Changing The Cowboys Culture One Step At A Time

New season. New cheerleader pics. New hope.

As I was scanning the Cowboys news this morning, I came across the following headline: "Cowboys' Jason Garrett wants to build a culture, not a cult." It's an article by David Moore from the DMN, but unfortunately it's hidden behind a pay-wall. Since I don't have access to the article, but found the title intriguing, I decided to make up my own story instead.

Allow me to meander through a lengthy set-up before I get to the Cowboys.

A former McKinsey colleague of mine - I'll call him Herman the German - told me an interesting story about company culture recently. About a year ago, Herman had been asked to give a presentation to a bunch of mid-level executives of an energy company (whose name will not be divulged). He started the presentation by writing his name on a flip chart, asking the participants what their expectations were and noted them down. When he was done, he pushed the flip chart off to the side, and as he was about to begin the presentation, he noticed that there was a lot of murmuring going on in the audience, and people seemed a lot more fidgety and nervous than when he had been working the flip chart.

So Herman asked the group what was going on. One guy stood up and said, "The flip chart. It's blocking the emergency exit". Herman couldn't believe what he was hearing, but moved the flip chart out of the way, thinking "what a bunch of uptight geeks."

The audience quieted down and he began his presentation. But midway through the thing he noticed that the batteries in his laptop were running low. So he took his power cable out of his bag, looked for a power outlet and found one in the floor about two or three feet in front of the desk he was standing behind. As he was plugging in the cable, the murmuring started up again, and this time two people got up, walked to a cupboard, took out an extension cord and walked up to Herman.

"You cannot plug your laptop into this outlet. The power cable is a tripping hazard." They then proceeded to use the extension cord to plug the laptop into an outlet behind the speaker's desk. Again the audience calmed down.

After the presentation, Herman had an appointment with the CEO and needed to walk about 50 yards across an open space to another building to get to the CEO's office. As he was exiting the building, he was handed a hard hat by one of the people at the door. Herman looked out the door, looked up, and was pretty certain that unless there were a couple of comets approaching, there was no conceivable way anything would fall on his head as he walked those 50 yards. So he told the guy at the door holding the hard hat, "You're joking, right?" No, he wasn't. Herman dejectedly walked the 50 yards with a hard hat on his head.

Later, he remarked to the CEO that the company employees seemed to be a little too obsessed with safety. The CEO smiled and asked Herman, "What's the first thing you do when you enter a hotel room?"

"Well, I usually drop my luggage on the bed, take off my coat, tie and shoes, check out the mini bar and then boot up my laptop," Herman said.

The CEO laughed and said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "The first thing I do - and I'm sure 9 out of 10 of my employees do the exact same thing - is check the fire escape route that's attached to the back of every hotel room door in the world. It takes maybe one minute to familiarize myself with the layout and memorize where the fire escapes are located. I may never need to draw on that knowledge, but if I ever have to, boy, will I be happy to have invested that one minute."

The CEO went on to explain that his company took safety very seriously, and that in order to establish a company-wide safety culture, it was imperative that you got the little things right, because cumulatively they would hopefully prevent - or at least prepare you for - the big catastrophe. Specifically, the safety strategy of the company focused on what they called "precursors": safety issues, incidents and hazards which, if left uncorrected, could lead to a much bigger safety issue down the line.

This conversation took place shortly after the Deep Water Horizon disaster last year, and the CEO was adamant that with a proper safety culture in place which correctly addressed the precursors, the string of cumulative safety failures that led to the disaster would not have been allowed to happen. This is obviously a debatable point, but his main message was that the challenge for any safety strategy is to influence behaviors at all levels, since these precursors happen everywhere in an organization, including at the CEO level, and not just on the shop floor.

With all this in mind, let's look at what Jason Garrett had to say recently about the cultural change he wants to bring to the Dallas Cowboys:

"How we practice, how we play, how we workout in the offseason, where we live, how we interact with each other. Those are all the things when you talk about changing a culture. It's really about your behavior each and every day in all phases of your program, so that's what we're trying to put our stamp and imprint on this."

You cannot decree a change of culture from the top. And like the CEO of that energy company said, it's the little things that cumulatively result in a different culture. Here's a non-exhaustive list of "little things" the Cowboys have implemented since Garrett took over, and which are aimed at changing the Dallas Cowboys culture:

I'm sure you have a lot more items to add to the list, and sure, taken individually, some of these things may seem odd, uptight or simply strange. But taken cumulatively, they establish a mindset of accountability and establish a standard of excellence to strive for, as Garrett explains:

"We have absolutely no interest in living in the past," Garrett said. "We want to live in today and go forward. But when you’re part of the Dallas Cowboys right now and you look back at what this franchise has done in the past, there’s a great standard that exists.

"We’re fortunate to have that standard, to see it being done at the highest level possible and understand what that is and strive every day to maintain that standard."

The Cowboys organization has traditionally practiced an open door policy with its former players, and Garrett is no different. Charles Haley and Leon Lett were brought in to help with the coaching, former scout Larry Lacewell and former special teams coach Joe Avezzano attended practices recently, and Garrett has invited more former players to attend Friday's scrimmage against the Chargers:

"We want our players to be around them and understand what the standard of excellence is," Garrett said.

To tie the loop with David Moore's article (that I still haven't read), Jason Garrett is indeed trying to build a culture of excellence and accountability with the Cowboys, not a cult. Some of the measures Garrett has implemented are aimed at addressing the "precursors", others are aimed at defining the desired behavior, others yet again establish the standards the organization wants to achieve.

Individually, they may not appear like all that much. Collectively and cumulatively they may lead to what we will hopefully one day once again call 'The Cowboy Way'.

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