Build Your Organizational Culture Like a Running Community

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?

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