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How Leaders Can Build Culture Within Their Team with Jon Gordon | Ep. 174

BDD 174 | Jon Gordon


Jon Gordon, a successful author who has published numerous bestselling books including The Energy Bus, has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies and some of the top sports teams in the world. In this insightful conversation, John talks about the importance of cultivating a culture in your team and gives advice on how leaders can build one. He brushes on the power of authenticity, accountability, and vulnerability in creating meaningful relationships. He also tackles why having connection in a team matters as well as the positive impact of being an optimistic leader.

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How Leaders Can Build Culture Within Their Team with Jon Gordon

BDD 174 | How Leaders Can Build Culture
The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy

I am absolutely fired up to have the one and only Jon Gordon here on the show. Jon has published numerous bestselling books including The Energy Bus, The Carpenter, The Seed, The Hardhat and The Power of a Positive Team. He’s worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies and some of the top sports teams in the world including the Los Angeles Dodgers and National Champion Clemson Football. Jon has been a mentor from afar for not only myself but our entire Bananas team. I am thrilled to connect with you and have you on the show.

Thanks, Jesse. I am honored to be here. I admire what you do and how you do it. You’re an incredible culture builder. It’s a joy to be with you.

Thanks a lot, Jon. I want to go to The Power of a Positive Team. First of all, The Carpenter, I read it and did a six-page report on that. That’s love, serve and care. The Power of Positive Team comes out and you put everything into this book in short bite size. I want to start with culture because to be a positive team and to be a great team, you’ve got to start with culture. You’ve got to focus on the root if you want to get to the fruit. You shared with getting high you have to stand what you stand for, share who you are. What do you want to be known for? What’s that North Star? My question is how do you get your whole team behind that?

First, you have to articulate. You have to talk about it. You have to be able to share how important culture is. Why culture matters? How can we build a great culture? What do we stand for? What is our North Star? What are we here to do? What does the root look like and what is investing in the root look like in order to have the fruit? You have to talk about it with your team. You have to make them understand that culture is everything. It’s not one thing. You get them to buy into the culture that you want to create. You get them to articulate what matters to them and what culture they want to build. It’s not a one-person thing. It’s an everyone thing. It’s an all-in thing.

It’s having everybody on the team, on the bus, moving in the right direction with that shared vision, focus and purpose. Once you articulate that, you talk about that and you get their buy-in, then it’s about, “Let’s create this culture each day.” What can we do to create this great culture that we’re talking about? How do we invest in the root? If you focus on the fruit and you ignore the root as so many organizations do, the tree dies. If you invest in that root and you make it your number one priority, you will get a great supply of fruit. They have to understand this root to fruit.

One of our young employees once said, “Jesse, we need to stop talking about money, stop talking about dollars, only talk about what we’re trying to do and be the most fans first company.” As soon as we did, the money started to take care of itself even more. Do you have any great examples? You shared so many stories of a leader that was like, “Nope, this is our very simple vision. This is who we are. This is what we’re going to target.”

[bctt tweet=”To be a great team, you have to start with culture.” via=”no”]

Clemson Football is a great example because he knew the culture he wanted to create. He understood the program he wanted to build. The foundation of that program was based on faith, on optimism, on belief, on family, on relationships, doing things the right way. He had this vision. He had the culture. We see that culture manifest itself in two national championships.

Dabo showed up with a sign that says, “Belief.” If you were to simplify his culture, is it, “Believe in each other?”

It’s believing in each other and it’s the belief about what is possible because for years, Clemson lacked belief. There wasn’t a lot of belief in the organization that Clemson could be successful. They would lose a lot of games. There was a term called Clemsoning, which meant losing games you should win. He changed that mindset. He changed that belief. He walked into his first meeting as the head coach with two sides. One side said, “Believe,” the other one said, “I can’t,” with the T crossed out. He was sharing his belief about what Clemson could be. They had the belief of what Clemson could be. They had the belief they were champions. From there, they became champions. Every day every practice is a brainwashing session. Every day after practice, he was talking to them, “We’re the best. You’re the best. We’re going to do this. This is how we’re going to do it.” Over time, they started to believe it, “Yes, we are the best. Yes, we’re going to give our best effort.” It’s not just a mindless belief. It’s not to say, “You’re the best,” and don’t do anything. It’s belief with the action to be great that allows them to achieve greatness.

