How to build a winning culture in your organization with Mike Johnston

Every time I hear Mike Johnston dive into building culture…I’m blown away.

For those of you who don’t know who Mike Johnston is, he is the Vice President, General Manager, and Head Coach of the Portland Winterhawks Hockey Club in the Western Hockey League. Mike is a seasoned staple in hockey with stops with the Canucks, Penguins, and many more.

On the ice, he has helped turn the Portland Winterhawks into a winning machine after it was in the depths of the standings each year. The team pumps out NHL top draft picks and stars each season.

Off the ice he has built a culture that is unrivaled…and this culture has a direct segway into our work in sports sponsorship.

This week on The Inches Podcast we were blessed to have Mike Johnston on to chat about how he builds culture and competes in the organization.

You can listen to the whole episode HERE…but see below for the key insights from the chat.

The Environment is so important

Mike dives into the environment early in his talks, because the goal is to set the environment up for the future. Most people focus on what is happening on the ice, but the environment at home is most

As you build a great culture, the place to start is with the environment. It gives you the foundation to build upon to reach success. It is how Mike started at the Portland Winterhawks.

When he came on to turn around a losing organization the environment was the first stage. Why? Because, as he says, if they could take care of the culture..they had a chance to recruit.

In the beginning, they had no chance at success because they didn’t have the personnel…they had to make the environment to build up their roster of players.

The first step here is very important and really actionable to us in sponsorship.

The first thing that Mike did was ask the question “If I’m going to send my kid to Portland…what is on my checklist?”

What I love here is he puts his stakeholder first. He doesn’t say “What player skills am I looking for most to build a winning team?”…he focuses on what the player and their family need to see in order to pick the Winterhawks.

We can do the same thing in sponsorship for both our employees and sponsors.

First, let’s dive into building a winning culture for our employees. Many times we think about which school we’d like to recruit from or certain sales experience we’d like to see…but what if we flipped it around.

What if we answered the question “If I was looking for my first job in sports…what would be on my checklist?” and built our program from there. You would see similar results that Mike has seen on the ice with the Winterhawks.

Now let’s take that philosophy to our sponsors and sales. What if we built an asset package and offering around “If I’m going to spend my money with the (Your Team HERE), what would be on my checklist?”

This helps us take a deep dive into what the customer needs, what may be out there as a competitor, and helps us build a package around the customer…not the money we can generate.

Culture starts with building the environment…the environment starts with a checklist to understand your stakeholders.

Getting feedback & input from the whole organization

This story is one of my favorites and I have been a part of a session like this with Mike.

As we know in sports there are on the ice and off the ice (business) parts of the team. Very rarely do the two of them crossover.

But off the ice departments absolutely impact the on the ice. So what Mike does is bring them together in a meeting.

While at the Canucks he brought together the Marketing, Accounting, Ticketing, and other departments to ask a simple question.

“How can you help us win on the ice this season?”

He gave them 5 minutes to chat and think about it before asking them to share.

Each department of marketing & ticketing came back with ways to fill the stadium, make the experience better, and keep the energy up in the stadium.

But the most important came from the accounting department. After thinking for a while and being a bit stuck they came through with one of, what I think, one of the most important items toward on-ice success.

There were two players who were coming to Canada for the first time…and they weren’t really sure how to set up a bank account in the new country. So accounting helped them with setting up an account.

The value this brings shows how everyone in the building can help the team be successful. it takes everyone to reach a common goal. It takes the entire organization…but more importantly, it takes the entire organization coming together, unified, to reach the goal.

In order to unify your team, you have to build an inclusive culture. One that brings people together to understand their value to that goal.

Finding a ‘Compete Level’ more than skill in scouting players

When Mike goes to scout and finds players he is looking for players that are going to compete over skill. This, I think, is key to their success.

What really stood out to me was when Mike says “to compete is a choice, it’s not size…it’s heart”. He’s looking for players that aren’t maybe the most skilled, they don’t jump out off the page, but when you watch the film they will compete to win.

He’s looking for energy players. Ones that can come into a room and bring energy to it immediately…not energy vampires. Ones that suck the energy out of the room. This comes with their body language, how they speak, and how they walk onto the ice.

And he’s had success finding gems with this tactic, finding gems that aren’t drafted in the Bantam draft but end up becoming NHL players. When you find these players who bring energy, have a high competitive level, and bring them to your organization you have a chance to win.

We can bring this advice to our sponsorship departments. When we look to build culture and bring people in we should be looking at these facets like the highest points of interest when choosing whom we bring into our environments and teams.

If we can keep out. the energy vampires…we have a chance. If we can keep from becoming an energy vampire…we can be successful in building a successful work culture.

Closing prospects and convincing players to come to Portland

The last segment here I think is really important to the success that Mike and the Winterhawks have had over the years. One thing I’ve noticed since working with the team has been the amount of top-tier talent that they have been able to bring in, cultivate, and watch head to the NHL and play at the highest level.

When closing a player and convincing them to come to Portland, Mike says mindset is the #1 thing.

When walking into the meeting with a prospect Mike focuses on why the Winterhawks are a great fit for their son and the player’s future. He asks the goal of their playing career and they make a plan to fit that.

If the goal is to go to Denver University after playing…the plan is set to fulfill this goal.

What I love about this is the insane focus on the fit with the player. His goal is to find out how he can help them reach their goals.

This leads to another key point…in the meeting, Mike never brings up another team. His focus is solely on how he can help them reach their potential at the Winterhawks.

This is key for us in business. When we can focus on why we are the best solution for the client…we will win. We aren’t comparing to others. We know what value we can bring and are on a mission to see how it can help fit their goals.

Overall, building the foundation and environment builds a great culture

Culture can turn any organization around from the bottom of the standing to the top. Building a great environment brings great talent. Competitive talent. Ones that will skate through a brick wall to win.

What I learn from Mike every time I hear him speak is in order to build up a great organization you need to start with the environment. It may take some time to build. You will make mistakes. But if you build that foundation…you can be successful.

I can’t think of an industry where this can be more successful if we implement it than in sponsorship.



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