Lou Lamoriello on Corporate Culture

By: Bridget Brown

Waterstone CEO Marty Parker was asked to contribute to CNBC’s “Make It” section. “Make It” is a storytelling platform, where experts have the opportunity to share their success stories and advice with entrepreneurs. Marty’s story of how his lifelong love of sports has influenced him in business, and how some of the methods for success in sports can translate to business, will be featured in the coming weeks.

As part of his story, Marty cited Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello as someone he sees really embracing and leveraging corporate culture as a competitive advantage. So we asked Mr. Lamoriello if he would be willing to add his comments to the CNBC story, and he agreed.

Indeed, culture is very important to Lamoriello, and he was only too happy to share his thoughts on how others in business can use it to their benefit too. I learned so much from my conversation with him, and his viewpoints are so aligned with what we believe here at Waterstone, that I wanted to share more of our conversation with Culture Connection readers.

Q. How important is culture when you’re building a winning team?

LL: Culture is as important as skill. It’s extremely important because when you talk about culture, you’re talking about something that makes your team work.

Culture to me is creating an environment that everyone identifies with. If you do that, it allows the team to go forward more successfully, because it’s something that they fundamentally all agree with. What you get is a group that is made up of essentially all interchangeable parts.

Q. How do you harness the power of your corporate culture and make it work for you?

LL: Once you identify what your culture is, then it’s about buy in. It’s one thing to have a culture, but if you don’t get the participants buy in, then it doesn’t flourish. They must understand and embrace the culture. Now, they don’t necessarily have to agree, but they do have embrace it. This is what you have to do to have success. Team members have to give up their own identity a bit, because it’s imperative to create an environment where everyone is moving in the same direction. Buy in to win.

Q. What does “buying in” look like from your perspective?

LL: Well, sacrificing personal identity is a big part of that. That means you may be called upon to sacrifice what you feel you can do if it’s not what the team needs in that particular moment. You have to put what the team needs ahead of your own needs. I always ask my players to consider a professional orchestra. At that level, you have probably the most confident people who have ever picked up an instrument. If you’re playing in a philharmonic orchestra, you are supremely confident in what you do, you don’t get there unless you are the best, you’re a true professional. These people have put hours and hours into what they do. However, if they don’t recognize when it’s their time to stop and let other play, it’s not going to be a success. If a violinist decides they would like to have two minutes to play instead of their appointed 30 seconds –that is, if the conductor doesn’t get the buy in– the music is going to be a disaster.

Q. But how do you convince people who really are superstars –in your case, say a Martin Brodeur– to be willing to give up a piece of their identity for the group?

LL: Not everyone can. I look for people who are ready to do that, and if a player is fighting it, I don’t take him. Because it means he’s taking away from the people on the team who are ready to do so. You can have the world’s most talented violinist, but if he or she is supposed to play for 30 seconds and wants to play for 45, you’d be better to get someone of lesser talent who is happy to play with the group. Recruiting for your culture is about finding people who understand that to their very core.

Q. What do you do if you already have someone on the team who is unwilling to do that?

LL: There are some teams and some players who don’t meet that requirement, and you can tolerate it to a point, but only in certain people. Only when it isn’t your top person. You can never tolerate it if it starts affecting the results, and a person who doesn’t adopt the culture can never be your leader. Because you can’t take away from the younger people who are growing and learning. They need a leader to look up to who embodies your culture. Say you run a used car lot. If the best sales person isn’t supporting your overall objectives, no matter how good the salesperson is, as soon as he gets in the way of your overall success, he has to go. People who do this have to go. I call it “addition by subtraction.”

Q. Where did you learn all this? Have you had formal training, or a mentor? Has it been trial and error?

LL: I have been extremely fortunate to learn from my own teachers and coaches, I’ve had great ownership groups like John McMullen with the Devils. I had great athletic directors and I’ve been surrounded by great players who helped me learn this. George Steinbrenner is a mentor, taught me a lot. It’s all about the people who surround you.

So is culture. Every time you get an accolade, you have to look behind you in the mirror. It’s the people who are around you. If you don’t have good people around you, then you’re not part of a team, and success will never come.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.