It’s so true because so many companies aren’t clear on what they’re doing. They don’t repeat it over and over again. Their team knows it. Once Dabo got that clear belief, he built a connection. You talk about this all on your book, the connection. How many leaders know their people, know people that are close to them, know what matters? Could you give some examples that you shared of how these leaders have built that close connection?

Culture is built one relationship, one connection at a time. You said it great. A lot of people want to build a great culture. They talk about these things at an annual meeting, but then they don’t create the connection and the culture on a daily basis. We have to realize that we are creating culture every day. It’s not static. It is dynamic. The connection, the relationship, sharing the values, share what we believe, share what we stand for, reinforcing it. When you see it done, then you reinforce it and you recognize it. When you don’t see it done, you call it out, “This is not what we’re about. This is not how we do things here. We need to be better than this.” You need to call on that out and the more you reinforce it, one person, one day at a time, over time you begin to live and breathe that culture. It becomes a part of who you are.

BDD 174 | How Leaders Can Build Culture
How Leaders Can Build Culture: Building your culture is more important at a more strategic advantage to help you be successful.


There are written rules and unwritten rules. All those rules come together to be who you truly are as an organization. Just working with the Dodgers, for instance, and watching Dave Roberts build his relationships, one player at a time and one connection at the time. He literally connects with every guy every day to build those relationships. As a leader, you have to connect one-on-one with the people that you lead and then you have to create an environment that fosters their connections with the people on your team. It’s about growing those connections and those relationships. I had a guy come to my house one time, he’s a yard guy. He said he uses all organic processes, no chemicals whatsoever. I said, “How do you do that?” He said, “I create an environment for the good grass to grow and spread out healthy. It gets all the way out there to all the weeds and everything, then the weeds had nowhere to grow.” That’s what we’re talking about here.

A lot of these stories inspired me because so many leaders say, “We do an annual review. We do quarterly reviews.” Every day we will walk in the stadium with our people, do laps or we’ll grab lunch because you’ve got to be proactive and not reactive. Most people are reactive. You shared a great story too. Was it Brian Bowen from UVA about how he tried to get people together? Could you share that?

He’s an incredible leader. Brian Bowen was the coach of UVA tennis. From 2001 to 2012, they never won a championship. They would get to the quarterfinals, the semis or fall short and wouldn’t have a championship season even though they had championship-level talent. From 2013 on, they won four out of the next five national championships. They were meeting in Chicago because they had lost another tournament. They were so upset. There was a blizzard and they were stuck in the hotel. They couldn’t fly home so they got together as a team. Brian said, “Are we a strong team?” They said, “Yeah.” He said, “Who are the most important people in your lives?” They all said their families. He said, “Do you know about each other’s families?”

They said, “No.” He said, “If someone was important to you, shouldn’t you know what’s important to them? You should know the families if it’s important to each team member.” They grabbed names out of the hat and each person had to learn about their teammates’ family. They learned about their family. They learned about their teammate. It was an incredible way to get them connected. They did presentations. Some families sent videos. They truly bonded after that. They won a national championship that year. They did more and more things, but you would have them sit around a table and they would talk every day about different topics, different examples. It wasn’t, “Go out and play tennis.” They took fifteen, twenty minutes a day to build relationships, build a connection. That helped on the court. A lot of times coaches say, “We’ve got to get this practice in. We don’t have time for this stuff. We had to do drills.” Building your culture is more important and a more strategic advantage to help you be successful than doing those fifteen minutes of drills.

