Building a winning culture

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Shane Durrance

While I consider myself a loner, an introvert and a rugged individualist, I’ve spent more days and hours in organizational settings than I care to remember.

I’ve been in bass clubs, on teams and on the Board of Directors of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. I’ve worked in private industry, for a powerful law firm and for the Federal government.

While I’ve spent a ton of time that I’ll never get back in way-too-long meetings, those gatherings have taught me one thing: An organization is only as strong as its culture. That has to start at the top and permeate all levels with meaningful buy-in. When your market is bullish, you can overcome some cultural landmines, but when times are tough, a lack of general consensus is like an albatross around your neck. As Teddy Roosevelt said of the man who’d been inaugurated 40 years before him: “If Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now.”

Looking back 12 months, there’s no doubt that the top brass at B.A.S.S. had some challenges in front of them. Without rehashing the details or any disagreements, there was a fundamental shift in the industry that led to all sorts of speculation and strategy. I’ve followed this sport for decades, and the last time there was this level of change was when the Bassmaster Elite Series arose in 2006. 

Do you remember that season? I remember it vividly, and if I didn’t I need only refer to the coffee table book in my office: The Season: A Photographic Look at the Inaugural Bassmaster Elite Series by Doug Cox and the omnipresent Steve Bowman.

Can you imagine that? The year was so monumental that it demanded an entire full-color book.

Like this year, 2006 was a crazy whirlwind season which started with a schism of tours. Despite that bit of drama, everything clicked on the water, starting at a big bass Classic in Florida, and followed by events including the tour’s first visit to Amistad, records at Santee Cooper, a Mike Iaconelli win at Guntersville and other dramatic and fish-heavy tournaments.

The excitement that year wasn’t borne out of some sort of corporate mandate, or a list of platitudes taped to cubicle walls. It wasn’t rah-rah speeches or puffery. It was 100-plus dudes, along with a whole corporate and logistical army, competing like hell on the water and then embracing a common cause off of it. It felt like something was building.

That summer of 2006 was also the first time I was published in a B.A.S.S. magazine. The following year I started covering events. In 2010 I became a member of the Classic team, and a few years after that I was promoted to Senior Writer. With the exception of the anglers themselves and the hardworking staff at B.A.S.S., I feel there are few people as keenly attuned – with an odd balance of subjectivity and objectivity – as me when it comes to the mood on tour, and this year I felt that 2006 mood all over again.

That’s culture.

Does it come from B.A.S.S. Director Chase Anderson, at the very top of the depth chart? I’m sure it does. Does it come from Bruce Akin and Trip Weldon and Dave Precht and the other cogs in the tournament and media machines? They have a role. Does it come from the anglers and the fans? Of course it does. The B.A.S.S. shield stands for history, but it’s just a symbol. Without people holding it up it’s nothing. Sorry to all of you who believe in an infallible “great man theory” of bass fishing history, but no one or two men are bigger than the sport. A tour with a rigid top-down structure is going to get eaten alive.

So what is culture, more specifically? It’s tough to say, except that “I know it when I see it.”

Rick Clunn, winning again at the St. Johns, to start off the year with a look back and a look forward. That’s culture.

Lee Livesay, in that same tournament, producing an epic catch that will make the highlight reels for generations. That’s culture.

Chris Zaldain, having a season for the ages, consistently coming up short on Sunday, but keeping his composure. That’s culture.

Scott Canterbury, who a year earlier had no reasonable idea that he’d even be fishing the Elite Series, winning AOY by holding off not only Zaldain but also as varied a murderers’ row as you’ll ever see. That’s culture.

Brandon Cobb, proving himself with two wins in a new environment after a solid start at FLW. Jamie Hartman, coming back from injury to win two of his own? Ditto.

Chad Pipkens with an ear-to-ear grin, wrecking them at Lake Fork, including a personal best on camera. That’s culture.

Three Canadians in the next Classic and an Australian Elite winner prove that culture need not respect international boundaries. It’s a feeling, not a nationality.

You can call me a homer, or a corporate apologist, or a shill. Yes, I earn a modest check from B.A.S.S., but no one tells me when or what to write. In fact, at this year’s Classic I spent a substantial amount of time interviewing and covering some of the departing anglers, with the explicit blessing and encouragement of my bosses. That, my fellow fish freaks, is a culture that focuses on building the best possible product, and not worrying about the politics of it.

This year was the best Elite Series season in over a decade because the people who were there were fully invested. There may have been the occasional petty squabble or disagreement, but the cultural imperative of growth was unspoken – mostly because it was so obvious that it didn’t need to be mentioned.