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Review: The Culture Code is a Must-Read for Coaches

The following is excerpted from a book review by Play Like a Champion board member and legendary college swim coach Tim Welsh. Welsh knows a thing or two about creating successful teams, so we were interested to read his thoughts on a book that professes to study how to do just that. The Culture Code was part of our blog post on book recommendations for summer. Read that post for more interesting titles, or click here to find The Culture Code online.

When thinking about coaching a while back, I wrote a small piece called Coaching is Caring. It was based on the familiar notion that “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” which I first heard uttered by Thomas Tutko. I always believed that, but other than intuition I never really knew why it was a path to “highly successful” coaching.

Now I know. I just finished Daniel Coyle’s new book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups and my recommendation is that you do the same. Coyle is also the author of The Talent Code. In that book, Daniel Coyle took the familiar “champions-are-made-not-born” idea, demystified it, put a little neurological science behind it and taught us that “Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.” Talent acquisition is as simple and as challenging as that; everyone has it, everyone can grow more of it, and it can be grown to enhance any physical or mental skill.

Coyle has done it again, this time demystifying, explaining, and pointing out the ways in which “highly successful groups” function. As he did in The Talent Code, The Culture Code is filled with stories, research, and evidence. He even includes a 20 title list of recommended readings and an “Ideas for Action” at the end of each of the books three sections. It is clear from the titles and obvious when the two are placed side by side that these two books are a pair and are intended to be read together. One has a white cover; one has a black cover. In these two books, Daniel Coyle puts it in black and white. His writing is clear, direct, and so much to the point that the points become (almost) obvious. Read them in either order. They build and compliment each other. But do read them and contemplate what makes great coaching and highly successful teams.

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle begins by defining "culture," which comes from the Latin cultus, meaning care.” In short, this means that the “secrets of highly successful groups” is in their culture, which he defines as their caring code. For the next 243 pages, Daniel Coyle explains how and why this is so. “Culture,” he writes at the end of his introduction “is a set of living relationships working together toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.” It is the action that counts.

There are three main steps to this Culture Code. The first is to begin at the bottom by creating and building within the group a sense of safety and belonging. Before they can perform at a high level, group members need to know that they “belong” to the group and that they are “safe” here. "This is all about relationships, conveying the fact that I’m interested in you, and that all the work we do together is in the context of that relationship... Belonging needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced” (p. 24). Examples abound, starting with the work of the amygdala in our brain and continuing through the Army, the Navy Seals, Pixar, Zappos, the San Antonio Spurs, etc. Highly successful cultures begin with caring, with safety, and with belonging. There is even a discussion of how to give strong, “magical feedback” that leads to improvement.

Daniel Coyle titles part II of his book “Share Vulnerability.” Sharing Vulnerability is what the leader does – and it is something that, as coaches, we might not be very good at or accustomed to doing. “It goes against our every instinct,” writes Coyle, who relates how successful groups translate connection into trusting cooperation (p. 96-97). They do it, he says, by sharing vulnerability. In one way of looking at it, this is what teams and seasons are about: approaching a risky endeavor together in which everyone shares some vulnerability and “success” only comes from trusting one another and working together without reservation toward a mutually shared goal. In highly successful groups, you don’t “focus on yourself,” you “focus on the team and the task," writes Coyle (p. 121).

Part III is titled “Establish Purpose.” In simple terms, Coyle notes that successful groups define their purpose clearly, and tell their story often. “Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal drive but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal," he writes (p. 180). Everyone in the group or on the team needs to know the purpose and mission of the group and to see it often. They need to see and know the organization’s priorities, so that they know how to act and what to do in every situation. All this may sound simple, but it isn’t. It takes a lot of work, a lot of “deliberate practice” and a lot of attention to detail. “It’s not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite or encouraging everyone to recite from a hymnal of catchphrases [although he says repeated catch phrases can help]. It’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all learning" (p. 228).

When we look at our seasons, our years, and even our practices, we come up against this last sentence over and over again. Our team and our team goal for each year is our “high purpose environment.” Our daily and seasonal coaching is our “never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all learning.” And for our team members, it is the same story: a “never- ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all learning.” Amen to all that. Coaching is like that.

“Writing a book,” Coyle writes at the beginning of his Epilogue, “leaves a person changed.” I have been “changed” by reading this book. I hope you will be too. I have left out of this review lots of his practical coaching and leadership advice. The book is filled with it. I hope you enjoy reading and reacting to this book.

Coach Tim Welsh

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