Culture is a Compass

HPW Elite middle distance athletes (from left to right): Anna Connor, Eleanor Fulton, and McKayla Fricker.

HPW Elite middle distance athletes (from left to right): Anna Connor, Eleanor Fulton, and McKayla Fricker.

Culture, in many ways, is the holy grail of a team, group, or organization. Much has been written on culture and more surely will be. It is the blood of an outfit, without it any fellowship becomes toxic and extinct. If we agree culture is vital, then what is it and how do we implement and refine culture?

Culture is Every Interaction

First, let me begin by highlighting what culture is not. It isn't a mission statement, a logo, a color scheme, matching practice uniforms, social media posts, or a list of buzzwords on the locker room wall.

It is what is OK and not OK. Culture is binary, all or nothing. An action by a member of the group is either tolerated and accepted, or it is not. A shortcut definition of culture is, "people like us, do things like this." Which also assumes, not doing certain things as well.

Therefore what culture is, simply, is every single interaction that takes place within a community, every day.

Culture is done daily. It is refined and shaped moment to moment. In every word, every action, every meeting, every rep, every race, everything, done by everyone on the team. All the time. It is like blood, constantly in flux, constantly at work, and vital to the life, or death, of a group.

Anytime the best athlete is allowed to be late; you're defining the culture. Anytime gossip isn't acknowledged; you're shaping the culture. Any time sloppy work is tolerated, you're signaling the culture.

Culture curation is tough. It demands constant vigilance. Humans will err, they will fail, and they will falter. But culture is the compass to reroute and get team members back on track when they stray.

Culture by Default vs. Culture by Design

A default culture just happens due to the confluence of personalities and values which happen to interact at a given moment. This approach is entirely to chance. It is like rolling dice, sometimes you'll roll 7, others times snake eyes.

A designed culture is intentional. In this type of purposeful construct, everyone knows exactly what is expected of them because of common agreements based on shared purpose and values. When the time is taken to craft explicitly defined rules of engagement, then everyone on the team - athletes, coaches, managers, leaders, etc. - know what values and expectations are and can model them, praise then, coach to them, and redirect misaligned behaviors. It empowers everyone to keep account, both personally and of colleagues.

Just as with training, when an athlete knows clearly what is expected culturally they have a working compass to guide their way.

Rank Order What Matters

In the fall of 2017, I spent 3 months reflecting deeply on the culture of the community we desired to create with High Performance West. In order to be concise, precise, articulate, and effective, I decided we had to rank order our cultural values.


The reality of the world is conflict will always arise. Conflict is inescapable. As s result, bandwidth will become limited at times. In those tough moments, if you've decided ahead of time what you value most, in rank order, you can act swiftly with integrity. If you don't rank your values, you'll become frozen in times of crisis.

For example, High Performance West's culture, purpose, and strategy, and goals are interpreted through a specific hierarchy of values.

In order, culturally, this is all that matters at HPW —

  1. People
  2. Performance
  3. Education

Anything we do must express at least one of these value and ideally all three. Any decision, action, or interaction between parties internally or externally must reflect respect for first people, then performance, and finally, education.

Once it was decided HPW was going to be a people organization, specifically a people enhancement enterprise, then it could be defined how that would precisely be done. Performance and education were the chosen verticals.

Internally, athletes training with HPW know they matter as people first and foremost, their performance is important too and each practice and race is an educational opportunity to learn and grow their performance as an athlete and betterment as a person.

Externally, HPW cares about people who are interested in performance and open to continuing education. Therefore, we openly educate via multiple platforms to positively impact the performance of people around the world.

Culturally, our values align to create an effective circular feedback loop which results in a virtuous cycle. This keeps everyone on track and in every interaction, every second, so no one in our community loses their way.

It is important to know that no matter how good today, a team without a working compass of culture will inevitably lose their way and cease to exist. Natural selection will win eventually.

In the words of the wise wizard Gandalf from the final pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, we must remember we are each but "only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” Meaning, we need a map to negative the wide world of athletics successfully. And that requires interdependent interactions between persons who are aligned and supporting each other on a team with culture as their compass.


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 

This article was originally posted by Jonathan on HMMR Media on March 30th, 2018. 


Jonathan Marcus