Building a culture of success

My son played in a baseball tournament this weekend. His team did well, and finished as the runner-up.  The team that beat them in the finals played really well, but more importantly, it was obvious that they had a strong culture of success.

From the moment they walked on the field, they had a noticeable “bounce”. – they were literally bouncing around with energy and excitement. When they started warming up, it wasn’t haphazard and sloppy, but rather organized, energetic, and purposeful.   It was clear that they had a warm-up routine designed to instill focus.  It was led by the kids themselves.  They had a huddle before every inning at-bat ending with a cheer of “hit!” and boy did they hit the ball well (better than any team I’ve seen all season).  They cheered every kid on in a major way, and bounced in celebration when they scored.  When they won, they posed for a team photo and the coach said “ok, time for your first Legends’ point” and they pointed to the camera in a victory celebration (the club was called the Legends) — teaching the kids that not only were they part of a long-term culture of winning, but that this was just their first step on their path.  Even when they were sitting together before the game eating lunch, they had togetherness and winning baseball in their eyes.  They were having fun the whole time, and it was clear that at every step of the way, the club’s culture was behind it.

I looked through at the club website, and it became clear that what I witnessed was not a one-off moment, but part of a bigger culture.  This club has a practice facility where they do game situation indoor practice all winter long  (with trophies conspicuously mounted).  I saw pictures on the website of older kids doing the same pre-game drills in that facility, with the same intensity.   They have camps, and dinners, and skills clinics.  I can just imagine the youngest members of the club (my son’s age) watching the bigger kids do the drills, and the chants, and the movements & motions.  

Having coached baseball for 10 seasons now (5 years x 2 seasons per year), and having played high school ball on an pretty good team and little league ball on a very good travel team (1989 NYC Federal League champions, 46-5 record — yes, I am still proud of that), I am particularly attuned to the dynamics of winning (and less winning) teams.  

And now, working in the startup / VC world, I see from the inside what winning (and less winning) teams look like.  USV has built a culture of success over the last 15 years, which I am hell bent on carrying forward to the next generation.  

Success is one part ability/skills and one part culture. The skills are the raw material and the culture is what makes it great. So what makes for a culture of success?

This is material for a series of posts rather than just one, but I’ll focus on a few observations & memories here:

1/ Legend & lore — winning begets winning, especially in generational enterprises like companies and sports clubs (just look at the Yankees, or Duke Basketball).  The younger generation needs to look up to the older one and learn what success looks like and how to model it. 

2/ Body language — so much of success is about feeling poised and energized.  Think “power pose”.  The team this weekend had it.

3/ Structure — complex tasks like building a company or hitting a baseball need to be broken down into pieces so they can be understood and mastered. Figuring out how to do this in the right way is the magic of coaching, and it’s not easy.  How can you take an amorphous goal and break it into understandable pieces, ideally explainable with metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes?

4/ Fun — this seems silly but it’s really important. Teams succeed when they are having fun, and they have fun when they succeed.  

That is it for now. I’m heading into my week energized and inspired.

5 comments on “Building a culture of success”

The winning culture you describe is at the cornerstone of creating success in many endeavors.

In the military, it is called “esprit de corps” and it has an entire value system which includes awards for valor and service.

Napoleon famously said, “A solder will fight long and hard for a piece of cololred ribbon.”

When you report into a new unit, everyone looks at your ribbons and can tell you’re a paratrooper, a Ranger, and have seen some action. You also have the “been-there-badges” that track your assignments.

What is special about Special Forces and Rangers is their recognition and culture. This comes right from Napoleon.

In dealing with successful startups that have done their foundation work of Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Values — it is culture that emerges from the primordial slime next.

In the instance you note, you not only have esprit de corps, but the mechanism by which to pass the culture along and to strengthen it.

Side thought: No woman will be President of the USA until young ladies are exposed to that winning culture. This is exactly why I made my daughter play basketball with the boys. Eleven varsity letters later, she is a co-founder of the Warby-Parker of towels, Weezie Towels.

She learned to compete playing basketball with the boys.

Your son will never forget that you were the coach. Well played.


1/ Legend & lore — winning begets winning, especially in generational enterprises like companies and sports clubs (just look at the Yankees, or Duke Basketball).

But isn’t it true that a winning team that is a legend (like the Yankees) has a big advantage in that everyone wants to play for them? And that’s it’s special to even play against them?

You pretty much confirm with this statement:

working in the startup / VC world, I see from the inside what winning (and less winning) teams look like. USV has built a culture of success over the last 15 years

Let’s say you want to start a firm and build the culture from scratch. And part is you can’t even mention that you were ever affiliated with USV in any way (to avoid a potential halo). Doesn’t that make the journey vastly more difficult?

I call this ‘why you can’t do what Warren Buffett does’. Warren will have access to things that someone else won’t. What works for him (as a result of his existing reputation) will not necessarily work for some unknown. Warren can make deals that someone else can’t, just like Steve Jobs or Apple can get a meeting and close a deal (or could) that others don’t stand a chance with.

Same with education and a host of other situations. A top school has an easier time in many ways than an unknown school. People want to work there it’s a goal in itself. A no name school simply can’t get into the same league.

Well, i don’t know.
If ‘runner-up’ equates to ‘first loser’ then i’m not with this idea. Competition relegates almost everyone to being a loser, especially sporting competition. I would rather the focus be on enjoyment and having fun than ‘success’. I remember playing for my Cub Scout football team (English football) every Saturday morning in the winter. Our best ever result? 0-3. We were rubbish, but we enjoyed it.

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