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Book Summary: Above The Line by Urban Meyer

“Every organization has a culture, either by design or by default”

Let that quote sink in a minute. You either intentionally build a culture, or it gets built for you. Pretty tough to imagine that “doing nothing” ironically does something…for the worse.

I read this book when I was leading a team of inside sales professionals. We read the book as a team and discussed each section weekly. It was a great experience to read this alongside a team who was working in a culture that I was helping to build.

That said, it was a great learning experience for me and helped shaped my thinking about building teams, managing teams, instilling leaders, and performance. This book is not at all about sports; it’s about life. Sure, there are sports analogies inside it. But this book talks about a few things we can do to not only be better leaders but better people.

Today, I use this when I work with clients and how I engage their leaders. Being a chief revenue officer doesn’t mean I just manage revenue teams. Moreover, I’ve viewed as a part of the leadership team; an extension of the CEO and someone entrusted to help the leaders create growth and accelerate growth.

Here are a few key takeaways from the book that helped me on my improvement journey toward being a better revenue leader.

Clarity of Purpose

This requires a very specific and meaningful creation of words. This isn’t just words on paper. It’s a way of life and needs to be exemplified throughout every avenue of a team’s operation. This can be used at any point in time in a team’s growth. Can it change? Sure. But it probably shouldn’t. If so, it’s probably not as clear as it should have been.

Ohio State’s Clarity of Purpose: Nine units strong. The nine units refer to the nine different units within a team (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, defensive back, and special teams). Urban’s philosophy was to balance the scale and ensure each unit was developed properly and in cohesion. This clarity of purpose was evaluated and rated weekly in advance of the game on Saturday. Coaching plans were built from them.

(E)vent + (R)esponse = (O)utcome

Urban talks about the R factor (response). We have complete control over our response, we have no control over the event. Our response will influence the outcome.

This is a great formula that helps shape everything I do! As corny as it sounds, it’s how I live my life. I’m in no way perfect in executing this, but I constantly strive to respond better to events outside of my control.

Under pressure, we rise or fall to the level of our training. Our default response is a direct result of our training. If we get scolded at a board meeting, do we in turn scold our leaders? Shit rolls downhill, right? That’s not a great R factor, yet it happens all the time.

Here are the 6 R Factor Disciplines that Urban taught his players.

  1. Press Pause –Take a second to pause and take a deep breath. Gets you off autopilot, and focus on acting with purpose and intentionally.
  2. Get Your Mind Right – Purpose mindset (above the line) vs survival mindset (below the line).
  3. Step Up – Understand the situation and understand your role in the situation. Respond above the line.
  4. Adjust and Adapt – Once your mind is right, you can think about where you are now and where you want to go next.
  5. Make a Difference – Complete ownership of the experience you give others and your contribution to the team.
  6. Build Skill – Talent is the foundation; elite performers build skill on top of their talents.

Building a Culture

The culture is either built by design or built by default. When by default, it’s the result of letting bad behaviors continue (below the line). There’s a reinforcement loop between culture and behavior. Behavior reinforces the culture, whether it’s wanted or not. The key is managing behaviors and aligning with the culture you want to create (by design).

No BCD (blame, complain, defend). If you permit this, you promote it.

  • Blame – Finger pointing, blame others for reasons why/why not
  • Complain – Outcomes, circumstances, etc
  • Defend – Defend actions, reasons, excuses, etc

Building a culture is a three-part process

1. Believe it

2. Sell it

3. Demand it

Building culture requires trust. Trust in peers, trust in leadership, trust in your team. Trust must be earned. Building trust requires the 3 C’s (Character, Competence, Connection). People don’t experience intentions, they experience your behavior.


When a team is aligned, everyone understands the culture, purpose, and strategy and is committed. An aligned organization moves faster with better results. An aligned organization can also adapt and react to changing environments quicker and more organized.

Gaining alignment

  • Recruit and hire the right players and coaches
  • Communicate purpose and culture with exceptional clarity and relentless consistency.
  • Clarity amongst leaders – Your responsibility is to build and maintain alignment, equip your team with essential skills
  • Accountability – If someone is out of alignment, deal with it quickly
  • The 10/80/10 Principle
  • Top 10 percenters – Nucleus of the team, relentless effort all the time, sense of self-discipline, pursuit of improvement, the elite.
  • Middle 80 percenters – The majority of the group, reliable, good work, trustworthy and dutiful, but lacking the drive and effort exhibited by the elite.
  • Bottom 10 percenters – Defiant and uninterested, coasting by, unmotivated, coach killers.

Notice the characteristics in each group have nothing to do with the output (results). It’s about achieving results, it’s about the journey toward achieving results.

Leadership challenge – Spend your time with the middle 80. Engage the top 10 to help with the middle 80.

Four approaches to moving middle 80 to the top 10

1. Mastery and belief

  • Skill development is necessary, but painting a picture of “what could be” needs to be a reality (no pipe dreams)
  • Players need to believe it’s worth it to be elite

2. Harness the power

  • Pair the top 10 with the middle 80 to avoid people keeping company with people like them (ie top 10 with gravitating toward the top 10)

3. Building Ownership

  • Maximum effort is given when feeling a sense of ownership
  • Give the middle 80 more opportunities for ownership (food menu choices, ring design, jersey styles, etc)

4. Positive Peer Pressure

  • Complacency kills improvement, push each other to get better
  • If you are complacent, there should be a fear that someone will move past you

Now that we have gone through the summary, I want you to think back to the quote at the beginning “Every organization has a culture, either by design or by default.” Remember this as you build your teams and work alongside leadership. You can be a part of building your culture or let it build itself!

Ed Porter | Fractional CRO