The Importance of Being a Champion for Employees

Why cities should take a lesson from the playbooks of successful sports teams
December 4, 2018 AT 11:00 AM
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.

The Red Sox won the World Series in 2018; the Patriots have won the Super Bowl five times since 2002; and the Celtics are the most successful team in the NBA with 17 championships. So what are the secret ingredients that make such magic happen? Good management and athletic talent play a role, but teamwork is also a major factor in success. Often, the keys to teamwork are a positive environment and engagement.

These same factors also contribute to the success of a city. For example, Denver has done a great job in building a culture of employee engagement. The city conducts a bi-annual survey to measure perceptions and attitudes about the city’s workplace. It also recently created survey action teams composed of various agency and department employees to plan and implement suggestions and themes of the survey. It’s no surprise that the theme for the survey was “Building Champions, Driving Engagement.” Here are some successful qualities from Denver that share some commonalities with championship sports teams.

Skills Development

Like any athlete, even the most experienced and skilled employee needs to invest time into training and preparation. Environments, rules and the competition are always evolving. Denver developed City University (CityU) as a way to “expand minds, awaken innovators and prepare all employees to serve Denver residents today and in the future.” In Denver, which was a top performer in the Employee-Engaged category of the 2018 Equipt survey, employees can engage in both classroom and online learning.


What is a great sports team without great fans? Cities that want to support their employees need to show appreciation and recognize achievements. Denver rolled out a new employee recognition program, events and workplace incentives as a result of the survey. It’s also important to show support when there are challenges. Sports teams need fans to stick with them through losing streaks and injuries just as much -- if not more -- than the good times. Employee assistance programs are usually affordable and provide anonymous assistance for a broad range of potential issues. Training can also be provided to recognize mental health, substance abuse and other challenges.


Many will attribute the successes and failures of a sports team or city to leadership, especially to the managers and mayors. However, leadership can be inclusive and be found in any employee – just as it can be found in any player. Making leadership part of a city’s culture can make a real difference. Denver’s partnership between the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation and B:CIVIC aims to “maximize community leadership” and impact Colorado’s “Civic DNA” through helping community members cultivate knowledge, skills, networking and experience.

Game on!