Recommended Reading on Culture

Three Books on Culture

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is about recommend reading …


Recommended Reading on Culture

If you’re interested in understanding culture better here are three recommendations

“The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups” by Daniel Coyle

Dan Coyle goes about this book in the same easy to read style as The Talent Code and it’s an enjoyable read. It gives you an insight into many of the key drivers behind culture in a wide range of organizations. You’ll see some very common themes emerge – especially for sustained success.

“Helping People Win at Work’ by Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridgeis a great read for understanding culture. Ken Blanchard is a leading expert organizational management the the author of ‘The One Minute Manager’ and Garry Ridge is CEO for the WD-40 Company. This is a great example of applied culture, with techniques for influencing engagement and commitment through culture.

“SwitchPoints: Culture Change on the Fast Track to Business Success’ by Judy Johnson and Les Dakens

SwitchPoints was recommended to me many years ago by Bernard Dunne a former World Champion boxer I worked with. This book focuses on the change of culture. Using the Canadian National Railway (CN) as the case study it explains how they went from ‘good to great” in a few short years–becoming North America’s top-performing railroad and a favorite with of corporate customers and investors.



Learning from a different domain has the effect of avoiding any preconceived bias you might have


Send me an email to info@fergusconnolly.comwith your top three.

Culture, Values, Relationships & Happiness

Influencing Culture

Everyone talks about it – but few know what it means or how to influence it.

In this piece (extract from the Leadership & Performance Director syllabus) I give you an outline of the model I have used to explain what culture is and how we identify our own team culture and improve it.


How do we define culture?

There have been many discussions and debates on culture and it’s been the topic of a great number of books and writings too, the most recent being Daniel Coyle’s ‘The Culture Code’. Variously defined as customs, social institutions, and achievements of a particular or social behavior and norms found in human societies, in business, military and sport, culture embodies the environment, interaction and behaviors of the organization.

What exactly is culture and how do we affect it?

The Culture Iceberg

In organizations, culture is something like an iceberg, what you see (behaviors and artifacts) and what you don’t (beliefs, values, attitude). All of these can be influenced to differing degrees, but some such as beliefs are more difficult to affect.


The Foundation – Your Belief System

To understand culture, one must first understand people and their belief systems. One key way that a culture — or team — defines and distinguishes itself is through a set of ideas that are held in common. But we all think differently, we all have different belief systems – I’ve seen this first hand working with teams and people all around the world. Although shared beliefs can drive the thoughts and actions of an organization’s members in the same direction, one’s beliefs also provide a moral compass that guides everyone to make the best decisions as they see fit.

The Secret to Sustaining Success in Teams – Values

Values are the common language we connect on. In other words, people from different backgrounds and belief systems can connect and agree on common values. In relationships, casual or personal this is the most important factor for success. Think of your own personal relationships, we can be comfortable around many different people and types of people, but we are most comfortable with those whose values we admire or are most similar to ours. Sports teams such a Munster Rugby, Canterbury Crusaders or Liverpool football club all have strong cultural values. Values fundamentally dictate our attitudes and our behaviors, and those whose behaviors we admire are those whose who we wish to be with. However, if you are in a relationship where values are not similar this eventually leads to discontent, mistrust and at best uneasiness.

Influencing Values

Values are not fixed in stone and in many organizations, we need to reinforce and encourage the values we’ve agreed on. Following are the four main ways values can be affected:


“Do as I say”—giving verbal instruction, such as, “You must treat each other with respect.” Moralizing can get quick results among those who welcome structure and respect authority, but it usually fails to win over those who like to think for themselves.


This is how many of use inherit values, we pick them up from family and friends who act in a certain way. This is a major method of influence on young players when they join a locker room, a cadet joins a military unit or any group – good or bad, people are influenced by the actions of others.


“You figure it out”—laissez-faire leadership, in which several concepts are introduced and then people are left to go their own way. Exploratory learners gravitate to this style.


“We’re going to meet to talk about our values.” This approach reiterates what the leaders believe and what the organization stands for. Clarifying can be combined with the previous three styles to great effect. Unlike with moralizing, here the group together explores and investigates what the values of the team mean to each person.


