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7 Keys To Creating A Championship Culture

Julia Shih 0

Kawhi Leonard

For anyone watching the Golden State Warriors on their record-breaking championship run, last Saturday’s game against conference rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, was a marquee matchup between two teams each having historical seasons. It was a definitive showcase of what each team must overcome for either to be named this year’s champion.

The Warriors entered the game with a record of 62-6, two games ahead of the pace set by the 1995-96 Bulls who own the single season wins record at 72-10. Despite being on pace to be the winningest team in NBA history, the Warriors must contend with the Spurs who are not far behind them with a record of 58-10 for 2nd place in the Western Conference. The win against the Warriors on Saturday gave the Spurs 44 consecutive wins at home, tying the infamous Bulls team for the second-longest home win streak in NBA history. The first? This year’s Warriors.

History-making basketball aside, one thing that sets these two elite teams apart is a major characteristic that has equal bearing to business leaders:


How does a strong culture create a winning organization, and what are the characteristics of a championship culture?

Golden State Warriors

Death Squad

The Warriors had a long history spanning decades of struggle before the ownership of the team was sold in 2010 to a group headed by Peter Guber, founder of Mandalay Entertainment, and Joe Lacob, a partner in a highly successful VC firm. The new owners were intent to run the Warriors organization as a successful enterprise, making an unprecedented decision to hire Bob Myers, then a top sports agent, to serve as general manager and chief architect of the new Warriors franchise.

After a series of moves reorganizing the team and the organization, the Warriors stunned the world in 2015, winning the championship as an underdog, carried out by an unlikely group of talented young players under a first year coach. Observers of the team claim the secret to their success was that as a team, they all genuinely liked each other and displayed a collective unselfishness and willingness to make personal sacrifices for the good of the whole.

San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan

Similarly, the Spurs have been long-defined by their unselfishness as a team. As a dominant franchise for decades, they have been seemingly immune to the ebbs and flows of personnel changes normal to the sports world. The trademark of the Spurs culture is a team-first focus on discipline and excellence in execution.  Known for working as a well-oiled machine both on the court and as a business entity with global reach, it comes as no surprise that those within the organization refer to themselves as a program, one in which the parts may change, but the overall quality of the entity remains the same due to the strength of the program. The organization has consistently maintained a high level of achievement, having made 19 straight playoff appearances including a championship most recently in 2014.

Keys To A Championship Culture

Though each organization possesses a different culture, and they each have a different approach to how they architect key components, both have fundamental similarities in terms of how they’ve structured their value systems. These fundamental principles can be directly leveraged for running a successful business with a winning culture.

1) Hire Character

San Antonio Spurs

In an interview at Dreamforce last year, Warriors GM Bob Myers was asked what is the key to building a successful organization. He unequivocally answered, find people who exhibit the highest character.

People are the key to a successful organization and you have to get the people part right. In any organization, talent is very important, but talent must come with character. Character is measured by not just how a person acts when things are going well, but who the person is in the face of adversity. Business is inherently competitive, particularly in the tech industry. Staying relevant requires staying on top of technology that’s constantly changing, staying ahead of competitors who are constantly improving, and relying on people who work harder and smarter in the face of adversity.

If you hire good, hardworking, passionate people who are talented in their respective disciplines and have a history of being winners, they tend to pull each other up, thus setting an expectation of winning. If you put enough people in a room who hate to lose and want to compete every single day, they are not going to settle and are not going to allow each other or the company to settle. This sets the foundation for an elite culture.

2) Team First

Golden State Warriors

Rick Welts, President & COO of the Warriors, believes the key to a healthy, functional culture is one that puts the individual egos aside for the good of the team. “Sometimes you need to set aside what you would like to do, for what the organization needs to do,” he said.

Bob Myers believes that if a company has a strong culture and is paying employees a fair wage, the employees should love what they are doing beyond the money. They should be engaged in the company’s goals, and both appreciative and supportive of the different roles within the company that are needed to make things happen. Strong leaders will make all team members feel they are an integral part of what the company is trying to do as well as a part of the success. This practice serves to further strengthen the core values of the organization and keep all contributors motivated.

Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich intentionally strives for something he calls relationship excellence, a concept that is embedded within the Spurs organization. He makes a conscious effort to recruit players who are selfless and value teamwork, who understand they are just a piece of the puzzle. He builds an organization in which the people care about each other and are genuinely interested in each other. This is even more true for those in positions of leadership. Popovich goes to great lengths to value his players and staff as people versus assets, knowing that the more invested the organization is in its people, the more the people are invested in the organization, thus creating a culture of positive motivation and sustainable success.

3) Open-Minded Leadership

Steve Kerr

An organization’s culture is set top down. Leadership needs to have the self-confidence to recognize a good idea, no matter where or from whom it comes. Leadership that shares credit where credit is due enforces the motivation of the team to continue putting the team first. People need to feel their organization and their leaders truly support them.

Furthermore, both the Warriors and Spurs organizations put an emphasis on communication. They want people who are participatory, who can engage in honest, open-minded, solution-oriented discussions. They see that a healthy culture has communication that goes both ways, and values contributions from all members of the organization, no matter the position or department. End of the day, teams understand that decision makers are paid to make decisions, but leadership that is engaged, transparent and puts conscious value on making informed decisions will put themselves in the best position to cultivate trust and loyalty from their troops.

4) Permission To Fail

Loose Ball Turnover

It’s expected that not all decisions will be successful, but it’s the act of allowing people up and down within the organization to take calculated risks that paves the way to success. This is another key to a winning culture.

“It starts at the top…to allow your organization the permission to fail is a very, very powerful thing,” said Rick Welts. “Don’t fail at the same thing twice, but you have every opportunity…some things are going to work, some are not going to work, but if you really want to be thought leaders and industry leaders, that doesn’t come without taking risks. And for an organization to embrace that thinking, we’re going to get it right more often than not but we’re not afraid to take risks to get to that better place.”

5) Continuous Improvement

Pre-Game Warmup

No matter where your company is in terms of market position, things can change at any moment, so a company with a culture of success, who hires high character employees who are inherently unwilling to settle, is going to continuously focus on improvement and be in the best position to reach (and exceed) its highest potential.

Steph Curry followed up a championship season and MVP award to work harder than ever on his game during the off season.

“There’s no sense of entitlement, there’s no sense of…‘I was MVP,’” said teammate Draymond Green. “It’s working to get better, and that’s who he’s always been.”

Kawhi Leonard, the emerging heartbeat and lockdown specialist of the Spurs, spent the summer after their 2014 championship going through grueling three-a-day workouts, lifting NFL-caliber weight, determined to come back stronger and better the next year.

Having a championship culture means you don’t stop improving, even after you’ve won a championship. It means you cultivate a culture of competition, both within the individual and within the organization, to constantly strive for what you can do better, for what you can achieve, for how to create separation from competitors. It means you keep informed of what other people in the field are doing and why, so you can make informed decisions to put your business in the strongest position possible.

6) Define Winning

Championship Celebration

While basketball teams have a clearly defined, tangible goal (championship), this may not be as clear for businesses. Companies must define what “winning” means to their specific companies, as this goal becomes ingrained in their culture. Does it mean more market share? Innovative products? Does it mean better customer service? Becoming a brand that customers trust? By giving a specific direction for what it considers winning, a company sets its vision and culture on a specific set of values. This can be further reinforced with tangible goals by which employees can measure their success in achieving the company’s objectives. A company that defines what winning means for its culture and then sets tangible benchmarks at every level of the organization reinforces the team-first, constant-improvement-for-the-win concept.

“When you work for a company that is money first, winning second, the people know it,” said Bob Myers. “When you look for winning first, people know it. So that’s a part of the culture.”

7) Sustainable Task Excellence

Team Defense

Once you have a group of people who genuinely respect each other, are self-motivated, and have bought into a collective goal, once your leaders have defined winning and given the teams the room and tools to succeed, you can now achieve sustainable task excellence. Task excellence is the ability to execute tasks at hand with a high level of skill and coordination, and to do it with consistency. People within an organization with a winning culture trust each other and have bought into the greater goals of the company. They have pride in their own work product and work ethics, and believe in their brand. From there, an organization leverages a strong foundation with which to sustain excellence at its core competencies, while continuing to exploit its fullest potential.

Some say the only difference between superstars and other players is that superstars are able to deliver superior performance with consistency. The same could be said for companies with a championship culture. These companies enforce their brand and products with the highest integrity, and are able to execute their core values and competencies with absolute consistency.