Culture is Leadership

3 actionable insights to drive a winning culture

By Bence Sztanyik and Jeanette Sjoberg, DDE learning partners , March 2020.

The second part of the adidas Directors’ Development Experience leadership program focuses on MINDSET. The challenge is to find an organization with a winning culture and bring actionable insights back to adidas.

What is a winning culture?

Culture is not just a random set of values, beliefs, or emotions, but a winning culture turns customer promises (firm brands) into internal organization actions”

Ulrich & Brockbank, (2016)

How do you frame a winning culture?

By moving to the outside-in, consumer- centric view of culture, we create a winning culture” 

Ulrich & Brockbank, (2016)

What they mean by this is that the words that are used to describe culture represent categories of behaviors as they are experienced and perceived by observers.  They believe that, in the business setting, consumers tend to be the most relevant observers.  Zappos is a good example where the company’s brands or identities becomes infused through the company

Winning cultures are based on the perception of consumers: “We have always been the first to let you know we are “powered by service,” and Zappos is a service company that just happens to sell all the nifty shoes, clothing, accessories and whatnot found on”

3 actionable insights AS A RESULT OF THE CHALLENGE

INSIGHT 1: Leaders must set aside time for employees to learn and improve – Rackspace, London, turns out to be an incredible learning environment.

“The company fosters a culture of learning. We have our own internal learning centre with fully accredited trainers from Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and other trainers. It’s very positive. There is a cross-pollination of self-study since so many people are certified and have been through the process – they help you and it makes it easy to share in the learning journey. Everyday, there are 16-20 different vendor meetings that are showcasing new technologies / services and you can drop into the sessions and learn about them. Every kind of topic is covered that is relevant to our customers.”

Jon, a “racker” and Cloud Architect at Rackspace
“We can order our own country flag, display our favourite band, movies, certifications – it’s personal and individual,” Jon

The Rackspace ambition is to enable companies to accelerate the value of the cloud.

“We meet you where you are and get you where you need to go, helping you realize the power of digital transformation without the complexity and expense of managing it on your own.”

To execute the Rackspace customer promise, Rackspace has a commitment to being a learning organization to enable employees to accelerate the value of the cloud for its customers. The result is high employee engagement which leads to increased consumer satisfaction and therefore loyalty and long-term sustainable results.

Within its EMEA Professional Services team, Adam Evans, Professional Services Leader, believes it vital that technical staff get the necessary time to learn – and away from their day jobs.

‘It’s really important to accept’ he says, ‘that cracking the whip for five days a week is not going to get the best for them or for you in the long run, and that you risk a lot of things.’ These perils might include experienced workers falling behind the technology curve, becoming disengaged and seeking out other opportunities.

Source: Driving Continual Technological Improvement and Innovation

Since all of the significant problems of tomorrow are likely to be systemic problems – problems that can’t be addressed by any one specialty or one industry. Learning and improving is more of a team sport. Our recommendation is to enable learning that is focused on starting with the needs of the consumer, fostering collaboration, confidence, creativity and community in diverse, interdisciplinary, inclusive teams as ways to encompass multiple ways of knowing.

INSIGHT 2: Leaders must have a playbook – here is the starting checklist – what we learnt from The Budapest School, Hungary.

In May, 2019, Péter Halácsy, co-founder of The Budapest School, gained approval from the Ministry of Human Capacities, Hungary, for a new education model for Budapest School. The Budapest School is an alternative school which has no classic curriculum, there are no grades and only three subjects are taught there.
The mission? What if we designed a school in the 21st century? Péter Halácsy gives a compelling case for action in his recent TED talk. The school is a network of homeschools striving to set a foundation for equipping, young 21st century leaders.

We were lucky to interview one of the co-founders, Gábor Vészi, who started life out as a software engineer, was the CTO for Prezi and worked at Facebook. It seems an unlikely profile for orchestrating the success of a completely new education model in Budapest.

The leadership checklist for a winning culture according to Gábor Vészi

1. Have a team playbook for forming teams and creating clarity.
Gábor is a big fan of The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni and recommends the team assessments when forming the new school teams and a further healthcheck on a regular basis.

“I have a team playbook – the leadership must have clarity. I am inspired by Lencioni’s playbook and specifically his book, The Advantage,” Gábor Vészi,

2. Ensure there is trust in the team. This is foundational.

Regular reviews of the playbook allow reinforcing what matters, opening up, sharing failures and difficult situations, and thus fosters the growth mindset.

Gábor suggests learning about how to create trust by reading Lencioni’s book, 5 dysfunctions of the team. Nearly 3000 ratings on Amazon!

