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Becher's Bytes: Importance of Culture to Business Performance in Sports

by Jonathan Becher @jbecher /

Early in my leadership career, I was faced with an organizational crisis which taught me that "culture eats strategy." In a very real sense, no matter what business strategy or strategic plan you try to implement, it is unlikely to be successful if the people responsible for implementation aren't passionate about the change or - worse still - are apathetic about their jobs and the organization. It's why I emphasize that "a passionate team beats a talented group."

Even though studies have shown there is a correlation between a "healthy, productive culture and a company's bottom line", most companies spend much more time working on their business strategy than their company culture. As such, I was pleasantly surprised by how much coverage the topic of culture received at the 2019 SEAT conference, an annual event for sports & entertainment professionals. While the conference was organized around the concurrent tracks of digital marketing, data & business intelligence, and venue technology & design, issues related to culture surfaced throughout. (Read my event summary here.)

For example, during the business intelligence discussions, multiple attendees lamented that their best ideas weren't being implemented due to organizational inertia. Despite what the data might suggest, people naturally didn't want to change. They wished they had more executive support; in fact, several suggested that top-down edicts were the only route to success.

While I understand the desire for explicit management buy-in, I think the more critical issue is creating a culture of innovation. Here at the San Jose Sharks, we have a series of principles which encourage employees to try out new ideas, even if their ROI isn't immediately understood. There should be no shame in a failed experiment, as long as the lesson learned is documented for others.

Last season we took this philosophy to heart. Faced with an increasing number of attendees who arrive after the start of a game, we experimented with a "happy hour" which offered early arriving fans discounts on their favorite beverage. We theorized the offer was compelling enough that fans would be less likely to spend their pre-game time elsewhere. It didn't work.

Most of the fans who took advantage of happy hour were ones who usually arrived early anyway and very few additional attendees showed up before puck drop. Said another way, we lost revenue and didn't solve our late-arriving fan issue. However, rather than being discouraged, we documented what happened and brainstormed other experiments we could run to address the problem. Our culture stood up to the failure.

Fresh off the SEAT conference, it occurs to me that events are usually filled with success stories and rarely provide airtime for failed experiments. And yet, there's ample evidence that people learn more from mistakes than they do from successes. Perhaps the proverbial employee-of-the-month should be someone who helped the organization learn from its mistakes.

In the coming year, we'll be rolling out lots of new initiatives - many of them designed as experiments to learn what works and what doesn't. When you see something new you like, please let us know - everyone loves a compliment. More importantly, when you see something that can be improved, don't just complain - send a suggestion on how to fix it.

To paraphrase an old saying: If you stop trying to get better, you stop being good.

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