What Can Cricket Teach Us About Culture?

Pietersen

I know cricket isn’t high on most US sports lovers’ lists, but the England national team management recently faced a dilemma we often see in our consulting practice. It concerned a star batsman, Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen is one of world cricket’s most charismatic players, with great statistics, and capable of outstanding brilliance when in the right frame of mind; he can be a game-changer, but he can also be petulant, difficult, self-absorbed, and on occasion, the opposite of a team player, with all the disruption that creates.

So the dilemma was, should the national team management keep selecting Pietersen, and keep his potential to produce a match-winning performance, or put the team culture first, and get rid of the disruption he caused?

The English sports media gave lots of advice, and it was all over the map; on the one hand, the advice was “You have to find a way to keep him in the fold; he’s a superstar, he can win a match for you single-handed, and has done many times, so you have to find a way to keep him.” On the other hand, the advice was “You have to put the team first, and you can’t allow one person to behave in a way that damages the team, and get away with it, no matter how good he is.”

We see the same dilemma all the time in our consulting practice with businesses, so often that we have a name for it; we call it the “Good ‘Ol Joe” syndrome. We describe this in our book, “Culture Without Accountability-WTF? What’s The Fix?”  Many organizations have a “Good ‘Ol Joe” – Joe is the guy the CEO can always rely on to come up with the extra sales the company needs at the end of the quarter, and keep Wall Street happy. Trouble is, Joe is a huge disruption; he treats people like dirt, screams and yells, ruins meetings, and employees go out of their way to avoid him, to the point of leaving to get away from him. But he gets a pass on his behavior, because the CEO feels he’s indispensable. Who knows what damage he creates outside the company with customers or others?

It’s the same decision English cricket faced. What would you do?

For us, the decision is clear; the company, and the team, must come first. If you want to establish a winning culture, the behaviors needed to establish that culture are of critical importance. Once you start making exceptions, it’s a slippery slope, and the company or the team can fall apart.

English cricket felt the same way, and Pietersen is gone. In the short term, he’ll be missed, but in the long term, the team will be better. Same with the “Good ‘Ol Joes”; they either conform to the required behavior standards, and change their behavior, or take the consequences. If you want your culture to stick, the needs of the culture must always come first.