Creating a team culture

Team founder Linda Jackson talks about creating the team’s culture

January 24, 2022

As EF Education-TIBCO-SVB kicks off its debut season as a WorldTour team, its 14-rider roster is an even split of returning riders and riders new to the team.

The number of staff members has nearly tripled. New sponsors have come on board and the race calendar has expanded. While this is an exciting time of growth for the team, it’s also a delicate transition. For this reason, team founder and owner Linda Jackson puts an emphasis on building an open and communicative atmosphere within the team at all levels. There will be inevitable bumps along the road as the team rises to new challenges but as long as an honest and positive culture prevails, the team will be able to meet its challenges head-on and emerge stronger.

We sat down with Linda to hear her thoughts about what she’s learned about creating a supportive and productive team atmosphere in her many years in the sport.

How do you create a positive team atmosphere?

Experience and knowing that things top-down don’t work. You’ve got to get buy-in at all levels. You’ve got to get buy-in from everybody as to what the culture is, because dictating something like that just doesn't work well. It’s got to be the riders’ ideas, staff ideas, and everybody buys into the concept. I think experience over the years has taught me that. It’s really got to be a group effort and a group buy-in to what you’re trying to do. I just think that’s super important at all levels.

What does a healthy team culture look like?

I think everybody understands what the team's mission is, what the team's goals are, separating self from team and constantly checking in on progress and making sure that you've got that in mind. Everybody supports one another. Not looking out for themselves, really looking out for the team identity and the team values.

How do you know when you’ve created this type of culture?

It’s a feedback loop. Some of this gets into the day-to-day management stuff and I am many layers removed at this point but I’m still very much involved. I check in with the managers on a regular basis. We’re setting up all kinds of systems we’ve never had before. We had a management call the other day and I said there are two really important things that we need to up our game at going forward: Organization and communication. Those are the two words I want to focus on this whole season. Communication with the riders on a regular basis. You can’t just communicate with the staff. You’ve got to communicate with the riders on a regular basis. You start to hear things here and there and you think, “Ok, something needs to be addressed here.” Just keeping your finger on the pulse, staying involved.

Do you take the team’s culture into account when you hire riders and staff? Have you turned away qualified people because you didn’t think they would fit in with the culture?

Oh my gosh! We spent so much time this year trying to hire the right people and I think we did. Hiring directors for a women's team, you get a lot of people from the men's teams applying. A good chunk of those just want a job. There aren't that many that really want to work for a women's team. Or it's less than a majority, let's just put it that way. So you have to sift through that all to start with because you want to hire somebody who wants to be where they're at. The ones that I hired listed very early on the first page of their resume their communication skills and what they valued in a team. And those are the people that got hired. It was critical to me. I wasn't at all looking for somebody who used to be a good pro and thought that made him a good candidate to be a sports director. What are their values? What do they think is important on a team? What's their communication like? Because as a director, having good communication with your riders is key. Not being afraid of conflict resolution. If you're somebody that just avoids conflict resolution, that's just going to build up in the team and that's pretty unhealthy. The same goes for riders. Over the years I've turned down many a good rider because, while they were somebody who got really good results, they were not a team player. They were not a good hire for teamwork or for cohesion. And that's not something I need on the team.

Given that openness and communication are key values on the team, how does the team address challenges?

We got into a situation last year and we brought in some outside professional help. We’re not psychologists. It’s seeking experts in the field when you do run into issues. We had this outside help sit down with the team and really talk about values, really talk about culture, help us plan this out. We can’t be all things. We’ve got to enlist, if a situation develops, experts who can help us resolve situations. Conflict management is a great example. We’re experts at what we do in cycling but when needed, I’m not shy to call in experts in conflict resolution or experts in teamwork and cohesion. An outside voice is helpful. I’m the team founder, for instance. Maybe they don’t want to talk to the team founder about something. It seems pretty important to have neutral, safe, outside support when needed.

You’ve been in cycling as both a rider and a team owner for nearly three decades. Are there predictable highs and lows in a team’s culture throughout the season?

Oh, absolutely! My husband has been through these last 17 years with me and every year at the team camp I say, “Oh my god, this is the best group ever! They're so cohesive! Everything's just wonderful!” And he knows by now that in a few months, he'll start hearing me shout “AHHHH!” It absolutely is predictable. Everything's great at the beginning at team camp and then it's just a matter of time before stuff starts to go south. In our case you've got 14 A-type personalities who are for the most part super competitive and super ambitious, and as much as this is a team sport, everybody has their own goals. And you've got people fighting to be the alpha dog sometimes. It inevitably goes through waves and I think what I'd like to see is by the end of the season, everything is still close to ideal and that we resolve any of that in-season volatility.

Since the team has grown and evolved so much from 2021 to 2022, do you anticipate changes in the team atmosphere?

It's all of the processes that we've started to apply this year. Again, organization and communication are my two critical objectives and I think staying on top of that is key. We've got roughly the same number of riders. What we've done is double or maybe even triple the staff, so it's all about dividing up responsibilities, making sure there are clear lines of responsibilities, and that's something we're working on right now. If you have triple the staff we had last year, there are a lot of new questions to address. Who is doing what? How do the riders know where to go if there's a conflict? Who do they talk to? All that kind of stuff. So we’re really working hard on that. Making sure the goals and responsibilities for everybody are clear.

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