Measuring what matters most: How cultural intelligence will elevate sport

Published on February 16, 2023.

Money. Medals. Morals. A new triple bottom line to measure success in sport.

In a keynote last year, I was asked to present on Management by Values, the research I completed in 2010 for my master’s thesis that examined how well values were being lived in National Sport Organizations. My research inspired me to focus more intentionally on all things culture to better support the clients I was working with. From cultural transformation projects to strategic planning engagement sessions and from leadership coaching to conflict resolution, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to address risks and leverage opportunities without first evaluating the trust level within organizations.

And currently, the trust level in sport is at an all-time low.

To counter the dominant narrative that all sports are in crisis and that all sport cultures are toxic, we set out to identify ways we could more intentionally measure culture for our clients. Culture is defined in literature in a myriad of ways, and I’ll offer a simple definition that seems to work with the groups I work with. According to culture guru Edgar Schein, who published the first edition of his book Organizational Culture and Leadership in 1985, culture is the “pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaption and internal integration, and that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation those problems.” He goes on to identify three levels of culture, known as the culture triangle, that include visible artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and underlying unconscious assumptions.

So how do we know how well our culture is functioning? How can we measure whether our values are being lived? Beyond the annual workplace employee surveys and other methods of engaging members of our community, how can we get a handle on the lived experience of those we are here to serve?

Sport Law set out to expand our deep body of knowledge in this area by partnering with innerlogic to offer the Sport Culture Index, a sophisticated measurement platform that offers an anonymous, practical and interactive way to measure culture. For more information on the Sport Culture Index, click here.

Using the Sport Culture Index, we’ve worked with several sport organizations to enhance their cultural intelligence through a holistic process that provides important data on how well the culture is being experienced. This process includes striking an internal leadership team, developing authentic communications that explain why the organization is making cultural intelligence a priority, launching the anonymous culture survey, and developing a strategy to address areas of concern. In addition, and this might be the most important part, we support the leaders in building their own capacity to review, receive and initiate action to address cultural issues through the NOVA Profile, a psychometric tool that helps leaders understand self, others, and their environment.

For instance, when Canada Snowboard's CEO reached out in 2021 to help him measure his organization’s values, it became clear that current measures were not sufficient. Dustin Heise and his team had signalled a commitment to become the world's leading snowboard nation, and he was convinced that measuring how well the values were being lived was a critical part of realizing that big goal. “I fundamentally believe that values are the language of culture and currently, we don’t have a systematic way to measure the culture of sport from playground to podium. Our goal with the introduction of the Sport Culture Index is to change that by measuring what matters most to us… our culture.”

Heise introduced the Sport Culture Index to his staff, national team coaches and officials, the Board and national level athletes. The goal was to incorporate the insights gleaned from the Sport Culture Index, into refining current strategies, addressing risk areas proactively and leveraging existing strengths. Canada Snowboard leaders now feel better equipped to make adjustments to current strategies by engaging their people in a conversation about ways to better live their values.

According to Ken Radford, Executive Director of Swim BC, measuring the culture of his sport is a vital part of leading with values. “We can’t continue to measure performance objectives and outputs that only focus on participation numbers and results. We need to ask our community what their lived experience is and how well they feel the sport, as we currently deliver it, is meeting their needs. If we don’t do this, we are at risk of not being relevant and worse, disenfranchising the people we say we are here to serve. At a most fundamental level, we see culture and leading with values as the DNA of a safer and more welcoming experience.”

Radford and his team were among the first to send the Sport Culture Index survey to a smaller sample of head coaches, Club Presidents, and Swim BC’s Board and Staff. The organization is now engaging in a comprehensive strategic planning process that will use the cultural analytics from the Sport Culture Index to inform the engagement and to chart targeted actions to support growing a healthier culture.  The results of the survey are shared with those that participated in it, with a view to being transparent and building trust. “We can’t implement new strategies to deal with cultural issues if we don’t engage our people in a conversation about the areas that need improvement,” continued Radford. “In my opinion, measuring culture is a game-changer and I’m proud to be involved as an early leader in this new way of connecting with our community.”

Janet McMahon is the CEO of Sport Manitoba and has worked in the sport sector for over 30  years. She is an advocate for a values-based approach to leadership and wants to ensure that leaders are walking the talk with respect to managing and coaching by values. “Incorporating the Sport Culture Index as part of our annual review has given us important cultural information that confirmed many of our assumptions. Seeing the information has inspired us to proactively address some of the gaps and share the information with our staff and Board to ensure they are part of the process. I’m really excited about how this will start to shift things in a positive way,” shared McMahon.

In addition, Sport Manitoba issued the Sport Culture Index to the athletes, and coaches from last year’s Canada Summer Games and plans on doing the same thing for the upcoming Canada Winter Games. “We feel strongly that we need cultural analytics to inform the way ahead as we continue to make safe, welcoming, and healthy environments a priority. If we don’t have the data, we are guessing and this area is too important to leave up to chance,” added McMahon. “We see measuring culture as part of a holistic way of measuring progress and we are delighted to be among the first sport organizations to lead the way.”

Sport Law’s Culture Coaches are trained to support leaders to use the Sport Culture Index by helping them effectively use the tool to meet their strategic needs, understand the meaning behind the report card, and lean into their courage muscles to take meaningful action. We support leaders by accompanying them through dark places and by shining a light on areas that often elicit shame and guilt. We help them make meaning in a nonjudgmental way and support them in exploring areas of cultural weakness. We are guides to support a holistic relationship with this ‘thing we call culture’ by being better able to hold all of it … the good, the bad, the ugly and the extraordinary. What the sport sector needs are brave leaders to tackle the complex issues that keep them up at night.

If you are curious about the Sport Culture Index or the work the Culture Coaches are doing to support healthier work and competition environments, please let us know. We are here to elevate sport alongside sport leaders who are inspired to manage by values. Send us a note at hello@sportlaw.ca

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