As football season begins, millions of fans are excited about cheering on their favorite high school, college or NFL teams. The best teams, those that are competitive over time, benefit from having a winning team spirit.
A winning team spirit is a mood that fills an individual or group with life. It brings about enthusiasm, energy and engagement, and helps the team perform at the top of its game. Therefore, every leader who aspires to lead his or her team to sustainable success – whether in the sports world or business world – must be able to create and maintain a winning team spirit.
To learn more about team spirit, I recently spoke with Jeff Webb, founder and chairman of Varsity Brands. Webb went from being a yell leader at the University of Oklahoma to founding Varsity Spirit in 1974. Over more than four decades, he led Varsity to combined sales exceeding $1.5 billion, and a team of 5,000 employees and independent representatives. Today, Varsity Brands includes Varsity Spirit, BSN Sports (sports apparel, footwear, and equipment) and Herff Jones (school graduation and achievement products). Webb continues to work closely with the Varsity Brands’ senior management including new CEO Matthew Rubel.
Webb started Varsity Spirit as summer training camps for high school and college cheerleaders back when cheerleading primarily entailed leading fans from the sidelines. Webb and his colleagues expanded cheerleading by teaching athleticism, tumbling, partner stunts, choreography, the use of signage and various aspects that added entertainment value. As cheer became more effective in raising school spirit, fan engagement took off. This led to an explosion of popularity around cheerleading and spirit teams, which fueled Varsity’s rapid growth.
Today cheerleading continues to grow as ESPN broadcasts Varsity’s cheer competitions, more states embrace cheer as an integral part of the school athletic program, and participation continues to grow globally at a rapid pace. The International Cheer Union holds World Championship competitions with teams from more than 70 nations. Over the next decade, cheerleading just may become part of the Olympics.
Applying what he learned about boosting team and school spirit, Jeff Webb cultivated a winning organizational culture at Varsity Spirit. I asked him to share some of the key factors that contributed to developing the culture.
1. See the Big Picture: How We Make a Difference
Webb said the people who make it at Varsity Spirit see the big picture. Varsity Spirit goes to great lengths to make sure that employees are well versed in the importance of the company, how it was founded, company culture and why they do what they do. Many people who join Varsity Spirit after college previously worked as Varsity Spirit camp instructors while they were cheering in college. They know from firsthand experience the positive impact that Varsity Spirit can have in a cheerleader’s life and they are dedicated to making it happen.
Webb tells new employees stories to reinforce this, such as one about a Varsity Spirit sales representative who personally drove to a cheer camp so she could hand deliver new cheer uniforms to one of the teams she covered. Seeing the excitement on the faces of the cheerleaders as they opened and tried on their uniforms made her realize the importance of her work and that the extra effort she made to get them their uniforms was worth it.
2. Have the Right Attitude: Create a Culture of Excellence
Attitudes are feelings or ways of thinking that affect behavior. Webb described one of the attitudes he promotes as Varsity Spirit’s culture of excellence. He told me that from the beginning of Varsity Spirit, the attitude has been to provide the best experience for the young athletes Varsity Spirit serves rather than to be the biggest. Focusing on being the best, rather than the biggest, ended up making Varsity Spirit the biggest industry player over time, and has kept them growing ever since. People at Varsity Spirit see themselves as striving to be the best at what they do and feel the cheerleaders they serve deserve the best.
3. Witness the Impact: Participate on the Front Lines
Varsity Spirit runs approximately 2,000 summer training camps and 400 competitions each year. According to Webb, another factor that contributes to Varsity Spirit’s winning team culture is that it benefits from senior staff involvement in 10-12 of its biggest cheer camps and competitions. One of the largest annual competitions occurs at Disney World in Orlando where 800 teams participate and Varsity Spirit needs to lead simultaneous activities in four to five separate venues. During the competition, it is all hands on deck, with 400 Varsity Spirit staff members working on teams and in different capacities from their regular day-to-day roles. You’ll find them as judges, as spotters out on the cheer mats, or helping with logistics. These experiences give Varsity Spirit staff a frontline view of how the company creates amazing experiences for athletes and coaches and it reminds them that the work they do matters.
Given the complexity of running so many events to perfection and supporting cheerleaders with the tools they need to raise school spirit, people at Varsity Spirit work hard. Jeff Webb knows that having the right culture that cultivates a winning team spirit is essential to fuel the energies of the people who’ve made and will sustain Varsity Spirit’s success.
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