Management and Leadership in Nonprofits


Culture and a Curse

Apr 05, 2016


Last night was opening day for my beloved Chicago Cubs. They started the season on a winning note, defeating the Angels 9-0. But that's not what this blog is about. It's really about the culture around an organization and how that culture can drive your outcomes.

The last time the Cubs won a World Series championship was on October 14, 1908, in front of 6,210 fans at Bennet Park in Detroit. Since that victory, the Cubs have had many winning seasons, appeared in the World Series seven times (the last in 1945), and appeared in the post-season an additional nine times (most recently last year). Twice they have been on the verge of a World Series appearance (1984 and 2003). Overall, not a bad track record. However, the near World Series appearances were the result of dramatic losses, with many believing that the losses were a result of a curse imposed by Sam Sianis, founder of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, when his goat was denied entry into a 1945 World Series game at Wrigley field. Many believe this curse is the root of the Cubs’ problem. And I agree.

The curse became the culture of the organization. Let me be clear, I don't believe in curses (except for the shouted ones). I do think that what you believe your outcomes will be will guide what actually happens. That is, if you believe you are cursed and cannot win a championship, you will not win a championship. 

Inside your organization, how does your culture affect your outcomes? For example, if you are an antipoverty organization, it's easy to argue that you are a failure, in that poverty still exists. Your culture could embrace that failure, and no matter the many positive outcomes you have along the way, you would never succeed. 

Alternatively, you can be disappointed that you have not yet ended poverty. You can have a plan in place to end poverty, and you can have many successes along the way. You can channel the disappointment into a driving force to achieve your ultimate outcome. You can create a culture of success.

In October 2009, new owners acquired the Cubs and began to turn the culture. They created a plan. They hired quality people. They stuck to their plan even when it hurt. And they now have a culture that believes in the successes along the way and that the ultimate outcome is achievable. This year they are near-unanimous favorites to win the World Series. Their slogan is "Embrace the Target." And even if they don't make it this year, execution of their plan has resulted in a foundation of being in the hunt for many years to come.

I took the picture above after the first inning of game six of the 2003 National League Championship Series. The Cubs were one game away from the World Series. They had the lead in the eighth inning until they lost their cool after a fan tried to do what the scoreboard had earlier instructed him to do. I remember before the game watching the Marlins, who lost, laughing and enjoying the moment even though they were on the verge of elimination. The Cubs, on the other hand, seemed tight, talking in small groups, avoiding the fans. I believe the curse was in their culture and that they were just waiting for the devastating moment. And it happened. And they let it happen.

So there it is. The hope of a new season imbued with a new culture. I believe this really could be the year because I believe the team's culture fosters belief in that outcome. And if not this year, it'll be soon. The culture is in place. My advice? Keep your organization’s people believing in their outcomes. You have a much better chance of getting there. Agree?

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Wipfli Editorial Team

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