Part one of this case study series: STFX Athletics: Leveraging Culture as a Core Component for Student-Athlete Development
“Never lose sight of the fact that you’re in the people business. You’re not in the policy-making business. You’re not in the procedures business. All those things are important. You know they are, but they’re secondary in nature. We’re in the people business.”
In university athletics, maintaining a consistent, competitive edge requires more than talent and resources. It calls for an ingrained culture of success encompassing every level of the organization, from student-athletes to administrative staff. Just a year ago, we partnered with STFX Athletics. The collaboration with innerlogic aimed to enhance their culture through a concerted investment in people – the coaches, the staff, and the student-athletes. With Leo MacPherson, the Director of Athletics & Recreation at STFX University, we delve deeper into this enriching journey.
We explore the ongoing evolution of their joint commitment to invest in people – the coaches, the staff, and the student-athletes. By highlighting the strategies they’ve implemented, the milestones they’ve achieved, and the challenges they’ve tackled, all with the aim of fostering a culture that breeds leaders and champions, both on and off the field, we delve into the spirit of STFX Athletics.
Leadership and Culture: The STFX Athletics Approach
“We’d say culture wins,” started Leo, underscoring the importance he places on culture at STFX Athletics, a self-described smaller player in Usports. With 16 years of corporate experience and a former varsity athlete at the school, he highlighted the universal desire for high-performance culture but pointed out that organizations often neglect to invest in leadership, which forms the cornerstone of a high-performance culture.
“Leaders are creators and caretakers of culture. We’ve made that investment in leadership because that gives us the best chance of creating a high-performing culture.” As a testament to this approach, despite operating with smaller budgets than other universities and without the best facilities in U SPORTS, STFX Athletics saw 90% of its teams ranked in the top ten in the previous year, and 60% of them reached U SPORTS national championships.
“If you want to own your culture, you want to build it because, again, you’re not going to get the culture you want; you’re going to get the culture you built. The whole understanding of what culture is, I think we’ve come a long way. There’s a lot to still do and a long way to go, but that over the next five, ten years, I think it’s critical.”
Leo also emphasized the importance of teamwork and shared success, stating, “In ten years’ time, nobody remembers how many stats you got. But they do remember: were you a great teammate? How’d your team do? That type of thing.” Finally, the shift towards a more inclusive leadership style reflects broader changes in society, especially with the emergence of Generation Z. This generation values inclusivity, respect, and empowerment, traits which are now being incorporated into the leadership styles at STFX Athletics. This shift in focus towards a collective approach and culture-building as opposed to individual performance underpins their strategy.
“What we try to do is have the best culture, the best people, the best leadership available so that we make culture our competitive advantage. Having a great culture doesn’t eliminate something bad from happening or adversity hitting your team. Having a stronger culture better equips the teams to deal with it.”
Measuring Culture: The innerlogic Advantage
As we dive into the STFX Athletics-innerlogic partnership, Leo discusses the transformative impact it has had on the university’s athletic culture. “With our partnership with innerlogic,” he starts, “it’s allowed us to actually measure the culture. I often talk to coaches and say, well, how is your team culture? And I get a response like, ‘pretty good, I think.’ But then, how do you know? How do we know? And that was a level of discomfort for me and not knowing exactly where our culture is.”
Applying business logic, he points out, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So, if we believe that culture is and can be a competitive advantage, which we fully do here at STFX, we need to first measure it and then empower our coaches and student-athletes to use it – how to use that measurement to inform conversations that are going to elevate our culture.”
“This partnership has allowed us to actually measure culture, which is great because, using business logic, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So, if we believe that culture is and can be a competitive advantage, which we fully do here at STFX, we need to first measure it and then empower our coaches and student athletes to use it- how to use that measurement to inform conversations that are going to elevate our culture.”
However, MacPherson is quick to stress that measurement is just the first step. It’s the action that follows that truly matters. He clarifies, “Surveys are fine, but surveys are absolutely useless if there’s no action that comes out of it. What I like about the work we do with innerlogic at STFX is that they work with us for those action items. How do we close gaps that we see there? How do we raise the bar in this area?”
Cultural Evolution: The innerlogic Impact
Looking at the response of STFX Athletics coaching staff to the innerlogic partnership, there’s been a perspective shift over the past year. MacPherson explains that while every team is at a different point in their journey with innerlogic, all are seeing the value of this tool in fostering a culture of success. MacPherson begins, “We’re one year into the partnership, and I value the partnership greatly.”
The introduction of innerlogic was met with enthusiasm, and while some teams were more immediately receptive than others, all are now engaged in the process. MacPherson points to the football team as an example of a team that has embraced this new approach wholeheartedly, thanks to the leadership of Coach Gary Waterman and the student-athlete leaders.
“The reports … when they get them back, it really empowers our coaches and student athletes at STFX. This is our culture. It’s not the coach’s culture…but it really is the student athletes’ programs, so empower them to own it. If there’s elements they don’t like, they’re now informed that, hey, we can close that gap. That can only help us get better.”
They acknowledge the uneasiness that often accompanies feedback, encouraging teams to focus on their potential growth rather than their current state. “I don’t care where you are right now with the cultural feedback. All I care about is where we’re going from here,” they state, emphasizing the non-comparative nature of their approach. Under MacPherson’s leadership, STFX Athletics has seen a significant cultural shift towards a more empowering system, giving student-athletes more voice in the management of team culture.
Creating a Legacy of Values and Culture: A Flourishing Partnership
STFX Athletics’ partnership with innerlogic has been instrumental in creating a legacy of leadership and culture at the university. This collaboration continues to provide a nurturing environment for growth and development within STFX’s Athletics department. As STFX Athletics forges ahead, the combination of its unwavering commitment to its values and the empowering tools offered by innerlogic promise to perpetuate the university’s winning culture.
Reflecting on the collaboration, MacPherson is optimistic about the future, “We’re only a year in. The first year is the hardest. I believe this partnership will become even more fruitful over the next four or five years for STFX.”
He expressed his love for “chasing greatness,” and cautioned against being too outcome-oriented. Instead, he encouraged a love for the process, saying, “You got to fall in love with the process, or this business will kill ya. It will eat you up.” The philosophy at STFX Athletics has always been about cultivating people rather than systems, understanding that the strength of the institution is built on the pillars of trust, mutual respect, and shared commitment to excellence.
The future of STFX Athletics continues to be bright as they strengthen their culture and reinforce their commitment to their students and staff. It’s not just about winning on the field, but also about winning in life by investing in people and building a legacy of values and culture. As STFX Athletics moves forward, they are committed to these principles, embodying their belief in the power of people, culture, and partnership.