Former Division 1 volleyball player and Eagle Hill Associate Victoria Blake tells Melissa how creating a culture of change led her college team to unprecedented success.
Melissa Jezior: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the cultur(ED) Podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior, your host. On this podcast I talk to top culture makers in the world today from different industries and backgrounds to unpack the visible and not so visible forces that make up this often overlooked superpower of organizations. This inspired me to learn from elite athletes and coaches to unpack their tips and tricks for building winning cultures.
Today I’m pleased to welcome Victoria Blake. Victoria is a colleague of mine here at Eagle Hill and a former nationally ranked high school volley player—who went on to play for an incredible four years at University of Wisconsin. That’s where they competed in the NCAA championships for a title and won their regional championships. Victoria, thank you so much for joining us today.
Victoria Blake: Thank you for having me. It’s always exciting to step outside of the day-to-day.
Melissa: I’ve been learning so much from these conversations and I’m fascinated to talk about your experience playing at a D1 level and how this really translates into your work life today. So to start out with, you’re a nationally ranked volleyball player in high school, broke a lot of records, I hear, at your high school, so much so that you got recruited by University of Wisconsin and finished high school early to join the team. I understand that a few days before you made this jump you got somewhat of a curveball. So tell me about this curveball that you got and how you handled it.
Victoria: One night I was actually sitting around and we were eating dinner with the family, and my sister, my mom and my dad were all sitting at the dinner table and the phone rings. It was the coach that I had committed to at Wisconsin letting me know that he was no longer going to be the coach anymore, he was retiring.
Yeah, so just a few days before I was actually supposed to move out to Wisconsin I had already packed up all of my things for college. They were sitting in the living room and ready to go, and I wasn’t sure if I really had a spot on the team or even a scholarship at this point. I had no idea how to navigate these waters.
Now, it’s a really awkward time because I had just gotten my diploma, so I had no idea what I was going to do for the next semester if I was not going to go to Wisconsin. Definitely an awkward time.
And I just remember thinking am I still graduating early and am I still going to start Wisconsin in just a few weeks? I already had, you know, packed, I’d already have everything. Everything was prepared, ready to go, just walk out the door and move into the dorm, that was all I was waiting to do, and now there was this huge change, and it was just a big…a big mess for a little bit, to be totally honest.
And we waited a few days. We waited a few days and then I got a call we had a coach at least, which was great news, Coach Kelly Sheffield, who was gonna come over from the University of Dayton to be our leader throughout this time. And he…he said he wanted to come over for dinner. And that’s really where it all started, was him deciding that he wanted to sit down and make sure that we were still a good fit for each other.
So we set up a dinner and he decided to drive up to the house. That being said, he was late. He had no idea where I lived, actually, so he drove to where I practiced, which was two and a half hours away from my home.
My mom had made dinner, so there was a lasagna in the, like in the stove cooking, probably burning. By this time it was like 10:00 at night. It’s super cold outside because it’s the middle of winter in Michigan and I’m—I remember this so vividly—I’m sitting at the computer in the kitchen Googling everything I can about this guy, who is Coach Kelly Sheffield, what is he. And I remember looking at these photos thinking he’s just this super scary guy. Like I remember seeing them and thinking oh, gosh, he’s Hulk, like oh no, oh no, what’s happening?
And we get a knock on the door, we open up the door, and this flood of burnt lasagna flows out and hits him in the face, probably, and he’s just a normal guy, and he’s just… I remember thinking wait, this is him? Like this isn’t scary. And I just remember the only thing that really shook me out of that moment of who am I looking at right now was shaking his ice cold hand, because again, it was January in Michigan.
Melissa: Awesome. So this new coach, Kelly Sheffield, you’d never heard of him, before, right? Was not a really well known coach. And here he is coming into this Big Ten team with a known coach, and a known coach who had recruited and trained the team. And I imagine he really needed to quickly gain trust. So tell me about your observations about how he did that and how he was successful, and maybe where he wasn’t.
