Unexamined Beliefs

by | Aug 12, 2019

I am not sure how many times I’d said “…culture eats strategy for breakfast” before I thought, “I don’t believe it”.

I think I heard this Peter Drucker quote when I was undertaking my first management education course, a four week live-in Advanced Management Program (AMP) at the Melbourne Business School 25 years ago.

This course was the first step on a journey of wonderful educational experiences that I’d previously assumed beyond the scope of my capability.

I’d gone straight from high school to work in football, and through circumstance and situation found myself in leadership roles with no formal leadership, management or business training.

I didn’t even do a business subject at high-school, and now I am doing Harvard Business School case studies with some of the best educators in the country, and a cohort of leaders deemed ‘high-potential’ by some of the biggest organisations in town.

I was still in my twenties and about to start my sixth year as the CEO of Richmond Football Club, and I absorbed everything, filling notebooks and chunks of brain space with this newfound wisdom.

It was energising.

I left this course like a boy with a new toy, keen to show off my shiny new plaything.

I started rolling out the Drucker quote and had plenty of opportunities to do so. Such is the obsession with sport and its relationship with performance, people holding positions of leadership responsibility in the game are furnished with an audience well beyond their relative corporate standing, be it media or public speaking.

I’d say “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and people would nod sagely, reach for their pen and notebook and write it down, just as I had. I even practiced my timing for maximum effect, and never once did anyone question it. Profound wisdom I thought, and I am happy to bask in its reflected glory.

The irony is, the reason I used it was to move beyond the classical sporting cliche, and perhaps with more than a little ego, show myself as someone who was bringing the latest in business school speak into my repertoire, and Peter Drucker, one of the great thinkers, was a safe pair of hands.

I was using a cliche so as not to appear cliched, and in doing so, it became what I now define as an ‘unexamined belief’, and the world is full of them, and they are counterproductive and potentially dangerous.

Now, twenty-five years later, I don’t believe the quote, and I have also instigated a process of reflective thinking in which, amongst other things, creates a process whereby I question my ‘unexamined beliefs’.

In terms of the Drucker quote, I now think of culture as an outcome, the product of many organisational behaviours, good and bad, particularly the personal conduct of the more influential individuals, mainly the leaders.

Our cumulative behaviours are the result of our organisational decision making, as basic as the standards we set, people we hire, systems we employ, conduct we reward, etc. Every organisational culture is different because every organisation has different inputs, all the consequence of decisions made (or not made) by those with whom decision making power wrests.

This penny dropped when I visited FC Barcelona in Spain a decade ago, a club I’d long admired and studied from afar. They are very experienced in hosting ambitious sporting clubs from all over the world.

The first piece of advice from their leaders was do not attempt to copy our culture, as proud and powerful as it is, make your culture unique and special to who you are.

I was a tad disappointed, hoping to bring back the FCBarcleona magic dust, but now understood that our ability to create a high performance culture would be a product of our capacity to make the right decisions more often, aligned to the values we will need to agree upon as they relate to the type of club we are seeking to build.

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In other words, a simple formula, as Bill Walsh author of the fabulous book “The score takes care itself”, get the plan right, find the people.

“Running a football franchise is not unlike running any other business: You start first with a structural format and basic philosophy and then find the people who can implement it,” he’d say.

Yes, you can study and learn from other organisations you admire, seek out conversations with leaders who have a track record of building cultures, but I don’t believe you can ‘short-cut’ your organisational culture by copying another company’s culture. It is the product of a compelling, insightful and well-executed strategy and talented, high intent people to execute it.

I then started to examine my ‘unexamined beliefs’, and they were everywhere.

History is littered with great people with the courage and insight to question ‘unexamined beliefs’ and they have changed everything.

Sometimes, they are born out of bias and prejudice.

Perhaps football’s best example is the attitude towards indigenous players.

Aboriginal players do not play the game any better today than they did fifty years ago, when basically no indigenous players were in league ranks. They were held back by beliefs (racism), which has thankfully changed, and the game (and the nation) is much better for it, understanding that we still have a long way to go. I credit Kevin Sheedy as the key person, using both his insight and standing in the game, in changing this belief.

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The same with women’s football, and the prevailing view for decades that people will not watch women’s football, then 52,000 people turn up to watch the 2019 AWFL Grand Final at Adelaide Oval. Here, I credit Debbie Lee, a wonderful and unsung football person. Her achievement is even more meritorious given she did not have the platform of someone like Kevin Sheedy, and suffered the personal bias directed at women footballers, with every effort to grow the game met with resistance and prejudice.

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The process is not hard and it starts with a simple question:

“Do I really believe this?

Then test it, put it out there, ask better questions. To do otherwise means you are ignoring your own ignorance.

At times you may be a lone voice, but you just might soon find a chorus of support, and change happens and the world becomes a better place.

I always enjoy the opportunity to talk all things culture and high-performance, and the development of leaders to achieve it.

Here are three ways to start the ball rolling:

  • I teach and coach an integrated leadership performance system utilising sophisticated learning models and systems garnered from elite team sport, ideal for leaders who are committed learners, who understand the responsibility of leadership. To learn more, please arrange your FOC 30-minute leadership telephone consult to discuss your personal, team or organisational challenges or aspirations, please use this link.
  • Participate in our next one-day Leadership Masterclass which I personally facilitate. It is a sophisticated, intimate and practical leadership intensive for aspirational leaders, both current and emerging. To learn more, and to register, please use this link.
  • Sign up for the “More to the Game” weekly email, and receive a copy of my “What business can learn from football” White Paper. The emails are short leadership reflections, no more than a couple of minutes to read and we will always treat our communication with respect. Please use this link.

You can also contact me at cameron@designCEO.com.au and let me know how you think we can work together.

Cameron Schwab
CEO & Founder


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