I wanted to ask every leader, “How well do you know your spouses and significant others of your team? How well do you know their families?” I’ll tell you, Jon, inspired again by you, that was a game changer. When we started surprising our staff with trips, they could bring their significant other. They could bring a friend. We sent our Fans First director to our bucket list trip to Ireland. She brought her dad so she could spend a whole week in Ireland with her dad. That’s meaningful because it’s with someone they love and they care about. Leaders need to think more about them. It was so brilliant by Brian. It’s like, “Do you know each other’s families?” I loved it. I want to move on to accountability because accountability is huge and catching people doing things wrong. What’s the best way to do that? You talk about tough love. How have you seen great leaders do that, Jon?

[bctt tweet=”When you know your why, you’ll know the way.” via=”no”]

I believe in tough love, but love must come first. It’s about love tough. Tough love only works when love comes first. It’s about loving your team, letting them know that you care about them. If they know that you care about them, then you earn the right to challenge them, to make them better, to help them get better. You do care about them and you love them, you’re not going to let them settle for anything less than their best. You’re not going to let them settle for mediocrity. You’re going to push them and challenge them to greatness. You have to build a relationship and the care first. That’s what earns the trust that allows you to speak into their lives. I’m a big believer in love tough and developing those relationships.

We talk about accountability. We have a set of standards and these are the standards that we have to rise up to. I’m going to challenge you to reach these standards. Anytime someone is not living up to the individual or collective standard, you can call them out and talk to them about it. Did you first earn the right and developed the relationship to do that? Once you have and you have these standards, then everyone is working towards the standard. Everyone knows the standard. In a lot of organizations, not everyone knows the standards. People say, “How do we do this without being a jerk?” We don’t have to be a jerk. Great leaders are demanding. They’re not demeaning. We are demanding of what we expect because we’re here to do great work and pursue greatness. We have these standards and together we will work towards those standards and meet those expectations.

I’ve got a personal question here. I’ve always had a challenge with this, probably a lot of leaders do, Jon. We have all 22 to 25-year-old. Our president turned 27. He started at 24. We’re a very young team. My wife and I are elder statesmen here. The reality is people get defensive. I’m one as well. When you say, “You could be better there,” it’s tough. There’s the building of love and, “I care,” but to say, “That wasn’t good what you did,” how have you seen leaders get this where people aren’t defensive?

You have to have the difficult conversations and you have to talk about it at the cultural level so everyone knows, “We’re going to have difficult conversations to get better. If we do have difficult conversations, everyone needs to understand this is not meant to be at the meeting. We all have to have a spirit of openness, a welcoming of feedback that makes each other better.” You can be vulnerable first and say, “I messed up here. I need to do a better job here as a leader. I could have done this better.” It’s always best to start with you, where you made a mistake, hold yourself accountable in front of the organization. When they see that vulnerability and authenticity in you, that’s going to allow you to earn the right to be able to speak that into others and call people out.

As part of the culture level, I say call them out. We’re not only calling them out, but we’re also calling them up. We’re calling them up to greatness instead of calling them out. What we’re saying is that, “We know we can do better. We know that this was not your best effort. We know that you could have done this better. I know that you have that in you. I’m only talking to you about this because I see what your potential is. I see what your greatest is. I know you could improve in that way.” If you say it on that scale, it’s going to be more open. It’s all about the way you say it. If you say, “What’d you do there? You messed up there. What was that all about?” That’s not going to be perceived all right. It’s how you do it. The Seattle Seahawks have Tell the Truth Monday. Every Monday they get together as a team. They talk about their mistakes, how they messed up. They do call people out in front of the team because it’s part of the culture, everyone expects it. Everyone knows it’s coming.

BDD 174 | How Leaders Can Build Culture
How Leaders Can Build Culture: You have to continually build your team, one relationship and one connection at a time.


They’re not feeling bad about it. They’re not getting upset about it. They’re not bitter about it. They understand that it’s about making the team better. Everyone is open to their feedback so they can get better. You have to set it up at the cultural level. “This is how we do things here. If I do call you out one day from a customer service standpoint about the way you talk to a fan, I want you to know that I’m willing to do it so you can be better and so we can be better. If I see something, just know I am going to say something.” You’re setting it up in front of the entire team or organization that everyone expects it. They know it’s part of your culture. Over time, it becomes something where no one takes it personally. No one thinks it’s personal but go first and explain your own shortcomings. Share how you made a mistake. That is always a great way to lead.

It gives permission for other people to do the same. One intern told me who’s now our director of tickets, “That first year when you told me, ‘Barry, you’re better than that.’ That hit me hard. I felt like I let my dad down. It was right. I am better than that.” It was an interesting way. I didn’t mean to say it that way, but that’s how it came out. I want to go into some team building exercises, Jon, because you give some great examples and I love your three H’s, what Dabo does with the Safe Seat. Can you explain some of the best team building exercises you’ve seen? I know leaders need to put these in play.

I’m a big believer in getting together as a team and doing ongoing team building. It’s not a one-time event and thinking, “We’re a team now.” You have to continually build your team, one relationship, one connection at a time. Some of the most powerful ways that we’ve done this that I’ve seen is one is the hero hardship highlights. You get together with your team and you ask each person to share who their hero is, a highlight in their life and a hardship they face that made them who they are now. As each person shares, you’ll get to learn about their hero, a highlight, a hardship. You get to know them a lot better. When that happens, the walls of pride and ego come crumbling down. That authenticity and vulnerability pave the way for meaningful relationships and strong connections.

Is that done in a retreat and just a regular weekly meeting? How have you seen those used?

You can do it anyway. You could have the retreat. You can have a weekly meeting where you have two or three people share each week until you eventually get to everyone. There are many ways you can do it. There’s no perfect way. There’s just the way that you want to do it that fits into your schedule. The retreat style is obviously the best, but anyway that you do it is better than not doing it. It’s helpful to do it. Dabo Swinney, we did a thing called the Safe Seat. The Safe Seat is where you put a chair in the front of the room, and you have a player sit in the chair and then the whole team is around that player. Dabo would ask that player questions about their hero, their hardship, their highlight, a defining moment in their life that made them who they are now and other questions that you may want to ask.

[bctt tweet=”We have to expect challenges, but we need to have an even greater expectation that we’ll overcome them.” via=”no”]

The team could ask questions as well. As each guy sat in that seat, it was amazing how some guys were brought to tears sharing their stories about their past, about their pain, about issues that they faced. It was powerful. I’ve done this a number of times with a lot of teams. I did it with Auburn golf and they won the SEC Championship. They truly came together as a team where they were playing for each other. Even though they’re golfers, they became a connected and committed team. The Safe Seat exercise is truly powerful. It’s a Safe Seat because it’s a safe place to share. It’s a safe place to be vulnerable. What’s shared in the room is meant to stay in the room.

You have to make that an important point up front and say, “This is how we’re going to do it and this is how we can grow closer together.” I had the Auburn golf coaches email me a week later and say, “I’ve never seen a group of golfers more connected. I’ve never seen a team more powerful than this.” Here’s the key. You’ll never have commitment without a connection. It’s the connection that read the commitment. A connected team becomes a committed team. That’s important to know because we have a lot of leaders out there. We have a lot of teams that want more commitment. You first have to develop a connection that will lead to their commitment.

I lose the connection with one of our people if I didn’t ask a direct question from Keke, our Director of First Impressions. A little backstory, Keke was 22 years old. She was the shy introvert intern. All of a sudden, she came out of her shell, started answering the phone, singing and she became our Director of First Impressions. At 25 years old, she oversees 200 game-day staff members. It’s an amazing story of what she’s done. There’s more to it. She has A, you’re the favorite author. She read your first book. She read The Energy Bus and started reading over and over. She’s read all your books in our Better Book Club. She goes, “Thank you, A. I have one question. Do you have any advice for someone that has a staff of over 200 plus to keep them motivated during tough situations?”