Yeah. Definitely an odd situation to be thrown into. I mean, it’s basically like becoming the CEO of a company. You have no idea what’s really going on in there, and you show up your first day and you really just hope for the best. And I truly believe that’s the situation he was in. He ended up calling a team meeting. And everyone had just gotten back to campus after winter break. I had just moved into the dorms. I think my mom had actually just left campus that morning, so it was my first real experience with the team.
We walk into this meeting room and everyone’s sitting down. Keep in mind I still haven’t met some of the team at this point, so I’m still the complete newbie, all alone in the corner kind of thing. And everyone else is just as nervous as me because they also have no idea who he is or what he’s about.
And with this long meeting I just remember he pretty much started by saying, you know, I don’t like losing.
Victoria: Pretty great opening, because everyone was immediately on board. Nobody likes losing, so he had us at least that far. Now, where he lost a few of people, I think, is when he handed us a giant book.
It was a book really of rules, but he liked to call them standards of the team. And it was anything from what you should wear while you’re traveling, how you should sit in the front three rows of every class, how you’ll be 15 minutes early to every practice, every weight lifting session, anything—Lombardi time. Then I think a few of us sat back and thought, you know, oh wow, this is going to be a big change.
I can only speak for myself, I guess. I was brand new, but a few of the girls were probably very comfortable in the routine that they had created over the last two to three years, and here this guy is coming in, sitting down and saying change everything, even when you practice, even how you eat, dress, act, you know, everything needs to change. And it was a little bit of a shakeup at first.
I remember right away he had the senior on the team, Ann Marie Hickey—she was a great leader in general—but she really was truly important to making sure everyone on the team was also on board.
So she was what we would call the change champion, right? The one who’s willing to sit down, and have those meetings, and go out and get coffee with someone on the team, make sure that you’re doing okay—how do you feel about this? How do you feel about this? And then continuously reporting back to Coach and making sure everyone was on the same page.
Now that being said, not everyone was on the same page. And I don’t think everyone truly understood how this was going to have a great, positive impact until we started winning games.
Melissa: Why do you think he started out the meeting with this two and a half inch book with all these standards? What do you think he was…what message do you think he was trying to share in terms of—what was he trying to accomplish?
Victoria: So I think it was really just saying this is how things need to be run around here. And not only that. He wasn’t forcing it down anyone’s throat or anything like that.
We went through page by page and he wanted to make sure everyone was okay with the standard, whatever it was, and then everyone also agreed that the punishment or whatever the repercussion was going to be if you did not follow a standard was a reasonable thing.
Melissa: So, interesting. So that was in a way his first chance of saying all right, folks, this is gonna be a culture change, and here’s your chance to kind of opt in, right? Here’s your chance to weigh in and here’s a chance for us to kind of say as a group we’re gonna hold each other accountable for this new culture change.
So you mentioned that some people were on board right away and others weren’t on board right away. Tell me a little bit about maybe some of the folks that weren’t on board and how did Coach Kelly handle some of those situations and the team handle some of those situations?
Victoria: Of course you’re gonna get the natural tendency of testing boundaries. And we definitely had a few individuals on the team who were doing that. Now that being said, a few weeks after Coach came, one girl was asked to leave the team, and so boundaries were set, but whatever was going to happen in that team rule book is what actually. Whatever the repercussions for the actions that needed to happen did actually happen. So she was removed from the team.
I remember there was one senior on the team in particular, and she…she just loved the idea of I want to win, and he wants to win, and this is what we’re gonna do to win, so she was just on board pretty much immediately.
Melissa: [From moment one], yeah.
Victoria: Exactly. And I’m pretty sure there was a few meetings in the background happening to make sure she was on board, but she was totally there.
But there was one drill, and it was extremely dependent on the weakest player, which at the time, I will completely admit, was me.
Victoria: I was brand new. I had…was not playing at Division 1 college volleyball level. I was still very much a good high school player. And so people were actually really frustrated with me, and again, rightfully so. But you have this moment where Coach tells you, like this drill is not going to be over until you accomplish it, until you completely finish it. It dragged on for days.
