Ralph Isernia - Engineering Culture Article

How You Can Engineer A Winning Culture

All coaches know about the importance of creating a dynamic culture for their football team.  In order to understand what it is we are trying to develop, start at the beginning and define what culture is, how we can develop it and how it can produce team excellence.  I define culture in four aspects:

  • The ideals that a particular group values as an expression of who they are
  • How the group implements and upholds those ideals
  • How the group works in concert with those ideals to achieve their ultimate goals
  • How those ideals and their importance are passed along to succeeding groups.

Coaches know the importance of team development as it is reflected in discipline, work ethic, competition, accountability, teamwork, trust, togetherness and love.  As coaches, it is our responsibility to establish and develop the culture of our teams.  We “engineer” that culture – as it refers to designing or building something, such as a machine or a structure.  Our team culture is a living, breathing organism.  It is a machine that grows and changes as our team’s dynamic changes.  The five keys described here help engineer your culture to develop team excellence.

RELATED ARTICLE: PJ Fleck On Coaching Your Culture

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.  We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.  We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

Start with You

If you follow the advice of sports psychologists and performance coaches, they would tell you to “start with the end in mind.”  Examine yourself from another’s perspective.  If your life were to end today, what would others say about you?  How would you be remembered?  What impact would you have had on others’ lives?  It is a morbid thought, for sure, but one that deserves attention.  If we desire a life that is fulfilling, rewarding, in the service to others, one that is dedicated to the ideals that we hold dear, then we need to live with intentionality and integrity in serving those ideals.  So, start with you.  Get clear with your vision.  Your ultimate vision will forever drive you and your entire program.  Once you have uncovered that vision, everything else will begin to fall into place.  But first, get real with yourself.

Pursue the best version of yourself that you will ever be.  Maslow said, “What a man can be, he must be.”   So, you might as well do what you love, love what you do and do it your way.  Stick to your vision, for it was forged from your character – who you truly are.  Your character is the result of your values being habituated.

RELATED ARTICLE: Improve The Depth Of Your Roster

Self-discovery and introspection may take some time and deep reflection, but the results will be uniquely yours and deeply meaningful.  What is your identity?  What is your vision?  Who are you and what are you here to do?   Develop your Plan for Success – your 3 P’s: Purpose, Passion and Principles:

  • Purpose: Who are you and what are you here to do?
  • Passion:  What are you excited about and why?
  • Principles:  What do you truly value in your life?

If you want more, you must become more.  You must discover and define your Purpose, Passion and Principles in order to live a life of integrity; one that is in harmony with your true principles and values.  Only then can you fully actualize your life.  Start with “I” statements and just write, don’t over-think.  Fire, ready, aim.  Just get it down on paper, then refine and revise.  Ultimately, you are asking yourself the questions, “what kind of coach do I want to be and what will it take to get there?”  The answers will drive your philosophy and shape the culture of your program.

Mission Statement

The Mission Statement is the ultimate structure of your organization.  It is derived from your vision and personal plan for success.  Remember to lead within your style and beliefs because a team will always take on the personality of their coach.

Your mission statement will characterize how your Plan for Success drives the fundamental core of your program.  Be deliberate and detailed with the characteristics or your program.  Do not ask your team to do that which you would not otherwise do yourself.  Direct the behaviors that you want your team members to exhibit.  It must be MEAN-ingful:

  • M:  Memorable
  • E:  Easy to teach & learn
  • A:  Accountability is demanded
  • N:  Never let up

I have found that a Mission Statement of 1-3 sentences is most effective.  A 5-7 sentence statement can be used as long as there is some rhyme or rhythm to the text.  This statement is a fundamental of your program.  Just like football fundamental skills, it must be practiced over and over again.  Demand commitment until automaticity.  Team members and coaches should eventually be able to recite your statement on command.  Memorize it, believe in it, and own it.  Remember, thoughts become things and constant repetition and deliberate practice will ingrain the fundamentals of your program.  Be deliberate with your teachings, direct your team and demand full accountability.


