Build Your Culture Using a Standard of Performance

Sports are replete with examples of great leaders. These leaders are often worth studying, especially for business owners, because the athletic arena can often be a microcosm of the business world—full of competition, highs and lows, and fighting to come out on top. There are some athletic leaders, like Michael Jordan, whose leadership and greatness are well-known. Unless you’re a big fan of football, you probably haven’t heard of Bill Walsh. But Bill Walsh is one of the greatest leaders I have studied. His book, The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership, is a captivating book on leadership and one of the best that I know of. I’d recommend you get your hands on a copy, but if you can’t for some reason or don’t have the time, I’ll provide you with one of his core leadership philosophies.

Who is Bill Walsh?

To really appreciate the greatness of Bill Walsh’s leadership, you need to understand who he is and the difficult situation he was placed in. Bill Walsh is known in the sports world as the innovative coach that invented the West Coast offense and won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. However, things weren’t always so glorious for the 49ers. The 49ers had a losing record of 2-14 the season before Walsh arrived in San Francisco. Even worse, the culture was a complete mess—many people called the 49ers the worst organization in all of sports. He had his hands full in changing the culture and turning them into winners, which he did. And he did it surprisingly fast. They won their first Super Bowl only three years into Walsh’s tenure as the leader of the franchise. Now that we have some context to understand Walsh’s achievements as a leader, let’s take a look at one of his leadership philosophies that can help the culture of your organization.

Changing the 49ers Culture

Bill Walsh had something he called, “My Standard of Performance.” His standard of performance focused on the process that an organization goes through instead of focusing on the end-results it tries to achieve. The standard of performance was a way of doing things, and it was a leadership philosophy that centered around core values and principles. Fundamental to his standard of performance was the assertion that each individual’s role is vital to the success of the organization, regardless of the perceived importance of that job. Therefore, each job needed to be done at the highest possible level. Teaching interdependence in that way builds a strong culture because it reinforces the important idea that everyone’s job matters.

Walsh recognized that each organization has a conscience, and that conscience starts with the leader and then emanates throughout the organization. His standard of performance was effective in shaping the conscience, or the culture, of the organization. Like I already stated, his standard of performance was based on core values and principles. A few of the core values and principles that shaped his standard of performance are included in the following list: exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement; demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does; be deeply committed to learning and teaching; use positive language and have a positive attitude (it sounds straightforward but that can be a rarity in the world of athletics); take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort.

Shape Your Culture

This list of values and principles sounds sort of obvious, right? The value of his standard of performance is not that those ideas are somehow new, but rather that he was able to execute those simple ideas that are often overlooked in an organization. It’s easy to say everything that is included in his standard of performance. It’s much harder as a leader to apply and demonstrate those values, which is when a positive culture will begin to be formed. You should identify core values for your organization and then work hard to demonstrate those values to everyone else in the organization. Maybe you will include some of the same values that Bill Walsh included in his standard of performance. Or maybe you will create your own unique list of values and principles. Regardless of your approach, your organization’s culture will be shaped by identifying and implementing core values and principles. What will your culture be?