low angle view of three people running across rocks towards a snow-covered mountain

Build Your Organizational Culture Like a Running Community

What leaders can learn from running clubs: Purpose and community as catalysts for building and sustaining organizational culture.

I am a runner. Few things fuel me more than getting up early and watching the sunrise while getting in some miles. My runs give me rare time and space to let my mind wander, work through any frustrations or tensions I have been holding, be creative, and reflect.

One of my favorite parts of being a runner is the sense of community. This surprised me—I had always thought of running as a solo sport. But when I was out and about in my early running days, I would often see friends or clubs running together, and every now and then when I was particularly struggling, I would receive an encouraging word from a passing runner to keep pushing forward.

After my first few races, I decided to join a club so that I could work toward new goals. By opting into the group, I immediately had a new level of accountability and support. Although we barely knew each other, we learned a lot while running together for an hour or more week after week. In groups like this, it is rare to see someone running with headphones; almost everyone runs without them to participate in the social aspect of the workout. As a result, when one of us was tired or struggling to keep pace (often me), other members would help pull that person along to not get “dropped.” But most of the time we would just run together talking about the mundane details of our daily lives, and sometimes when we were too out of breath to chat, we just listened as others talked. During one of these runs, it struck me that club running is like organizational culture building: individual and collective success require a sense of community.

The Surprising Role of Community

In those months of training, I learned what cultures of community look like in practice. Running is not a team sport. Everyone is competing against each other and themselves in every race. And still, there is a pervasive culture where individual success spirals into virtuous cycles of celebration and success for others. We all experience good runs and bad runs together. We all allow those having strong days to lead the pack and help and pull others through. And that sense of team and togetherness in the day-to-day is what culminates in that electric sense of energy we experience during a race: live music, friends and family, tons of signs, tents full of runners stretching and snacking, and finish lines packed with fans cheering for the finishers.

As I continue to run with clubs, I realize that the running community subscribes to core values that can be mirrored in any type of organization. These include:

  • celebrating self and others’ success (because both are so important!)
  • pushing forward as a group without holding anyone back (run your own race)
  • struggling through difficulties together (no pain, no gain!)
  • guilt-free enjoyment of long, easy hours of running together

Work Hard, Celebrate Often, Enjoy the Run

This combination of willingness to do the tough work, celebrating collectively, and taking the time to enjoy the journey creates a cultural sticky factor that keeps members coming back and helps them achieve their goals. And these values are universally relevant. They might operationalize differently in each context, but they boil down to some form of resilience, recognition, and relationship building. And these values lay the foundation of building culture through community.

The real insight here comes not in what running cultures are like and how they can be mirrored in an organizational setting, but how they are developed. As the old phrase goes, your organization will have a culture whether you create it intentionally or not, and you are much more likely to get one you want by creating it intentionally. But unlike the way most organizations build culture, you won’t find these values on any running club’s website or on the back of their t-shirts. Still, they are curated intentionally. But how?

During one of these runs, it struck me that club running is like organizational culture building: individual and collective success require a sense of community.

How Leaders Build Organizational Culture through Community

Some running clubs are more competitive, while some are more recreational, and the first thing leaders of these clubs do to craft the culture is to overtly communicate that purpose to members. In organizations, we call this vision casting. This allows people to opt-in based on their match to that purpose. Once the purpose is clear, it is much easier to allow values to come to life organically by bringing people together behind that common goal and giving them the unstructured space to train and win together.

Second, they exhibit behaviors that craft the kind of community they want to build. During one of my training cycles, my club was scheduled for an 11-mile run the day before Easter Sunday. It was 43 degrees and pouring rain. Talk about a hard day to get out of bed for a 7:30 am Saturday workout. But the brave souls who laced up that morning arrived to a surprise: our run organizer showed up early to hide easter eggs full of running fuel (candy, gels, etc.) along the whole 11-mile route. This meant he not only went on an 11-mile run in the cold and rain with the club, he also went on an earlier run in the cold and the rain and the dark before we even got started! If you have ever read Chip and Dan Heath’s The Power of Moments, this was exactly the kind of curated moment that shaped the culture of our club and changed the mood that day. Years later, I still tell stories about that specific training run.

When these two leadership behaviors align – communicating purpose and living the community values – leaders have tackled the “why” and “how” of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, which describes how great leaders inspire action. This creates the community that brings people together and makes it easier for them to achieve their “what,” or in this case, their individual running goals.

As I continue my journey as a runner and as a leader, I ask myself questions like “even though our individual goals are different, are we all running with the same purpose?” and “am I displaying the behaviors that craft the culture I want to build, and am I holding others accountable to do the same?”. So, as you continue your own leadership journey, I ask you this: how do you create clarity in purpose and space for community to thrive today? How might the virtuous cycles generated through community impact your organization’s culture and performance?

If you are interested in learning more about cultures built on community and other talent management insights like this, check out my LinkedIn page and SHL’s blog to hear from other industry thought leaders.

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Erin Lazarus

Erin Lazarus is a people science enthusiast and Industrial-Organizational Psychology leader focused on building teams that provide the opportunity for every person to work at their highest point of contribution. She leads teams to design powerful candidate and employee experiences that allow organizations to harness the power of their people. Her teams partner with business leaders using science and data to enhance people strategy in areas including employee selection, workplace assessment, organizational culture, employee engagement, performance management, succession planning, and leadership development. At SHL, Erin consults with clients to transform productivity through deeper people insight.

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