And so I have a few juniors reaching out to me wanting to practice after in the gym, so I’m practicing with a few people who are teaching me pretty much everything they know, right, so I’m learning from them.
So it was a drill dependent on the weakest player. People were getting really frustrated because for the life of me I could not pass a volleyball, and that’s just what it was. Now that being said, it was a difficult practice, and so at the end of it our coach basically said like, you know, we’re gonna do better tomorrow, this was a really tough practice, we need to call it quits for the day.
Everyone, for the most part, gets around in a circle and just like you see at any, pretty much any practice for sports you start stretching, right? And someone breaks it down in the middle and you’re all stretching. Well, one individual on the team—I’ll even name her, Courtney Thomas—she…I love her so much. She actually has a family of her own now. But she stood to the side instead of joining the circle, and at one point she actually turned around so her back was facing the team.
And she was also one of the individuals who wasn’t completely on board with the coaching change, probably. And so Coach went up to her and said, well, why the heck aren’t you with your team? And was like, well, I’m a little frustrated. And I think the idea was that she needed to cool down. But he immediately said no, get your butt back in that circle, stretch with your team, give them your love, your energy, your support, because this was a tough practice. That’s what a good leader does.
And there was an instant where one moment she was like pouting in the corner and all of a sudden she was in the circle and she was talking to teammates, and even though she was frustrated as heck that Coach called her out on something, it was definitely a point of turn for her, that Coach was gonna hold her accountable and that’s how things were gonna be run from now on.
Melissa: I think about it in the corporate world. If you do want to create culture change one of the first things we always tell our clients is to get people to weigh in on how they would interpret that culture change just for that very reason, so that when it comes time to hold people accountable, it’s a little bit harder to argue with something you yourself helped to create or had the opportunity to weigh in on, so…
Victoria: I’m actually having that experience with a client right now. We did over a hundred and one interviews, getting buy-in from all of these people all across their department, and it’s been extremely successful so far, so it’s really neat to see how it applies in my day-to-day, even though it all started out at the University of Wisconsin in a small little meeting room, everyone sweating it out meeting Coach for the first time, so… [Laughs.]
Melissa: [Laughs.] So one of the things that I have really enjoyed in doing this podcast series and talking with incredible athletes and coaches is that one of the things that sticks out is there seems to be a difference between being a really good team and being a national championship team. So I’m curious as to what you think goes into that and how much culture you think plays a part in becoming a, like such a winning team. And tell us a…just tell us a little bit about your thoughts on that.
Victoria: At Wisconsin it was really just the little things. So Coach truly believed every standard in that book—where you sat in class, how you ate for a game or something like that, you know, the nutrition you were putting into your body, all of those things truly mattered.
Another thing he did have us do, and I definitely hold onto this in my professional career today, but we had this rubber band activity. And it was lovingly called “snap yourself.” So he had noticed that a lot of individuals on the team, myself included, when we made a mistake on the court we would immediately get angry. And it was like this internal anger. And in reality it…it manifested inside of you, but it’s contagious, at the end of the day, so he needed a way to get rid of that and really focus us less on anger of a mistake and more on the solution to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
Victoria: So when everyone was being negative one day at practice he came up to us all at the end, and we’re all standing around in a circle by the white board, and by the practice plan. And I remember thinking why…why is he just holding a bag of rubber bands? Like he’s the head c…like he doesn’t need…like why…like does he have paperwork to do?
Victoria: Like what’s going on? And he puts a rubber band on everyone’s wrist and he says whenever you think something negative, do something negative, or say something negative, you need to snap yourself. So we wore this rubber band for 48 hours, and the entire team held each other accountable of snapping themselves, to the point where we…we actually created a hashtag—hashtag snap yo self.
So in our group chat if someone even said something negative just texting the team or something like that you would respond with a hashtag. And we all lived, I mean, together at the time, so they would have to snap themselves, and we would hold them accountable.
But I remember the next day it rained, someone stepped into a puddle, and she was just snapping herself all the way to practice, to the point where she showed up and her wrist was just bright red.
Victoria: And it was like what happened? Like what on earth? And she said it’s just been a rough day.