How personal culture affects your thinking – Attitudes

If beliefs help determine values, then values influence and inform attitude. If the belief that caring for others is important this elevates the value of humility, which fosters an attitude of cooperation and helpfulness. Attitude is the spirit in which members of the organization perform their tasks and interact with each other every day.

Who people see – Behavior

When you visit any family, organization or group, you’ll usually form an opinion about its culture based on two things. First is the behavior and actions of the people you meet and how they treat you. Behavior is the combination of beliefs, values, and attitude put into action. Good coaches who are strong leader’s like Scott Johnson, Sam Allardyce, Greg Popovich, Bill Belichick or Lisa Alexander all lead behavior by their example.

Influencing Behavior

There are four main techniques that leaders use to mold the behavior of those they work with:

Demand it:

“I’m in charge, and this is how we do things.” This authoritarian technique is effective with rule followers and those who respect or even crave discipline. It’s not so effective with creative personality types and it’s short termed. Rarely effective for sustained success.


“These are the special things we do here.” Ceremonies can be a useful way to create togetherness and reinforce an “it’s us against the world” mentality, which can lead to improved effort. In great teams they elaborate on these ceremonies making them personal and unique.


“If you do this, then you’ll be rewarded.” This is an effective motivational approach for those who are extrinsically motivated, like salespeople who enjoy the challenge of chasing a quarterly bonus. However, intrinsically motivated individuals won’t need or respond well to this kind of incentive-based method.


“This is why we should behave like this, and these are the benefits.” This final tactic appeals to those who continually seek to learn more and are never satisfied with their most recent achievements.


The second thing that impacts how you perceive an organization’s culture is the artifacts you encounter. These are tangible and visual things, like the appearance of the team facilities, the uniforms of the players and staff, and the cleanliness of the locker rooms.

Bill Shankly Quote at Melwood, Liverpool FC’s Training Ground – Artifacts & Values


Risk of Undervaluing Artifacts

This area is often overlooked by teams and organizations, yet it has an important impact on a person’s perception of culture. Most of us know exactly what it means to walk into a restaurant or hotel and get a sense of the type of place it is, a feeling of what is essentially its culture. That sense comes from a com- bination of the attitude and behavior of the staff and the artifacts (the building and the items in it). Think of a time when you were eating at a restaurant where staff are rude or abrupt, perhaps not even to you but to other customers. What kind of culture did that suggest? Or what about eating somewhere where the cutlery and chairs were untidy and dirty? Again, your understanding of the culture can be influenced by moments and experiences like these.

Values & Organizational Happiness

Many people struggle in organizations or they struggle in groups or relationships for reasons they can’t simply identify, and this is put down to failure to ‘fit in’. In many instances this unhappiness is because there is a disagreement on the fundamental level of values. Remember, everyone has different belief systems, these are incredibly hard to change fully in people, but values are where good organizations find common ground and build on for sustained success and happiness. Start with values for solid and transparent relationships and these will help lead to better attitudes and behaviors for your organization.

Don’t Buy a Dog and Bark Yourself

Micromanaging & Empowerment

The following is an extract from my new book ’59 Lessons – Working with the world’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’ where I share my greatest insights into what makes winners truly great.

You must empower the players. Don’t try to play from the sidelines. Don’t micromanage.


Fergus Connolly

Everyone in sports seemingly has an opinion on Sir Clive Woodward, the most successful English rugby coach. They either love him or hate him. Some consider him arrogant, others see a man who’s confident in his opinions. We can all fall prey to making snap judgments about people we’ve never met who are in the public eye. However, I learned a great saying from Welsh rugby international Stephen Jones: “Speak as you find.”

I only speak very highly of Sir Clive.

I emailed Clive and asked to meet to discuss how to develop my leadership skills and continue learning about managing high-performance groups. Without hesitation he invited me for breakfast in London one summer morning, even though he was CEO of the British Olympic Association at the time and obviously very busy. But with no benefit to him, one of the most successful coaches in English national sports history, sat and shared his invaluable wisdom with a young coach.

