One problem for P.J. Fleck as he tries to explain what he is up to in his first year as the football coach at the University of Minnesota is that his claim of leading a “culture build” could strike skeptical fans as the words of a con man.
Many of us have heard about organizational cultures since we joined the world of adult work, and maybe met a charlatan or two along the way. We have also seen even the best-intentioned leaders talk about culture change and end up just confusing even those employees who are trying to pay attention.
It might be that the very popularity of the term gets in the way of a clear understanding. A quick skim of the Harvard Business Review turned up nearly 2,000 articles that mention organizational culture. There were pieces on culture for the digital age, culture for millennials, for after an acquisition closes and so on.
Think about it. When a CEO stands up and says “we need to instill a culture of aggressiveness,” what is that supposed mean? I’m pretty sure it’s not permission to cut corners to make the quarterly sales plan. And what exactly is a “performance-driven culture?” Or a “learning culture?”
Fleck knows exactly what he’s talking about. “Connection,” he said. “That’s how I define culture. It’s connecting people.”
I might have said that culture is the shared understanding of how we should all treat each other in our organization. But whether outsiders define culture the same way he does isn’t what matters to Fleck. What matters is that everyone inside the program knows precisely what it means in his organization.
“Let’s say I asked all three of us in this room what leadership meant, and it’s different in your mind,” he said. “And now we have a thousand employees, and everyone thinks differently about leadership. How can we all lead? There’s got to be a concrete, foundational definition of words these young people are going to hear.”
The good news, for his athletes, is that he keeps his definitions simple. Leadership, he teaches, simply means to influence others.
Fleck has the luxury of doing much of his teaching face-to-face because he’s only got about 110 players on the roster and a bit more than three-dozen staff members. His teaching includes greeting roughly a third of the players at 6 a.m. on Thursdays for sessions on leadership.
Fleck knows big companies would go about this work differently, but he’s in charge of student-athletes maybe 18 or 20 years old. These millennials might have come to the university thinking that really focusing on homework means also sending a few tweets, talking on the phone and listening to music
That idea of focus won’t work, Fleck teaches. His players memorize the phrase “a man distracted is a man defeated.”
That turns out to be a line from a martial arts film that I had never even heard of. It’s included in a binder of materials labeled “Gopher Talk 101” that Fleck walked me through last week. There are at least a couple of hundred words, acronyms and quotes in this binder, a completely homemade collection that forms the foundation of the culture.
There is a tab labeled simply “definitions,” usually just a few words each. Character, for example, means simply “the real you.” Football is as jargon filled as any sport, but the acronyms section didn’t seem to have many football terms. A couple that stand out are F.A.M.I.L.Y. — “forget about me, I love you” — and F.E.A.R. – “false evidence appearing real.”
“A lot of our young people are afraid to make mistakes,” Fleck explained. “Because they’re not allowed to make mistakes in 2017 … as a student-athlete, you’re constantly covered in the media every day.”
Fleck teaches that the greatest successes only follow the acceptance of risk. Moreover, failing in the culture of University of Minnesota football doesn’t matter, so there’s no reason to fear it. Fleck defines failing as “growth,” and he thinks it’s his job to find opportunities for his athletes to fail at something every day, on the practice field or in class. That’s how they get better and learn.
“Failure,” on the other hand, means to have quit, Fleck said. And quitting is a choice. So this is a culture that gives full permission for athletes to fail yet has no tolerance for failure.
“Trying,” by the way, Fleck defines as accepting failure. “Doing” is defined as “finding solutions.” Doers fail all the time. They are not failures.
Whether Fleck’s culture leads to championships for his team is anybody’s guess. The odds appear to be long, as no Gophers coach has led his team onto the field at the Rose Bowl in more than 55 years.
It’s important to understand, though, that Fleck didn’t have better options than culture change. Unlike a corporate CEO, he can’t exit the football market to get into lacrosse. He can’t orchestrate a merger with the University of Wisconsin Badgers. Having bigger and faster athletes than the other team can certainly help win a football game, yet every coach is hoping to out recruit rivals for top talent.
Fleck said he won’t know until December how much progress he has made. Some of the seniors, he said, maybe already can’t wait to get beyond the sound of his voice. Some younger players who were recruited by a predecessor certainly didn’t ask for his culture and could transfer. That happened after his first season at his last post, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
Last season, his Western Michigan team won 13 games and lost only once. Fleck knows it’s a yearslong process.
For business executives and other leaders, though, there’s something happening in the University of Minnesota’s football program that is worth paying some attention to, no matter the won-loss record.
If a player who has survived four years with Fleck applies for a job at your organization, it seems a safe bet that you will be meeting a candidate who’s been taught daily some simple truths about character and leadership. He will know there’s a big difference between trying and doing. And he will already know that there’s going to be a unique way of working with others that he will need to figure out to succeed.
It might be a smart idea to hire him.