High Performance Culture

4 steps to a high performance culture


What’s going on in companies that are creating and sustaining great cultures? We love Leo Tolstoy’s quote in Anna Karenina; “All happy families are alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. You can read into this that high performing organisations share some similar characteristics, even if they have not gone about creating them in the same way.

Peter Senge summed up a High Performing Culture in his book, The 5th Discipline.  “People continually expand their capacity to create results, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continuously learning how to learn together.”  Dave Ulrike and Wayne Brockbank recently described a higher tier of culture as “the identity of a company as perceived by its best customers, representing an outside-in view of culture. For example, Amazon wants to be known for disciplined execution of customer purchases and Google for innovation. These brands then become infused throughout the company in how employees think, behave, and feel.”

These explanations are helpful in describing how it feels to experience culture as an employee or a customer.

4 Points of Excellence

At The Change Maker Group we identified 4 important aspects that High Performing organisations excel at. (Or at least focus upon doing well.)

The first of these factors is PURPOSE.

What we want to achieve together for someone or something else – our customers, the environment, or whatever, which is understood by everyone and used as the basis for decision-making. When it is communicated clearly, embedded and recognized, “Purpose” will underpin the development of trust, between individuals, teams and business units.

You communicate purpose by first establishing what it means at an organisation level. Then break it down into ‘what this means for me’ and all my colleagues here. That means at every level in the organisation we have a ‘line of site’ from top to bottom and side to side.  Why we’re doing something together and how, through our behaviours, we’re going to go about it.

There are some quite well known purpose statements that do this well.  “To inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” [Starbucks] or “Caring for the world, one person at a time.” [Johnson and Johnson].

The importance of purpose is that you are doing this for somebody else; that makes it motivational and keeps you on track. It speaks particularly to peoples’ intrinsic values, which are especially important in the growing and influential millennial population.

But as statements on posters and mouse mats, it is without grip or influence on people. To make it stick in an organisation and to make it drive the right behaviours, you need to involve people in a discussion about what it all means for them. Which brings us to the flip side of the same coin: that is behaviours; how we deliver on our purpose. A purpose without the right behaviours is unsustainable.  The right behaviours without direction is random and ill-directed.  You need both and need to link them.

Behaviours are personally driven, or at least based on what teams believe together should be ‘the way we do things round here’. If you tried to record every desired behaviour, in any given situation, the ‘Manual’ would reach to 1000s of pages.  Believe it or not we were asked once to research and write something like this!

So to make your purpose mean something you need to:

  • talk about and agree on how you’re going to behave to deliver your purpose in teams and business units right through to leadership teams and
  • hold each other accountable for delivering it the right way for your organisation!

The second really important factor in a high performing culture is AGILITY.

This is a great and relevant quote: “Be a sailing ship tacking into the wind not a super tanker setting its path and not able to change until you hit an iceberg”.

A common quality of a High Performing Culture is that it can sustain its performance in the face of both internal and external challenges over time.  It does not just achieve over the short-term and in good times. And if there is one trend over the last couple of decades, it is that changes happen faster and are more complex than you thought they would be.

The rise of Artificial Intelligence, for example, could bring changes to the workplace that few people can even imagine today. They say computing speed doubles every two years or so.  Vast quantities of data can now be mined, analyzed and acted on in a fraction of the time they used to be. It’s not just the technology firms like Google and Facebook that have to keep up.

By agility, we don’t mean just how fast you can be. It’s how you set up your business to create and share ideas at pace that matters. It’s how quickly you decide on a course of action and deliver it as events unfold in a culture of Continuous Improvement.

Enterprise social media in business has followed in the footsteps of, and then built on, the success of consumer-led applications like Twitter and Facebook. Platforms like Yammer and Jive, Cloud-based systems and Big Data, always-on and able to be used to rapidly get answers, crowd source ideas and solutions etc., give real first-mover advantage to Agile businesses.