Victoria: And you don’t realize you’re making or thinking negatively or making negative actions or anything like that up until the point where you’re calling yourself out on it. And that’s the first step to realizing okay, my first reaction to serving a volleyball into the net is needing to snap myself versus thinking oh, I’ll just aim higher next time. Again, it’s such a small change, but I truly think that’s the difference between good and great. It’s not faking it until you make it, it’s rewiring your brain and everyone on the team doing that, too, for the greater good.
Melissa: So it kind of stops the behavior, in a way, and it…or makes you cognizant of it.
Victoria: Definitely. I do think another one would be this idea of… There was, I mean, you go from mid to bottom of the Big Ten to national championships, right, like you’re obviously the underdog. No one’s gonna believe in you at all, whatsoever. Everyone’s gonna call you crazy for having these huge lofty dreams of making it to the national championship.
And I remember Coach, he used to take articles that essentially put us down and made us sound quite awful, or predictions that we were gonna lose these really big games or things like that, and he would slip them in people’s lockers, or he would tape them up to the board before practice.
And it just, this fire in your belly at the end of the day ‘cause you were so mad that someone would say that. But not just mad—again, going back to the whole idea of having to channel it into action. That is something that I…I really do think is applicable today. Now that being said, no one’s saying like the company is gonna end or anything like that, right?
Melissa: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Victoria: But it’s the idea of, you know, Eagle Hill is a smaller company, and it’s this…there’s that fire in your gut because of it, and it’s really exciting to be here
Melissa: So tell us then about the impact that these culture changes had on the team and what happened as a result of all this culture change.
Victoria: You go from mid to bottom of the Big Ten to all of a sudden making it to the national championships, and no one believes that you’re gonna get there. People were calling us crazy. We had had a great season, and we were still ranked at the bottom of the NCAA tournament. Like it was just…it was crazy.
But at the same time you just, you stayed positive and you looked at each other, and you knew everyone was on the same page, and there was just this strength within the team, and this vulnerability that everyone knew everything about you, and they were gonna hold you accountable to it, and…or to this… They were going to hold you accountable to the team standards. And it just created this environment that you could be your true self, but your best true self. And then on top of that you could win together.
Melissa: So I know you were new to the team when you and Kelly were new together. What did you hear from some of your teammates about what the big difference from pre Kelly to post Kelly in terms of that culture and how it kind of brought you together as a team?
Victoria: I’m not really sure what they said, necessarily. Everyone was very—and this is so true—everyone was very forward thinking the entire time because now that we had a new coach nothing that happened in the past mattered. And Kelly never reflected back on the past, necessarily. I mean, even his opening line, right, like…
Melissa: I don’t like to lose?
Victoria: I don’t like to lose. It’s like okay, well, we’re not gonna lose from here on out, like here we go. And it was just this forward thinking, like okay, we’re not gonna lose, we’re gonna win.
Victoria: And to the point where, I mean, every single game he…he actually had this saying, and it was…it was “get on the train.” So it is your personal responsibility to get on the train before it leaves the station. Now that being said, after a big win he would say get on the train, it’s time to move on to the next game. After a big loss he would say get on the train, it’s time to move on to the next game. And that was really his mentality. So it didn’t matter, win or lose, we were always just moving forward, in his mind.
Melissa: That’s interesting.
Victoria: It wasn’t even just moving forward, though, because then you get to the NCAA tournament, and he has this whole thing that it’s not about survive and advance. And for any sports lover out there—
Melissa: Yeah, what does that mean?
A lot of sports fans out there are aware of this term “survive and advance.” And it’s the idea of when you make it into the NCAA tournament, or when you make it into any tournament, you need to survive the game you’re currently up against and advance to the next.
Victoria: Our coach hated that. Oh, my goodness, he hated it. We called it “dominate and conquer.” So it wasn’t surviving, it was dominating. And it wasn’t advancing, it was conquering. Because it was…it was just the idea that it’s…it’s not good enough to make it or squeeze by.