Clive’s greatest lesson to me, apart from his generosity, was the importance of empowering my staff and letting go of my desire to micromanage. He explained how one of his strengths was in transferring ownership to coaches and senior leaders in the locker room. They were then given the chance to grow.

Sir Clive Woodward

Clive never lost sight of his teams’ ultimate goals, he had an incredible attention to detail and never left anything to chance. When he came into the England Rugby setup, he brought in the best people in every area, from his assistant coaches to consultants to the team chef. Yes, the best talent costs more, but he knew it was necessary to get results on the biggest stage – a belief that proved to be well founded given all that the team achieved. The cost of losing was potentially much bigger than the expense of winning.

One interesting side note he pointed out was how every single one of his immediate coaches had been a teacher by profession initially. He felt this training gave them an added advantage or instinct in coaching and relating to people, managing large groups, speaking and educating players.

Sean McVay

Clive’s a great example of a head coach who was secure enough to share responsibility with captains and his assistant coaches, as are others like Sean McVay, Warren Gatland, Bill Belichick, and Brendan Rodgers.

Scott Johnson and Sam Allardyce who are both very self-assured coaches who have proved themselves time and time again as astute managers of people and personalities at the highest level.

Occasionally people look at coaches who appear aloof and consider it a bad thing. In my opinion, that can be a false assumption. Aloof coaches are often delegating better and more aware of everything that is happening on – especially on game day. While it doesn’t make great TV drama, attention or perhaps referee influence, the lack of emotion often means better awareness and cooler decision making.

I’m always more concerned about the coach or manager who appears too anxious, particularly on game day, and is trying to do all the minutiae they should have delegated to others.

After all, why would you buy a dog and have to bark yourself?


Hire well and you won’t need to micromanage.

Extract from

’59 Lessons – Working with the world’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’

by Fergus Connolly



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It’s a People Business

Winning in Life, Business & Sport is a People Business

The following is an extract from my new book ’59 Lessons – Working with the world’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’ where I share my greatest insights into what makes winners truly great.

Caring for people matters more than intelligence, skills or your fame.


Fergus Connolly

The “Boot Room” was a small room at Melwood, the Liverpool training ground, where during the 1960s to the early 1990s the coaching staff would sit, drink tea, and discuss the team, tactics, and the next game’s opponent. The Boot Room was situated across from the changing rooms and as the name suggests, was where academy players cleaned the first team’s boots.

The “Boot Room”

Bill Shankly converted it into an informal coaches’ meeting room, with a relaxing atmosphere where he, Bob Paisley, Reuben Bennett, Tom Saunders, Joe Fagan, and Ronnie Moran sat around and chatted like teachers in a breakroom. Some of the greatest ideas came out of these impromptu conversations.

We sometimes forget that professional players are also fans, and Stephen Jones, the legendary Welsh fly-half, was a huge Liverpool supporter. One day, before I started working at Liverpool, I arranged for us both to go up to Melwood to watch practice. Of course, not being the brightest light bulbs in the room, dumb and dumber arrived on a wet, windy day without jackets. We stood by the door of the facility next to the famous Boot Room and watched players jogging out to warm up.

“No Jackets Guys?

Suddenly, a voice came from behind us. “No jackets guys? Come here.” We turned around to see Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool head coach, standing in the doorway. He walked back inside the building, went into the coaches’ locker room, and returned with two large coats.

Here was one of the greatest soccer players and coaches of all time noticing two strangers underdressed, when it would have been easier to just stroll past.

Who wouldn’t want to play or work for a coach like that?

Sir Kenny Dalglish

As we sat upstairs after practice, Stephen and I looked down over the Melwood training fields and watched a player working with a coach after practice. He was running from the half way line, passing a ball to the coach on the edge of the box, taking the return pass, and shooting at the empty net. His return was poor, with balls going high and wide, left and right, but not in the goal.

What do we know!

When Kenny joined us upstairs, we asked who the player was. Kenny told us it was a new Uruguayan player they had just signed. When Kenny left, Stephen and I both looked at each other and agreed this Luis Suárez guy was never going to make it.

Shows you what we knew!

