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How to Build Internal Culture: Lessons from Andrew Luck

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As a lifelong Indianapolis Colts fan, I was shocked and a little disappointed when Andrew Luck retired last Sunday after seven injury-plagued seasons in the NFL.  But I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, because Andrew Luck was really just doing what employees around the country are doing more often these days, albeit on a slightly larger stage: he was leaving a shitty job. 

A Bleacher Report article calls out the situation fairly bluntly: “The physical and emotional toll professional football places on its players will chase more bright young stars from the game if the NFL doesn't make its culture more welcoming, health-oriented and supportive.” Its culture. Just like many other employers around the country, the NFL has an internal culture problem. 

We’ve all seen the stats about the importance of culture in the workplace, saying that people won’t tolerate a bad culture and will even take a pay cut to work for a company they believe in. 

So last week when the 182 U.S. CEOs of the Business Roundtable pledged to invest in their employees by “compensating them fairly and providing important benefits,” “supporting them through training and education” and fostering “diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect,”  it was a nice gesture, but one that totally underestimates the demands of employees in the workplace today.

Perhaps years ago, when jobs were less plentiful and employers were in control of the job market, simply promising adequate compensation and respectful treatment were enough to woo potential employees (by the way, when did treating someone with dignity and respect become so unexpected that it needs to be explicitly called out?). But today, employees are in charge and employers find themselves more on the selling than the buying end – why an employee should choose you, and, increasingly, why they should stay.

When it comes to finding good people and keeping them happy at work, a strong internal culture led by a compelling mission and values is key, but it’s not as simple as putting some inspiring language down on paper and plastering it on the walls.  Companies working on building or changing their organizational culture could learn a lot from what Andrew Luck is telling us about the NFL:

#1: Listen to Your Players

For decades the NFL has assumed that if they pay players enough, they’ll put up with anything.  But if they listened to the players, they might have realized sooner that, just like the majority of employees today, salary is less important than feeling supported and taken care of.  Defining or evolving an organization’s culture has to start with listening to the people who make up the company, not just senior leaders. It sounds like an obvious idea, but it’s startling to see how many organizations develop internal culture strategies without ever hearing from the employees these strategies are designed to engage.

#2: It’s What Happens on the Field That Counts

The NFL makes public moves geared to demonstrate concern – adopting new policies, making public statements and investing in safety studies – yet players keep getting seriously hurt and very little about the way the game is played has changed. Similarly, organizations blast out an inspiring purpose statement and a set of values only to make no changes to their toxic culture. Organizational culture is the way a company behaves, not the words that are plastered in employee handbooks.  For culture to take root, it has to start with action – from the top down.  Then, and only then, will words carry any meaning.  

#3: Remember, We’re Human

After Luck’s announcement last Sunday, quarterback Robert Griffin III commented that “We’re looked at as superheroes and not human beings,” a sentiment that applies not only to the way fans see the players, but also to the way the NFL treats them.  Building a strong internal culture starts with the most basic (but sometimes the hardest) tenet: treating treat employees like human beings, not assets to manage.

The NFL and plenty of other employers around the country have two choices - either build a culture people want to be a part of or watch your star players walk out the door.

Holly Mourgues