The key is to continually talk to the staff about the purpose. Know your why because when you know your why, you will know the way. Talk about the vision of what you’re doing as an organization, what your purpose is and tell me your purpose.

BDD 174 | How Leaders Can Build Culture
The Power of Positive Leadership: How and Why Positive Leaders Transform Teams and Organizations and Change the World

Ask each individual what their purpose is.

In the balance, I want to know right now, Jesse, what’s your purpose as an organization? What do you do and your vision? What’s your vision and purpose?

Our name and our company is Fans First Entertainment. Our mission is fans first, entertain always and to be the most fans first company in the world. In every decision, we ask, “Is it fans first?”

We want to be fans first. We want to make their day every day. We want to have an impact on our fans. You continually talk to them, talk to the staff about that purpose, about that vision. Even when there are challenges, “We’re going to face challenges. We’re going to have obstacles. Let’s remember our purpose. Let’s remember our vision of why we’re here and that purpose will be greater than your challenges to overcome and continue moving forward.” It’s helping them understand that we’re going to face challenges and setbacks. We’re going to have the diversity in our life. That’s par for the course. That is life. We have to expect challenges. We have to have an even greater expectation that we will overcome them. This is not Pollyanna positive. It comes down to the belief that the best is yet to come.

No matter what we’re going through, tomorrow would be better than now. These tests are part of life. It will help us grow. It will help us learn and help us get better. Every day feed that positive dog instead of the negative dog. The more you feed that positive dog, that’s what grows. Life makes you want to feed that negative dog. There’s a lot of negativity coming at us. We can easily buy into that lie that our circumstances are beyond repair. If we buy into that lie, then we give up. We don’t give up because it’s hard. We give up because we get discouraged. Let’s say encouraged. I heard that the word encourage means to put courage into someone. I would tell her that her job is to encourage and put the courage into each one of our team members and staff members so that they can go out there and be bold and courageous and be their best.

You said before try to get better every day. If you can get better every day and believe in yourself. For instance, what everyone knew we’re trying to make people happy. That’s the simple of what fans first is.

[bctt tweet=”We don’t give up because it’s hard but because we get discouraged.” via=”no”]

When someone is having a bad day, one of the best things you could do is try to make someone happy. The research shows when we do good things for others and try to make others happy, volunteer and serve, we get happier as a byproduct of that. It’s amazing how that works. It’s called the Mother Teresa effect. The more we volunteer, the more we help others, we forget our own problems.

The happiness and gratitude, you do both of them. It’s unbelievable how happy you are. Our head coach is a big huge fan. When I first met him, he goes, “Have you ever read Jon Gordon?” I started laughing. I go, “You’re hired.” He said, “Jesse, can you please ask him what is one thing that the best head coaches all have in common?” You’ve worked with some of the best, Dave Roberts, Pete Carroll and Dabo Swinney. What have you noticed about all of them?

I would say there are three things. One, they had this incredible belief and optimism. They are positive leaders. I wrote a book The Power of Positive Leadership and they believe in a brighter and better future. Their optimism and their vision are something that they share with their team. They rally their team towards that success. Definitely, belief in optimism is essential. It’s the number one characteristic to have as a leader. Secondly they do is connect. They connect with people. They develop relationships because you have to be someone that they want to follow. As a leader, you have to be someone who develops relationships, create that trust, then they’ll want to follow you. As a coach, do you play as though you care about them? As a coach, are you invested in them?