 There is an observed and quite robust correlation between psychological safety and learning and performance. That does not mean that this is, you know, you can’t have high performance without it. You sometimes have high performance because you’ve just got a great strategy. You know, it’s brilliant, no one else is doing it or a product that is irresistible.

Edmondson, A. (2019)

Recommended reading: Amy Edmondson: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

 Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson, (1999). ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves,’’ Duhigg, (2016).

3. Do regular team healthchecks.
Gábor’s favourite is the Spotify 12 point check. They rate and discuss roughly 10 areas (not only related to education but also including emotional and physical state and partnership) regularly. According to Gábor, it always predicts major issues.
We found a useful article by Jimmy Janlén on the topic and further pointers on the usefulness of a leadership healthcheck – because leaders and teams have different purposes and focus.

“Make sure you do a regular team healthcheck. My favourite is the
12 point Spotify Healthcheck,” Gábor Vészi. Source: Jimmy Janlén

Examples of the healthcheck

Team Autonomy
Green: I feel we influence and shape our plans and destiny. We decide together how we want to work.
Red: Someone else is always calling the shots. It’s unclear to me what we are allowed to decide, and what we’re not.

Green: We give positive appraisals, but also provide constructive feedback on each other’s unproductive behaviours.
Red: We rarely praise each other, or give feedback to each other for acting irresponsibly or breaking our Working Agreement.

INSIGHT 3: Compete with yourself – focus on improving
Improving and learning is a good focus rather than proving! We prefer learning objectives rather than performance objectives. At Prezi, Gábor found that when stress was introduced it was a very short-term motivator – eventually it freezes you.

Create an environment where you are competing with yourself. We don’t care if you are ahead or behind someone else. It is about how you are learning and improving yourself. Improving rather than proving!! That’s when learning happens.”

Gábor Vészi

Why doing these things can help to drive a winning culture at adidas for leaders and teams?
To recap on the actionable insights
1. Leaders must set aside time for employees to learn and improve.
2. Leaders must have a playbook
3. Compete with yourself- focus on improving

Effective leaders throughout an organization are the catalysts for action, improvement, and excellence”

Jones & Kober, (2019)

In conclusion, leadership plays a critical role in driving the success of the company. Jones & Kober, (2019) wrote the book, Lead With Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence, which contextualizes the role of leadership as the driver for the ultimate results.

The Chain Reaction of Excellence Model (below) emphasizes that leadership must create the right conditions for the middle two links, employees and the consumers. In the case of Budapest School, there were even more considerations: the teacher, student, parent and the government. All categories of people are what stands between the leader and the results the leader drives for the company or the institution. It is no surprise that there is a symbiotic relationship between the categories of people and ignoring any side is to the detriment of the longevity of the leader, the company or the institution and, even more importantly, the culture of that company or institution. The leadership is fully accountable – “with great power comes great responsibility,” citing Voltaire and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Spiderman.

The Chain Reaction of Excellence Model, Jones & Kober, (2019).

According to Jones & Kober, (2019), leaders who communicate a compelling vision, involve employees, and effectively manage company resources create the fertile ground within which employee excellence – and the rest of the Chain Reaction of Excellence – can be optimized to achieve long-term, sustainable success.
It goes without saying that leaders play an important role in the success of the company or institution.

How has our mindsets shifted as a result of the challenge?

A key insight is the the dominant leadership mindset that focused on ensuring employees are kept on task with a relentless focus on execution. Execution is framed in a way that rewards employees for routinely meeting deadlines. There is little focus on reward for learning and improving that leads to tangible benefits and value for the consumer. Learning objectives should receive equal importance to performance objectives. Learning objective contribute to the growth strategy of companies whereas the leadership style that focuses on pure action and task-orientation embeds a fixed mindset and short-termism. Of course there are a lot of factors involved such as the tenure of the Board members, long term incentive plans and overall compensation that constrain the organizational and leadership success.

The impact your insights will have in your team, and how they might influence its mindset going forward
A winning culture is a team sport and it is our internal actions that will determine our ability to deliver on consumer / customer promises.


Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect teamThe New York Times Magazine26, 2016.

Edmondson, A. (2019). Creating Psychological Safety in the WorkplaceHarvard Business Review.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teamsAdministrative science quarterly44(2), 350-383.

Jones, M. D., & Kober, J. J. (2019). Lead with Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand Into World-class Excellence. American Society for Training and Development.

Ulrich, D., & Brockbank, W. (2016). Creating a winning culture: next step for leading HR professionals. Strategic HR Review.

See previous articles related to the adidas DDE experience here:
How to be the best leader you can? Focus on Language.

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