You know, we were the underdogs. We had to prove our worth. We had to prove everything. And you can’t do that by surviving and advancing. You have to do that by dominating and conquering. And they still use that term to this day.
Melissa: Oh, interesting.
Victoria: And I think he actually used it before Wisconsin, too. I’m pretty sure a few Dayton girls would know that one as well.
Melissa: So I’m trying to figure out, I’m trying to isolate, in a way, what the magic was if you think about it ‘cause we, you and I have talked about how it’s not one single player, right, that makes the magic of a team, and maybe not even the magic of one single coach, I don’t know. But what is it, do you think, that enabled Wisconsin to go from being in the bottom of the Big Ten to making it to the NCAA championships?
Victoria: It was a beautifully mastered culture change. Anything from how someone thought with the snapping of themselves, to how we were looking at games coming up, to how we didn’t look back.
I mean, I would really say those three things. But by doing that, our team was close. We had each other’s backs. We knew that nobody outside of our gym and our four walls believed in us, and it had to be on us.
And…maybe this is where it ties back to life at Eagle Hill even, right? It’s…our clients tell us all the time we know who works for Eagle Hill because they’re smiling when they walk down the halls. You know, the idea of that snap yourself comes in, right? Like people here are happy. They genuinely enjoy what they do.
But it’s more than that. It’s the fact that you know that your team has your back, you know that you’re working towards something great, the gold standard of consulting. That’s what we want to do. We’re all on board. We’re all here for it. And that’s what’s special, just like Wisconsin.
Melissa: I think we’ve touched on a little bit about this, but I want to ask the question specifically. Clearly you learned a lot from the time at Wisconsin, a lot from Kelly, a lot from your teammates. What…what would you say is the top learnings that you still apply to your…your work life today?
Victoria: So I’m just gonna be a broken record, I guess.
Victoria: Definitely that rubber band activity. Staying positive all the time is extremely important, just knowing that, you know, clients come to you with really difficult problems, things that they can’t solve on their own or just need a little support with. And it’s gonna be hard to figure it out sometimes, but you’ve got to stay positive and you’ll find your way through it. Having that trust in yourself and those around you is extremely important.
Looking back I do think another…another thing I took away from volleyball and has impacted my life in consulting is the idea of compounding wins, probably.
Victoria: It’s…you have a win. You have a really good meeting or something like that, and it’s that same idea. You have to get on the train, you have to move on and focus on your next one. But by doing that you will…you set yourself up for a lot of wins along the way. Even if they’re just small, or even if they’re big you’re setting yourself up for success along the way. So making sure you’re on the train and moving on to whatever it is next, learning the lessons, doing the preparation, everything on the train, on the way to your next game is extremely important.
Part of the reason I loved volleyball so much is because you could look at people also in the sport and say wow, I want to be like them.
So my gold star, if you will, in volleyball was always Kerri Walsh Jennings, ‘cause she was a mom, she was an Olympian, like she did it all. Now she’s starting her own volleyball clinics and like teaching everyone the game of volleyball. It’s amazing. And I worked at other places in consulting where that’s not necessarily the place where I can look around and see myself wanting to be whoever’s in that next role. But here especially at Eagle Hill you look around—I mean, like you’re a mom.
Victoria: I’m serious. Like that’s amazing to me. Like we have people in the office who have a life, but then they’re also doing these amazing things. And that’s something that I learned in volleyball I need. Like I need to be able to look at that next step and say wow, that’s something I really want to do, that’s amazing. And it’s something that I get to have here, which is really neat.
Melissa: Cool. So finally, a question we ask in all of our interviews, if you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
Victoria: I would fly. And I would fly everywhere. One, just commuting in D.C. is very tough, I’m sure as—
Melissa: That it is, that it is. [Laughs.]
Victoria: —most people know. I would skip every Metro line that ever existed. I would never have to wait for a car or anything again to move. It would just…it would be great to be able to fly over D.C. traffic, but it would also be awesome to see things from a different perspective and a higher viewpoint, if you will.
Melissa: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Victoria. I loved learning more about your story, and thank you for joining us.
Victoria: Thank you.
0:23:33 [End of recording.]