Christmas Away from Home

Kenny’s example emphasizes that coaching and managing is a people business. Beyond all the hype, stats, and fancy gadgets, we ultimately thrive on our relationships with others. When I was at the 49ers, Eric Mangini knew I’d be alone over the Christmas break. He made a point of inviting me to his house to have dinner with him, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and their families on Christmas Eve. When I left the Niners, the first calls on my phone were from Eric Reid, Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Vernon Davis, and Colin Kaepernick.

Good People Leave a Lasting Impression

Someone similar who made an impression on me at Bolton Wanderers was Gary Speed. He was a great player, having captained Wales and Bolton in the Premier League and later becoming the Welsh coach. But he was an even better human being. Players like Gary who have movie star looks and all the talent in the world can often be aloof, but he was caring, thoughtful, and considerate to a fault.


Gary Speed

Years after we’d both left the team, I was walking through the lobby in the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel with the Welsh Rugby team and heard someone call out, “Hey, Fergus!” I spun around to see Gary standing there. He asked me how I was doing, and we spent a few minutes catching up. He invited me to meet with him again at breakfast the next morning with Raymond Verheijen and Damian Roden, who I’d coached with at Bolton. Gary never forgot anyone and was genuinely invested in everybody around him. His early passing was a big shock to me and I’ll always remember him being a true gentleman.

Coaching is a subset of life.

Life isn’t a subset of coaching.

Winning will always be a people business.


Extract from

’59 Lessons – Working with the world’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’

by Fergus Connolly



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A Subtle Lesson from Yoda and the All Blacks 

A Lesson in True Humility  

The following is an extract from my new book ’59 Lessons – Working with the world’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’ where I share my greatest insights into what makes winners truly great.

There are many lessons I’ve been so fortunate to have learned from the world’s best winners but few were as powerful as this one.


During my time with the great Ashley Jones at Canterbury Crusaders, in New Zealand I’d get to the weight room by 6:30 AM each morning to spend time with Ash before things got too busy. The Canterbury Crusaders at the time supplied most players to the dominant All Blacks rugby team.

Many mornings, one player would get there around the same time and let me into the simple, workmanlike gym under the Crusaders stand. “Yoda,” as the players called him, was rehabbing an Achilles injury (at about 115 kilograms or 250 pounds, he was obviously a prop and so bore zero resemblance to the real, diminutive Jedi Master).

His diligence was impressive. Every morning he was first man in to work on his rehab exercises. I would strike up a casual conversation, but despite my eagerness to learn from him, he ended up asking most of the questions. He told me that he’d been to Ireland and England, asked exactly where I was from, and we chatted about hobbies and the rehab process. I’ve always found the most interested people to be the most interesting too.

Melting Pot of Talent

Being in the Crusaders gym back then was like walking into a melting pot of the world’s richest rugby talent. Even in those days under Robbie Deans, they were the most dominant club team in the world. Led by Richie McCaw, the Crusaders also had Aaron Mauger, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn, Campbell Johnstone, Chris Jack, Leon MacDonald, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Casey Laulala, and, of course, Dan Carter.

Make your Own Shake

Almost everyone in sports has heard the term “sweeping the sheds” about the All Blacks. But few realize that years before it became a foundational habit of the national team, it was practiced at Canterbury. Years before anyone had heard the term, I watched these very players carried out the cones to help Ashley and Luke Thornley set up the field before practice and cleared it up again afterwards. Nobody made post-workout shakes for you here – you made your own. I often hear coaches from other teams complain about entitled, lazy attitudes or lack of leadership from their team, yet they miss the greatest opportunity to develop it. The All Blacks have learned this lesson long ago.

A Humor Factory

One other aspect of the Crusaders’ culture was humor. Chris Jack was wisecracking and cutting any player who got too confident down to size. Casey Laulala just had a constant smile on his face. Campbell Johnstone, Corey Flynn, and Wyatt Crockett were continuously firing verbal barbs at each other like feuding brothers. And even the golden boy of world rugby, Dan Carter, had his own sense of dark, self-depreciating humor. This symphony of hard work, focus, and kidding around was masterfully orchestrated by Ashley, Luke, and Robbie Deans.

