Lessons on Building Company Culture from the Chicago Blackhawks

Winning a championship in any professional sport is a war of attrition. Getting to the top in the National Hockey League takes added resolve and finesse. An 80-game season alone takes its toll on teams.
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Winning a championship in any professional sport is a war of attrition. Getting to the top in the National Hockey League takes added resolve and finesse. An 80-game season alone takes its toll on teams. Then there is the regrouping for a grueling playoff run, in which each game compounds the drama and tests the mettle of players, coaches, and front offices. There are no hacks or shortcuts when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup.

What we Chicagoans have seen here in the last six years with the three Cup wins by the Blackhawks has been nothing short of phenomenal, especially when you consider where this organization was about a decade ago. The manner in which the team has transformed its culture has drawn the respect and admiration of rival teams, respected business analysts, and sports fans worldwide. From an operational, financial, and PR viewpoint, the Blackhawks have become one of the elite franchises in all of sports.

Much has been written about the revitalization of the Chicago Blackhawks. Prior to the existing regime, the front office was a hot mess. The product that they put on the ice was an insult to a fan base that was already alienated by not being able to watch the home games on television. The team's lackluster performance, coupled with the obvious complacency shown by management, got to be too much. Interest waned and attendance plummeted.

All that changed when the team's owner, Rocky Wirtz, hired John McDonough as president on November 20, 2007, a role in which he was then serving for the Chicago Cubs. McDonough assumed control of a Blackhawks team that was not only a marketing nightmare, but woefully devalued. He swept out the debris, and shone the laser on a single goal--namely, to bring a Stanley Cup to the City of Chicago.

Lesson #1: Leadership Sets the Tone.

From an organizational standpoint, the resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks is a study in sustainable turnaround, what Forbes Magazine dubbed "The Greatest Sports-Business Turnaround Ever." Yes, Blackhawks brass realized the need for change. Yes, they felt the heat when they looked at the books. Yes, they brought in the right guy to communicate the vision and get everyone in alignment.

McDonough set the wheels in motion. He systematically instilled a winning mindset that permeated throughout the corner offices, across the cubicles, down into the locker room, and through the media. Fans, players, and sponsors immediately sensed that the culture of the organization was changing. Ticket sales surged, a new television contract was negotiated, and the bottom line improved. McDonough was making it look easy.

Prior to the start of the 2008-09 NHL Season, the then-20-year-old Jonathan Toews was named team captain. On October 16, 2008, the well-respected Joel Quenneville was hired as the team's 37th head coach. In his first season behind the bench, Quenneville guided the Blackhawks to an appearance against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Redwings in the Western Conference Finals. One month later, Stan Bowman was installed as the ninth general manager in team history, and the infrastructure of a team that could compete every year had formed.

Lesson #2: Teamwork Drives the Outcomes

With new leadership in place, the Blackhawks were able to direct their focus to talent acquisition and player development. A system was implemented, and players who fit the mold were brought in via the draft or free agency. From operations to scouting to contract negotiations, the organization became a cohesive unit, moving in unison toward building a championship-caliber team.

On the ice, the Blackhawks became a well-oiled machine. The team entered the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the second-best record in the Western Conference, third-best overall. It was the first time in twelve years that the team boasted playoff appearances in back-to-back seasons. They were high-character players performing at a remarkably high level, blending polished skills with consummate teamwork, and genuinely enjoying each other's company.

When Patrick Kane scored the winning goal in the sixth and clinching game of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Blackhawks had completely climbed out of the muck. They had hoisted the trophy for the first time in 49 years. Their subsequent Cup wins in 2013 and 2015, more than merely restoring a once-proud tradition, have vaulted the Blackhawks into the dynasty conversation. One gets the feeling that this team is not done winning championships.

Lesson #3: Consistency Strengthens the Brand

Nothing improves the brand of a team more than winning. A few years prior to their first Stanley Cup run, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone on the streets of Chicago wearing a Blackhawks jersey. The players visibly basking in the glory of victory after victory became the organization's best marketing. Although they were celebrities as individuals, they created a team identity, and the merchandise flew off the shelves.

By 2013, on the brink of their second Cup, an unmistakable mystique surrounded the team. After taking down the Boston Bruins in another six-game series, the online community exploded and the level of social sharing went off the charts. Primarily through Facebook and Twitter, the fans weighed in on anything Blackhawks, aligning themselves with the team, pining for an opportunity to get up close and personal with the Cup, a celebrity in its own right.

At the time of this writing, the state of the Blackhawks brand is sound. Save for negotiating around the salary cap, the organization's greatest challenge going into the 2015-16 Season is managing the demand that they have generated. The likability and accessibility of the players, who take their roles as goodwill ambassadors seriously, give the franchise its cachet. The Hawks are a team that is easy to appreciate.

Lesson #4: People Create the Culture

In winning their latest Stanley Cup, which was accomplished in front of the hometown crowd, the Blackhawks showcased the power of its organizational culture. The experience of having been there before was certainly in the team's favor. As the playoffs advanced, the players sharpened their collective focus, elevated their game, and exerted their will over the scrappy Tampa Bay Lightning. In yet another Game Six, the Blackhawks shut out the Lightning, the performance a byproduct of their preparation, camaraderie, and accountability.

In business, attracting top talent is tough enough; retaining quality people is the true challenge. That the Blackhawks have been able to contend on a yearly basis, and assemble a team that goes deep into post-season, is a testament to the collaborative strength of the organization. Blackhawk culture has been achieved and bolstered through a commitment to proactive employee engagement, judicious human capital management, and good old-fashioned marketing savvy.

For the Blackhawks players, coaches, and officers, the true fruit of victory draws its taste from purely organic efforts. Everyone cooperated, did their homework, and achieved in their space. With each Cup win, they let the public know that they were not going to rest on their laurels. The ultimate success is the development of a company culture that is now the envy of professional sports. Hockey players want to play here. Scores of money-ready fans cannot get enough. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the Hawks.

Parting Thoughts

♦ We Chicagoans derive a great deal of civic pride through our sports teams. More than just a topic of conversation at the water cooler, we live and breathe the games every day. Irrespective of time of year, if you want to break the ice with someone in Chicago, just ask, "Did you see that game last night?"

♦ It is refreshing to see the Blackhawks get the kind of recognition that they are receiving outside the Chicago city limits. Sports aficionados around the world realize what this team has accomplished, how they have kept (and hopefully will keep) their core together, and the manner in which they endured to reclaim the support of their fans.

♦ Companies in all walks of business must understand the impact that wins have on the organization as a whole. Set a goal, mobilize toward it, and become a model of excellence in achieving it. As the vision crystallizes, and people's skills are matched with task, the culture will build.

♦ The Chicago Blackhawks enjoyed a branding renaissance the likes of which we have seldom seen in any area of commerce. What will be the next great turnaround in professional sports?

Keep your eye on the Chicago Cubs.

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