5.1 The Paramount Importance of Cultural Fit

For those new to this series . . .

This blog is for leaders who desire to capitalize upon natural strengths to realize individual and organizational peak performance.  We share insights from an upcoming book on The Foundation of Winning (FOW), the template we have developed to help us and our clients achieve their personal and organizational potential.  The FOW elements include Three Principles of Mankind and Four Disciplines of Leadershipthey are the pillars that enable natural alignment and meaningful success.

I was privileged to spend 21 years at University of Michigan Athletics, including 11 years with Football Coach Bo Schembechler, one of our nation’s most exemplary leaders. Working with Bo revealed there is much more to long-term peak performance than talent. Being a systems engineer, I was fascinated by the science behind what made enduring peak performance possible.  There are many great leaders who possess what Bo embodied, but he may be referenced more than others due to his mentorship.

I bet you have a great “elevator pitch” to describe your job, or your organization.  But what about the culture of your organization? How would you encapsulate that? And when you are making a hiring decision, are you taking into consideration how well the applicant will fit with your organization’s culture? In the upcoming Foundation of Winning book, we will take a much deeper dive into Cultural Fit, but for now, l would like to get you thinking about what Cultural Fit looks like in your organization.

In the last post, we introduced the Performance Evaluation Equation:


Long-term success starts with Cultural Fit built on these concepts, which we have shared in previous blog posts:

  • a shared Purpose that is intrinsically motivating to us,
  • a Vision for the difference in the world we hope to make over time, and
  • a set of Guiding Principles that honor who we are at our collective best as we serve our Purpose and Vision.

What does this look like in a real organization? Here is a great example of a leader who understood the importance of Cultural Fit.

Setting the Stage for Cultural Fit

Bo Schembechler and the 1969 University of Michigan Football Team

In the spring of 1969, when I was a freshman, the U-M Football Team had about 75 returnees from the 1968 team and another 75 walk-ons, including me, trying out.  As was tradition at Michigan, any male U-M student could try out for the team in the spring, but first they had to go through Football Team Winter Conditioning to earn a spot.

Bo told us his plan to reduce this unprecedented turnout to a manageable number:


It was the first time he exhorted the team with this rallying cry, and “Those who stay will be champions!” is still a legendary part of the U-M Football Team ethos. Bo was also defining the culture of the U-M Football for us:

  • focus on team (rather than star players);
  • highly competitive;
  • intensely demanding, both mentally and physically; and
  • incredibly rewarding.

Bo’s concept of “the team – the team – the team” (he describes it in this one-minute 1983 video) was formed that spring.  It was the players against the world: we were going to show the coaches we would not be broken, that we had each other’s backs. To some degree, it was the players against the clock, the weights, the weather, and, at times, the coaches.  We were convinced there was no group of men in the world in better shape, willingly making more mental and physical sacrifice than us.  The seeds of the 1969 Big Ten Championship were sown that spring as the team’s ranks thinned from 150 to fewer than 80; we even lost some starters from the 1968 team along the way. During his 21 years as head coach, Bo stayed true to his promise, and any team member who was at U-M for four years and played under Bo left U-M with at least one Big Ten championship ring.Blog-5-1-TheTeamTheTeamTheTeam

“The Team Comes First” remains a mainstay component of many of the most successful organizations.  For example, to identify the organizations on its “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, Fortune conducts a survey that includes a Trust Index and a Culture Audit. Focusing on Cultural Fit provides the most important filter for proper selection of the people who will enable peak performance on your organization’s team.


Leadership Challenge Question

As a leader, ask yourself:

  • What does flourishing look like in your organization’s culture?
  • Who are the exemplary Organizational Culture Fit team members? Which of their attributes could you seek and nurture in others to make the organization better?
  • Do we understand the difference between Cultural Fit and Job Competency?
  • Do we understand the difference between Cultural Fit and appropriate Job Behavior?


Upcoming Blog Posts:

5.2 Performance Component #2 – Job Competency Fit

5.3 Performance Component #3 – Job Behavioral Fit

5.4 Summary – Right People/Organization Fit

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