In January of 2008 I was hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Most of the time when head coaches are hired, they are not coming into a very good or stable situation. It is not the norm to replace a coach who has just won the Super Bowl and is riding off into the sunset, like Bill Walsh after Super Bowl XXXIII or Bill Cowher who only coached one more season after Super Bowl XL. When I was named the coach of the Atlanta Falcons, they were a team that had been through quite a bit of recent turmoil and struggled to win consistently throughout the history of the franchise. In their 42 years, the Atlanta Falcons had never had back-to-back winning seasons. They had always for some reason or another struggled with consistency and sustainability. For example, from 2000 to 2007 the Falcons had five different men stand on the sideline in the role of head coach. The 2007 season had been an extremely difficult one, in which the first-year head coach had resigned after 12 games—three-quarters through the season—to return to coach at the college level. The quarterback, who was not only the face of the franchise but also without a doubt one of the most popular players in the NFL, was headed to federal prison. While none of this was the fault of the ownership and executives of the Falcons organization, such extreme and unfortunate events can create a challenging, almost dysfunctional, working environment. Needless to say, the culture of the team was in shambles.
Jon and I talked several times on the phone about the state of the Falcons’ organization and it became very clear that if I was going to turn this team around, the first step would be to focus on transforming the culture. While the football coach in me wanted to attack the X and O issues and work with first-year general manager Thomas Dimitroff to calibrate the roster for the upcoming season, I knew the biggest priority was to create a winning culture in which every member could thrive and excel. This meant we would not only have to create the right culture for the team but also for the rest of the organization.
Build Your Culture Up and Down
I’ve always believed that culture is defined and created from the top down, but it comes to life from the bottom up. This meant that I had to build our culture by working with the leadership group (i.e., the owner, general manager, and executives), the coaching staff, and the football team. To strengthen the culture among the leadership group, it was important to reiterate to the owner, team president, and general manager the shared beliefs, values, and expectations that we had discussed in depth when I was interviewing for the head coaching position. It was important to have collaborative conversations on a regular basis to discuss the changes we were making and why we were making them.
To develop a strong culture on the team level, we started to evaluate players on their character and attitudes in addition to their football skills. Changes to the roster were not solely based on the players’ abilities on the field. We also looked very closely at the intangibles that each player would bring to the locker room. We wanted to have team members who were going to positively represent the organization on and off the field. It was important that we had players who were going to be good teammates and citizens.
We made sure that our owner, Arthur Blank, knew why we were making these adjustments to the roster and how they supported the culture we were trying to create. We had to make it clear that these changes, both by addition and subtraction, were going to be about upgrading our roster both on and off the field. All of these moves were in line with the coaching philosophy, values, and principles that we had talked about before I signed on as head coach. We were not going to be adding any outliers to our organization, no matter how much talent they had. With support from the owner and the organization’s top leadership, Thomas and I set out to build a new team culture from the ground up.
During the first off-season, Thomas and I worked very closely. It was not unusual to have multiple daily meetings. We made a very conscious effort to make sure that we met at the start and the end of every day to discuss all facets of football operations. Meetings about personnel always involved what a player could bring to the locker room and the culture of the team. We both knew that building a team would be much more complex than just adding the best available athletes. We also had discussions about how the support staff and the interaction between football operations and the rest of the organization were progressing.
It wasn’t enough to just build a team culture. To have sustained success, we needed a winning organizational culture, and I knew that by working closely with the leadership group to define and set the culture, we would be able to have that. I needed the owner and leaders to buy in and be an integral part of the process. Their buy-in needed to be as deep as the players’. I also knew that to create a successful team on the field, I needed to involve more than just leadership, players, and staff. We needed everyone in the organization to buy in.