build from. So, Curry, even though not a “traditional” authoritarian leader, became the personification of the team’s style.    


Step 3: Shape, Don’t Create, the Culture

As Kerr says, plainly: "A coach does not create the culture. Players really create the culture through their force of personality and leadership within the group. The coach's job is to shape the culture." After an organizational style is established, team members build on the already forming dynamic. However, it can be a challenge to work through the inevitable downside of any of these chosen styles. Kerr had to give up some of the results and authority he had experienced during his time as a player with the Chicago Bulls. He explains, "If I had tried to do some of what I do now with Michael Jordan," Kerr says, "Michael might have looked at me like, 'What the f--- are you doing?”.

Kerr had to learn to accept the almost impossible long-range shots Curry would fire off at any given time. Curry wasn't always thinking about the orderly process of getting the best shot, but more-so about having fun and enjoying himself. This worked because having fun was huge, but it wasn’t the only important thing. Competition and hard work were also big driving factors. But Curry’s pure joy for the game became infectious. Players knew they had the green light at any time. Many of those ridiculous shots began to fall. Golden State’s pure joy for the game became their calling card. It was a cohesive bond that energized their team and the Warriors began to dominate. But it’s not success that allows you to then choose your type of culture. It’s a mindfully structured and well-attended culture that sets the foundation for success.  


Step 4: Allow Culture to Breed Talent

An easy way to account for the Warrior's success is to say that they are simply the most talented team. That they lucked into drafting 3 All-Star players and then signed on several more key pieces, most notably, one of the best players in the league in Kevin Durant. But that undersells the process of developing these players into a winning team while creating a destination that attracted other talented players. Keep in mind that Golden State was never able to cultivate or attract such talent before. Klay Thompson was drafted immediately *after* the sharpshooting, collegiate record-breaking (and seldom heard from again) Jimmer Fredette. Draymond Green was a second round pick passed over at least once by every other team in the league. But developing these key pieces around their “Steph-driven” culture became one of Golden State’s biggest strengths.

Culture is a self-reinforcing cycle. You attract those who are drawn specifically to your culture. Then, your team grows from those additional members that choose to opt-in, and your culture becomes even stronger. But the leadership team must determine exactly what you are and what you are not, knowing it will attract some and not others. Your culture is not created by placing a well-formed mission statement on a website or by reciting a few nice lines during your company retreat. Culture is developed by the little habits and interactions that happen every day with your team.


From Basketball Court to Boardroom

So how does this translate to your own business culture? Start with leadership. It is likely that you, dear reader, are a leader in your organization. How often are you self reflective? Schedule time to gauge your own leadership strengths and weaknesses, define how these impact your culture, and make strides toward the culture that will help you succeed. Then, find that model employee. This may not be the (arguably) “most valuable player” of your workforce, but they should be exceedingly valuable in how they contribute to your culture. Encourage others to handle challenges or interact with colleagues in the ways of this individual. After establishing that example, shape the culture, and consistently reinforce it even during the difficult times. Understand that employees create the culture with their actions and values but you must direct, mold and remind them of its importance.

Your culture is what excites people to spring into action in the mornings. Even shooting guard Klay Thompson knows he operates in an unusual workplace. “I know a lot of people -- I'm not gonna name names -- in the NBA," Thompson says. "They love what they do, but sometimes they don't enjoy going to work every day. I can say here, everyone enjoys coming into the gym." And that right there is more than half the battle. It's telling that even those who make tons of money to play at the highest level don't always feel connected to their work or to their teammates. Pinpointing and continuing to foster culture is important for everyone, at every level, and in every field, and is one of the strongest building blocks of any team. Once that established culture has taken root within your company, the incoming talent, future success... and maybe even a few championship rings, won’t be far behind.


Post by Trent Sultemeier