In an oil company where I worked, an Oil Well Engineer was continuously breaking the drill bit he was using. He posted his problem one evening and he got potential solutions overnight from people around the world, who had drilled in similar rock and environments. His problem was solved in hours. While the cost of a drill bit was $1000s, the time to retool and go again ran into $100,000s per day. If our engineer had to call everyone he knew to find a solution, we would have been talking days of down-time.

So there’s a combination here of a culture of agility, where people are expected to engage in problem solving.  It is either augmented by the systems element in continuous improvement, or the use of enterprise social media approaches to do the same, and be always-on.

Our third factor, which we don’t think will be a surprise, is LEADERSHIP.

Who you choose and how you support them is important to keep everyone aligned to your purpose and manage agility. Recent research shows that the quality of your boss is more important to your productivity than adding an extra worker to the team. The importance too of genetic diversity, as Gary Hamel calls it, “for companies to first encompass and then exploit the various trends and discontinuities that could be leveraged to create new wealth”.

Much of our work is helping organisations faced with the challenge of creating transformational leaders with less time and fewer resources. It is well understood that development programmes for leaders can make a huge difference to whether an organisation has the people capability to succeed. Recently, the Smith Institute published research on presenteeism.  Employees identified that better quality of training of their managers would significantly improve productivity. So, like a lot of things, it’s not the quantity of development but the quality that will contribute to organisational resilience.

Leadership development should be an opportunity to engage in an action-learning environment.  Studies show this will increase impact by 3:1. Real world issues with meaningful action and reflection help leaders integrate new with existing knowledge creating behaviours for agility.

It’s not enough to have the tools and the instruction manual to be high performing. It’s no longer the leaders who are good at predicting and controlling who will help organisations thrive. Rather the future is with those who are masterful at engaging their people and adapting. A good analogy is an orchestra. Musicians all have the instruments and sheet music, and on the face of it, are all equipped to perform. But it’s the conductor’s role to bring out high performance across the ‘team’. They need to interpret, shape and lead the performance.

The second leadership point about quality is something that develops over time. We’re passionate about the value of coaching.  Not only does it keep development points alive, but it allows us to go on the learning journey together.  It also helps leaders achieve or understand something better/faster with real time issues that matter to them and their department.

Transformational leaders learn to embrace and expect change with the support of development and coaching. Coaching is a way of helping people resource their whole self. Rory Hendrikz, Dir of Ashridge Exec Education in Middle East, says new employees will demand leaders “Bring their whole selves to the office not just their brains and hands”.

The forth factor is: EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT.

You might argue this is not a separate dynamic.  Given it includes variables like purpose, behaviours and leadership. In one sense it’s the glue that binds these together.  But, employee engagement is a broader concept.  It’s one of the few people measures that have some form of empirical evidence and benchmarking.

Engaged employees are motivated to deliver what is referred to as discretionary effort.  For the same notional outlay in cost and support, each engaged employee delivers greater output and performance. The 110% as we more colloquially put it. Clarity of purpose ensures that employees see their effort is targeted on things that add value. Reinforced by clear and well-understood behaviours, their output matches colleague and customer expectations. Add leaders focused on helping people to deliver their best performance, overcome challenges and redirecting as strategies and plans develop and you will go a long way to having a well engaged workforce and high productivity.

After all it is engaged employees and teams that may see change happen first and come up with solutions. 59% of engaged workers say that work brings out their creative ideas, whereas only 3% of disengaged agree.

In our practice we see employee engagement often scores the lowest in diagnostics of the 4 factors we have identified as critical to high performing organisations. The reasons are often complex and we would not want to offer a simplistic solution without understanding the organisation involved. However, it seems sensible to deduce that a strong purpose that guides positive behaviours by leaders enables an organisation to be more agile only if employees are engaged successfully. And employees are more likely to be engaged if all the other 3 elements are clearly visible and demonstrated.

By Change Makers, Simon Hardaker and Nicky Carew