Is it about you and your career or is it about them? You make it about them. You were here to mentor them, coach them, guide them, develop them, they will be on your bus forever. Lastly, great positive leaders, they pursue excellence. We’re not here to have fun together. We’re here to pursue greatness together. The team wants to be great. Every one of your players wants to be great, help them be great, guide them towards greatness, challenge them to achieve what is possible and reach their potential. As a leader, if you can do those three things, you will have amazing success. I said three things, but love and accountability ties into that. Dabo Swinney, Sean McVay, whoever is with the Rams in the last couple of years, Donna Orender, all the leaders that I know. They’re great coaches, Cori Close. Love and accountability, I love you and I’m holding you accountable to the standards and the greatest that I know that you’re here to achieve.

Your strength, Jon, is how you keep things simple. I want to go quick final two, rapid fire. What’s one thing you’ve done to stand out in business and in life?

I love to serve and care like The Carpenter. I love what I do. I love people. My mission is to serve, inspire and encourage as many people as possible, one person at a time. I care more. I’m willing to do things that other people won’t do and show a level of care towards people that has propelled me. I always have to remember that. There are times I forget when I get tired, when I got a million people requesting things all the time. You get more and more people wanting stuff from you. You sometimes forget to care because you also have to take care of yourself because if you don’t, you’re going to burn out. You’re going to die. I had health challenges because I was getting so much. I do know that I’m at my best when I’m caring about others and giving more to what they do. I went up to a school in The Bronx. I wasn’t paid for this, but I went to the school. They had used my books. I went to see what they’re all about. It was incredible.

They had a culture like your organization. They were in The Bronx. They had positive signage and messages all over the walls. They were speaking life into these kids. They had transformed the culture about three years ago using a lot of my books and they were incredible. To see that, I left so energized, so hopeful about what is possible when you have been positively here in a school where most kids can’t afford lunch. They have a government lunch program where attendance is a problem for the school because kids won’t show up because their families don’t support education. You come here and you see these attentive kids, smart kids, hopeful kids and you see their future. That’s hopeful knowing that this school, these leaders can make an impact in their lives. I would say go and do that experience that I was like, “This is why I do what I do. This is what it’s all about.” That hopefully separates me from a lot of others. I’m not in this for the money. I never was. I never thought I’d sell four million books. I’m very grateful that I’m reaching people with a message that’ something I never want to take for granted.

I always finish with how do you want to be remembered? You just answered that as someone who loves, serves and cares.

I want people to meet my children and they will tell my children that I made an impact on their lives. Somehow, some way, the book they read, they heard me speak and that, “Your dad made a difference in my life.” Hopefully, my kids will feel proud and good knowing that and they’ll also know that I did everything I can in their lives as well.

You’ve made a huge impact on myself, our team and so many people, Jon. I can’t thank you enough. I hope we can talk again because I’ll tell you it’s amazing what you’re doing. You’ve inspired our team and what we’re doing. Thank you. How can people connect more with you? and Twitter or Instagram, @JonGordon11.

Thanks again for everything.

Thanks, Jesse.

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About Jon Gordon

BDD 174 | How Leaders Can Build CultureJon Gordon’s best-selling books and talks have inspired readers and audiences around the world. His principles have been put to the test by numerous Fortune 500 companies, professional and college sports teams, school districts, hospitals, and non-profits. He is the author of 17 books including multiple best-sellers: The Energy Bus, The Carpenter, Training Camp, You Win in the Locker Room First, The Power of Positive Leadership and The Power of a Positive Team. Jon and his tips have been featured on The Today Show, CNN, CNBC, The Golf Channel, Fox and Friends and in numerous magazines and newspapers. His clients include The Los Angeles Dodgers, The Atlanta Falcons, Campbell Soup, Dell, Publix, Southwest Airlines, LA Clippers, Miami Heat, Pittsburgh Pirates, BB&T Bank, Clemson Football, Northwestern Mutual, Bayer, West Point Academy and more.

Jon is a graduate of Cornell University and holds a Masters in Teaching from Emory University. He and his training/consulting company are passionate about developing positive leaders, organizations and teams.

Connect with Jon on TwitterFacebookLinkedInInstagram and Youtube.