The “Buy-in” stage is the most important component of building your culture.  It involves more moving parts than the previous ones.  The members of your organization (players and coaches) must completely commit to the direction of the program.  You will encounter three groups of people when implementing your plan:

  • “Bunker Guys”: They are with you from day one, they are your elite leaders, they yearn for change, committed to the cause, they want the discipline, structure and commitment, they believe in your vision and are aligned with your values.  They are in the bunker with you and will go to battle with you. They will champion your cause.
  • “Fence Guys”:  They are sitting on the fence and need a reason to get off, to one side or the other. They will side with the view that is most popular or can give them the greatest reward, they are swaying with the breeze, they dare not go against the breeze for fear that they may break, so they bend to the side that has the least resistance.  This may be the largest group, so the coaches and Bunker guys must get them to buy-in because it is right.
  • “Yard Guys”:  They are hanging around the yard and will not fully commit to the cause.  They are un-interested, un-reliable and un-caring.  Use ultimatums, commit or quit.  There may be some skilled players in this group or guys that could really help your team.  One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. You cannot compromise everything you believe in for short-term success.  Committed members will see right through your intentions and view you and your ideals as a fraud.  Remember, character counts.

Once your team is formed and full commitment is established, you must train every day.  Ask the question, “What type of player do you want to be and what will it take to get there?”  You have provided a blueprint for their success.  All you need is their commitment to the team.  Everyone must be speaking the same language in order for you to accomplish your goals.  Members will feel that they are making sacrifices for the team.  Get them to understand that they are making choice instead of sacrifices.

RELATED ARTICLE: Greenwood High School’s Intentional Character Development

The result of their collective “buy-in” will be a force greater than any one individual alone.  Synergy, where 1 + 1 = 3.  The sum is greater than its parts.  Where one board is strong by itself, two boards together are exponentially stronger.  In engineering terms, they are not only sharing the load, they are supporting each other at the same time.  Synergy is hard to calculate or quantify, but you know it when you see it in your team.


Your team will never care what you know until they know that you care.  So, sail the right ships – relationships.  Never overlook the opportunity for a “teaching moment.”  This could be anywhere, on the field, in the office or in the hallway.  Sometimes the most-meaningful interactions are the ones that are unexpected, unintentional and unscripted.  Embrace positive coaching that emphasizes discipline, character, grit and togetherness.  Coach and teach within your personality and your genuine care and love for your individual team members will shine through.

  • What do you value in a player?
  • How do you recognize it?
  • How do you drill it?
  • How do you reward it?
  • Reward the behavior you want.

Every member of your organization has value and a voice.  No one person is bigger than your program.  Provide constant communication, evaluation and feedback.  Be honest and compassionate.  Give them a plan where they can see themselves having success.  You must trust them and they must trust you.  Trust is a must.  Help them plan out their goals and ways they can strategically take small steps to achieve them.  Help them cultivate willpower and determination knowing that their achievements will take time.  Small, smart choices done consistently over time will produce amazing results.  In order to become a vehicle of excellence, they must become a machine of routine.


Every day, you are either growing or dying.  You must evolve as a coach, teacher and mentor.  Adopt a growth mindset, constantly learning new systems, paradigms, and dynamics that will enhance your program.  If you grow, your team and players will grow with you.  Understand that where your focus goes, your performance and energy go. As you keep moving forward, remember you can only control what you can control:


  • Attitude:  Solutions-based not problem-based.  Proactive not reactive.
  • Actions:  Be true to yourself.
  • Preparation:  Have a plan, work the plan.  The Process.
  • Performance:  Demand your best.
  • Energy:  “Bring it” every day.  People will feed off your energy.
  • Effort:  If you are not working on culture every day, then you do not have one.
  • Determination:  “Unwavering commitment to finish the job, stay the course and never, ever quit.” – Mark Devine

We attend clinics, visit coaches, learn new schemes and examine football systems to win on the football field.  We read books from Lombardi, Wooden, Bryant, Summit, Auriemma, Sabah, Carroll, Meyer, Belichick, Walsh, Dungy and Parcells.  These people are icons in the coaching profession and we can glean a wealth of knowledge from their experiences.  To help us grow in our relationships, build our teams and understand how to help others, we should study the works of Maslow, Erickson, Cuddy, Duckworth, Galloway, Dweck, Canfield, Locke, Hardy, Covey, Kight and Cain, among others.  The lessons learned from these experts can help us grow as individuals and fully engineer the culture of our team.


Ralph Isneria was named head coach at Rensselaer in March 2013. A coach since 1991, he has experience in Divison III, Divison II and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). In his six seasons with the Engineers, Isneria has led the Engineers to a 44-22 record (.667), five Dutchman Shoes Trophy Game victories, five post-season appearances, including a trip to the NCAA Tournament Quarterfinals, and a pair of ECAC Bowl titles.

Comments 1

  1. excellent article, if you please give more information about team integration in order to make them winners as a team not individuals

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *