I came across the title of this column, “Culture Drives Great Results,” in a Forbes article on leadership while scrolling through Twitter. It’s from Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. It got me thinking about the special culture we have at North Dakota State and how our culture – what we call Bison Pride – drives our great results. In the interview, Welch, one of the most accomplished business leaders of the 20th century, explained the importance of culture. “Great cultures deliver great numbers. Great numbers don’t deliver great cultures.” Amen, brother. You don’t have to be the CEO of General Electric to know that Welch is right. The foundation of any thriving organization, be it a business or championship athletic team, is a great culture. Culture is the horse that drives the cart.
How so? Simple question – do you like going to work every morning? If you answered yes, it’s probably not as much the money you make, as it is the great environment and culture you work in and the people you work with. There’s a chemistry there, a sense that the sum is greater than its parts with everyone pushing towards a common set of goals. Nobody cares who gets the credit, so long as the job is done and done right. Conversely, we all know people who make a lot of money who are miserable at their job. Maybe you’re one of them. Ask yourself why. The reason likely has much to do with the culture where you work. People pushing in different directions, selfishness permeating the ranks and management that fosters the dysfunction. Nobody likes going to work at that kind of place.
That’s why culture is much more than the latest buzzword in organizational leadership and business circles. According to another recent Forbes article, culture is one of the top-five factors people consider when weighing a job offer. One of the things that impresses me most about Bison Nation is our culture – Bison Pride. As much as anything else, the culture of our university and athletic teams, that Bison Pride has played a role in our championship pursuits. You cannot sustain the type of excellence NDSU has without having a great culture from the top down to the bottom up. Our success would collapse under its own weight if coaches, players, administrators and boosters became entitled, complacent and started taking all the credit or figured winning was a birthright rather than the byproduct of hard work and sacrifice. But that hasn’t happened.
Every Sunday morning, like many of you, I watch the Bison Football Show with Chris Klieman. One of my favorite segments is the “New Crop of Bison” feature where they interview one of the true or redshirt freshmen. Without fail, something these guys always mention is the team chemistry and culture. After the Missouri State game, the player being interviewed talked about how, when he was transitioning to the college game, his former high school teammates already playing college sports told him it wasn’t the same because it lacked chemistry and togetherness. This player said the best thing about being a Bison, though, was that this team, contrary to what his high school teammates reported about their schools, was even closer than his high school team.
Where does that come from? The coaches. The seniors and team leaders. Lettermen from years gone by. Our supporters. All of you. It’s a well- established culture that has become part of our DNA. Another part of the Bison Football Show is the “Bison Hot Seat,” where Jeremy Jorgenson, the show’s host, asks a key contributor on the team questions ranging from what drives you crazy about your roommates, to what’s the best thing about the NDSU coaching staff. To a man, when asked about their coaches, the players, with all sincerity, describe how open, caring and approachable the coaches and staff are. That’s a powerful testimony to the culture inside the NDSU locker room.
You don’t win multiple championships without that sort of culture. Here’s another quote, maybe my favorite from this season so far. The Bison had just beaten Youngstown State on the road after trailing by 14 points in the fourth quarter, for a hard-fought, comeback win. Easton Stick, the freshman quarterback from Omaha, Neb., was being interviewed and was asked about the win. Stick, who led the game-winning drive and scored the game-winning touchdown, has emerged onto the scene following a season- ending wrist injury to NFL prospect and fan favorite Carson Wentz. But, like Wentz and Brock Jensen before him, Stick didn’t talk about himself. It was all about the team. The team, the team, the team. “This team, I’m just so proud to be a Bison,” began Stick. Okay, you’ve got my ear, freshman. What he said next cemented in my mind why this Bison team is on the road to another big postseason. “This team is a tough bunch of dudes, and there is no quit in anybody in that locker room, and that is something we really pride ourselves on.”
Like I said – or, I guess like Welch said – great culture drives great results. Your freshman quarterback is preaching about the team. That wasn’t an accident. This mentality is how you win four (going on five) straight national championships, how our teams qualify for postseason tournaments, such as March Madness, year after year, and why ESPN routinely visits campus. It’s part and parcel of how our players fill the lists of conference honor rolls and go on to success after their days wearing the green and yellow are over. It’s a culture about the team, not the individual player. The opposite side of the coin from the Bison comeback and team focus was visible in Youngstown State’s ensuing meltdown, where their head coach, Bo Pelini, selfishly berated officials for what was a correct pass interference call. The result speaks for itself. NDSU won a fifth consecutive Missouri Valley Football Conference championship. The Penguins are sitting at home during the playoffs again, having missed the postseason every year since 2006, and it’s not because they don’t have the talent.
This culture – Bison Pride – is infectious. The great things going on at NDSU, athletically and academically, have been a catalyst for our communities, region and state for many decades, but especially since we made the decision to move to Division I. The renaissance in Fargo and our state had a tremendous assist from an entrepreneurial and progressive spirit launched, in part, by the attitude of NDSU graduates and supporters who have decided to stay here or in Bismarck, Williston and everywhere in between, rather than bolting for the bigger cities as many past graduates did. As a result, while our numbers might not be quite as big, our lights are starting to shine just as bright.
Our university has taken on that spirit, that Bison Pride and vice versa, our athletic teams have taken on the spirit of our university. It’s one in the same. Rare do you find a university community operating so in sync. Our fans see it, the university lives it, and our communities and the greater region have adopted it. There is this sense that if we commit ourselves to a task, we will accomplish it. Everyone reading this article, you know what Bison Pride is. You are not only part of Bison Pride, you are Bison Pride. As we say, the strength of the Herd is the Bison and the strength of the Bison is the Herd. That culture has and will continue to drive our results. Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on!