HOW TO SUSTAIN A CULTURE OVER TIME?
A third area where more research is needed is the sustainability of culture over time. Although existing literature discusses the elements of culture and how to create and build a culture, there is less discussion of how to sustain a strong culture over time. Leaders of successful organizations who recognize how organizational culture contributes to performance also realize how fragile it can be. They also use quite different approaches to sustaining and strengthening culture, depending upon the members of the organization and where the organization is in its development. We present two short case studies of organizations that have each demonstrated several years of high performance and creativity to illustrate how some organizations seek to sustain culture. One case comes from a university athletic setting, many of whose organizational members are students (young) and transient (25% turnover, new students each year). The second case is of an organization founded 30 years ago but that has doubled in size over a two-year period, making it harder for the founder/CEO (the original creator of the culture) to touch each person individually.
The Test of Culture
Chris Petersen is the coach of the Boise State University football team. He has been rated by different organizations as being one of the best coaches in the United States for three years running, and his team consistently ends the season with a high ranking and increasing attention. He places great emphasis on the crucial aspect of "system" or culture in his program, choosing players and coaches largely on whether they are "OKG's" or "our kinda guy." This means players and coaches who in his words are "high output, low ego," and understand and are willing to put in hard work and willing be part of a team. The system or culture focuses on building integrity, good citizens, and being honest and transparent, both for the coaching staff and players. His coaches seek recruits who are "great kids and good football players" and who are also good students (he claims that members of the football team have among the highest grade point averages (GPA) of any athletes on campus). The program follows a "pyramid of success" based upon a legendary basketball coach's ideas76 and includes basic values and expectations, ways to act, and specific goals that the team and the program seeks to achieve in any given year (e.g., achieving a certain number of 3.0 GPAs within the team, winning an end-of-season "bowl" game). Coaches talk about the culture and values of the program, model what they mean in their interactions with players, and seek other ways they can to highlight and reinforce their message. One of the simplest ways they do this can be seen only behind the scenes, away from journalists and crowds.
In the typically three- to four-hour-long evening meetings that coaches hold after practice each day during the fall season, coaches review film taken during practice and consider what plays they will put into the upcoming game. By the end of the evening meeting to discuss the offense, only the key coaches remain—the offensive coordinator, assistant coordinator, and Coach Petersen, whose background is in offense. During one meeting, a graduate assistant (GA) entered the room with a sheet of paper that required the head coach's review and signature. To an outsider (a professor) sitting in the room, the assumption was that the paper was a listing of the GA's hours that the coach had to verify. Instead, the paper was a test that players would take the next day on a few of the program's values. Each week, a test focuses on some aspect of part of the program's core values, and as the semester progresses, the players have to know and understand more about these values. Because the values and culture are so important to the program's success, modeling behavior, instilling integrity in practice sessions and interactions with players, and even having frequent short tests on the values all help sustain the culture. According to Coach Petersen, by their third year in the program, players ace the tests because they are steeped in and know the culture well, and the values become a part of how they operate.