TAG Consulting


Change Leadership From An Olympic Champion

David March SwimMac

This week the eyes of the world are on Rio, where athletes from around the world are competing in the Olympic Games. The U.S. women’s swim team is coached by David Marsh – who just might be the greatest coach of any sport ever.

No exaggeration.

Twelve national championships as men’s and women’s swimming coach at Auburn University. Eight time national coach of the year. Coach of more than fifty Olympians, and counting. Head Elite Coach and CEO of the US Olympic Committee Center of Excellence with SwimMAC Carolina.

We’re honored to know David Marsh personally and we got to interview him at length for our book The Secret Sauce: Creating A Winning Culture, by Kevin Graham Ford and James P. Osterhaus.

Katie Meili made the team for the Olympics in Rio in the breaststroke after being the longest of long shots. She gave Coach Marsh the lion’s share of the credit for her rapid rise. “He knew how to reach each of us in the way we needed to be reached”, she told Charlotte magazine.

When he took over at Auburn in 1990, he was only thirty years old and inherited a team that was, by any measure, terrible. The previous year, the team had scored no points (as in “zero”) at the Southeastern Conference championship meet. It’s tough to do that.

In the book, we tell the story of how Coach Marsh was able to turn Auburn into a perennial national championship contender and we hope you will read the story at length there – it’s inspiring and instructive!

At Auburn, Coach Marsh had to change a culture, entirely, from the bottom up. He accomplished this by living into a lifelong slogan – “A Culture of Excellence is a Culture of Struggle”.

Internal change is like that. It’s a struggle. External change is often forced upon us. Internal change is just as necessary, but we initiate it ourselves, often in the face of resistance. A winning culture-crafter has to be willing to lead the charge when it comes to internal disruption.

Coach Marsh highlighted for us a number of lessons he learned about leading internal disruption as you craft a winning culture.

Here are five:

1. Start with a simple change – but make sure it is a change related to values, behaviors, or attitudes. At Auburn, this was teaching his swimmers how to shake hands and look people in the eye and how to place a towel around their necks.

2. Make sure your rules have teeth. At one point, Marsh kicked all of his swimmers off of the team when they resisted some necessary changes. There was a path back, but Marsh insured that his important rules would be followed and honored.

3. Experiment and take smart risks. It goes without saying that firing his whole team was a tremendous personal risk for Coach Marsh. Leaders who are orchestrating internal disruption have to demonstrate that they are willing to place themselves on the line for the greater good.

4. Foster accountability, not bureaucracy. A few smart rules, yes, but not top down command and control management. Increase accountability and decrease bureaucracy. Accountability reinforces values while bureaucracy decreases independent judgment and ownership. You’re after a culture of high accountability and very low bureaucracy.

5. Find your own solutions. Don’t be quick to copy others. Too often, when leading internal disruption, leaders look for external solutions. But the real answers are organic, “in the room” as we like to say. Learn all you can from industry leaders but own the fact that change starts from the inside out. How about you?

Is it time for you to lead a cultural transformation through internal disruption? Are you confident in your ability to run the risks personally while leading others to risk themselves? Do your people sense a culture of accountability, free of all unnecessary bureaucracy?

To read more about Coach Marsh’s story and about our research into crafting winning and healthy organizational cultures, check out The Secret Sauce book here.

For a video introduction to The Secret Sauce, invest three minutes here.

And if your team is ready to take the transformation of your organization to a new level, take a look at how we can help you here!


Photo cred: queens.edu/Charlotte Magazine