The humility of the group was typified by Aaron Mauger, who had captained both the All Blacks and Crusaders. He was interested to find out more about Leicester Tigers, who he’d agreed to move to after the end of the current Super Rugby season was over.

Meet Yoda

That evening back at my hotel I wondered how many times Aaron had played for the All Blacks. I flipped open my laptop, went to the All Blacks website, and looked through the pictures of current squad members. As I scrolled down, I noticed a familiar face: Yoda. Rather than being Luke Skywalker’s green mentor, he was actually Greg Somerville, a mainstay for the Crusaders for years and at one point, the longest serving prop in All Blacks history with 66 caps.

Yet from our first talk onward, Greg had never even mentioned he played for the All Blacks, said who he was, or tried to impress me by regaling all that he had achieved. Instead, he was only interested in getting to know me and, when we were done talking, focused on rehabbing his ankle so he could get back on the field with his teammates. His willingness to learn, curiosity about others, and complete lack of ego left a lasting impression on me.

It was here sitting alone in a Christchurch hotel room that dawned on me what true humility was and why it is arguably the most underrated quality in true winners.


Extract from

’59 Lessons – Working with the world’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’

by Fergus Connolly



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Hiring: Capacity – Character – Capability


Managing People

Never make someone a priority who makes you an option.


I’ll apologize now to all of you who are reminded of your age, however many of you will remember the Guns ‘n’ Roses, song ‘A Civil War. The year? 1990.

Apart from a great track, the opening moments include a piece of audio from the Paul Newman classic movie, “Cool Hand Luke”.

“What we have here, is failure to communicate. Some Men you just can’t reach”

For those of you who haven’t seen it, add it to the watch list on Netflix.

Winning in team sport, business or the military are all people businesses. This can be often forgotten in the fog of war and friction of battle.

In hiring people there are many ways to assess and profile, but it essentially returns to three things – capability, capacity and character.


With any hire the ability to do ones job is naturally critical. How good they are at what they do is central to any teams success. This can be assessed partly on qualifications, but it is also based on additional skills and experience. In the case of capability, capacity and willingness to improve can compensate for limited capability. It is a careful balance. There are many talented people with great capability, but without a capacity and character they can be hard to manage.


Capacity refers to work ethic and the willingness to engage in the role, eagerness to learn and improve. Not all staff are committed to being the best. Some simply don’t have the time, or don’t have the passion to give the time necessary. Often the staff that demonstrate the least capacity are the most talented. On the other hand demonstration of an excessive work ethic is no substitute for ability and the skillset needed to perform the job. Over working can lead to fatigue, mistakes and detrimental performances in time.


Character is the most critical of all three. Coaching is arguably a vocation, not a profession. Character refers to the mental and moral qualities of the individual. Do they do the right thing? In coaching this has become a more troubling in recent years. The care, health and welfare of the player should always be paramount. Anyone who compromises on this is of low character and runs the risk of not only damaging the program, but the health of the players.

Again, this is a people business where teamwork is what gets things done. It’s always a two-way street. You can’t give too much to people and sacrifice your own welfare, nor can you take too much and demand too much from people who work for you. Never make someone a priority who makes you an option.


Know your Boundaries


Many people can change, their willingness, a strong culture, environment all help. But with extreme issues some can’t. As one coach said to a scout about a player with an apparent substance abuse issue before a draft. “AA has a success rate of 5%, what makes you think you can do something they can’t?”. Remember you don’t control anyone, only yourself, so if someone decides they want to something foolish, that’s their problem ultimately. Don’t give up on them but know where your boundary ends.


At the core of all good teams is good communication. It’s the same in any relationship. Be honest, upfront, talk through feelings and thoughts and if things change explain them. Remember, no one has passed a mind-reading test. If they misinterpret something, it’s usually because you’ve not explained it properly or clearly and allowed them to form their own conclusion.


That said, there are always some people you just can’t reach, and in those cases, perhaps you should avoid them – hiring is not about who you hire – it’s about who you don’t hire.


New book ’59 Lessons – Working with the world’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces’ where I share my greatest insights into what makes winners truly great.

Out now!