What Sets High Performance Company Cultures Apart?

Today, markets dominated by an accelerated rate of change, emergent technologies, increased speed-to-market, and higher customer demands have created a hyper-competitive landscape in which disruptive potential is at an all-time high. These factors are compounded by the high rate of organizational turnover in the U.S. — during every fiscal quarter, hundreds of thousands of companies open in the U.S. and close at nearly the same pace.

In such high-stakes conditions, corporate leaders are faced with more pressure than ever to overcome obstacles and set their organizations apart as sustainable, competitive marketplace players. Most leaders tackle this challenge by optimizing their operational strategies, identifying ways to increase efficiency in their pipeline. However, a sole focus on strategy neglects to address a component of success of equal importance: company culture.

As explained by Brent Barton in The EDGE, “CEOs of top companies know that success hinges not on good strategy alone, but on how well employees execute that strategy.” Only by cultivating an organizational culture in which employees take accountability for delivering on an intelligent strategy can a company move the needle on topline results. “If you want to retain top talent, stay relevant, innovate, create shareholder wealth, and build a top-rate workplace, it’s time to start winning with culture,” said Barton.

As corroborated by writers at the Harvard Business Review (HBR), organizational leaders too often “let [culture] go unmanaged or relegate it to the HR function, where it becomes a secondary concern for the business.” Unfortunately, either one of these decisions fails to enable the effective implementation of strategy. “[Leaders] may lay out detailed, thoughtful plans for strategy and execution, but because they don’t understand culture’s power and dynamics, their plans go off the rails. As someone once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Though every organization necessitates its own custom culture to support its unique mission and drive its business goals, there are a few central cultural strategies that serve as the hallmarks of any high-performing organization. Follow these four steps to create a flourishing high performance culture:

1. Create Clarity Around Desired Results

Organizations of any kind rarely remain successful in the long-term without a clear sense of direction. Imagine a sailing crew — even if all crew members collaborate effectively and remain accountable to one another, they will be unable to complete the journey successfully without a clear understanding of where they are going and how to get there.

Unfortunately, we found in the 2018 Partners In Leadership Workplace Culture Survey that just 11% of employees report that they have a clear understanding of their company’s direction. Without clear, accessible objectives toward which to work, employees get lost in the minutiae of daily “to-do” lists instead of proactively working toward the shared goals that, when accomplished, position the organization for long-term success.

As such, a critical element of creating a high-performance company culture is establishing Key Results — the organization’s three to five meaningful, measurable, and memorable topline priorities that it must achieve in order to be considered successful.

Corporate leaders must identify, articulate, and communicate the organization’s Key Results from the top-down, ensuring that every member of the organization is able to easily point to the purpose of his or her daily work. Once leaders have outlined these critical targets, they have a clear framework that can be used to inform operational strategy and enable them to deploy resources and direct teams effectively.

2. Redefine Accountability

Much like the sailing crew in the above example, an organization is a unified group whose success relies upon every person’s individual commitment to doing their part in propelling the group toward its shared goals. In other words, every member of the team must take accountability for achieving results.

Though accountability is often conflated with responsibility, the two are very different. While responsibility connotes duty, accountability is a positive, principled choice. In fact, in accordance with the definition laid out by corporate leadership experts Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman in the New York Times bestseller The Oz Principle, accountability is the “personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results.”

When understood in this way, accountability is empowering. Accountable team members are proactive in spotting performance gaps impeding Key Results, taking psychological ownership for bridging these gaps, practicing creative problem-solving to develop solutions, and following through with the execution of effective solutions. By reframing accountability in actionable terms, leaders provide all employees with the confidence and commitment necessary to drive performance.

3. Align Teams Around Shared Beliefs

Even when all employees feel personally accountable for achieving Key Results, organizations often falter without a strong sense of cohesion. This cultural cohesion occurs when team members share a set of values and beliefs that unify their mindsets and motivate their actions. In order to establish this sense of cohesion, however, leaders must understand the critical psychological connections that shape values and beliefs.

The Results Pyramid® model articulates that while one’s personal experiences shape their beliefs and attitudes, these beliefs subsequently inform their actions. In turn, actions generate results, whether unanticipated consequences or desired outcomes.

Enforcing culture by mandating behavioral protocol is work that is both exhausting and impractical for leaders. At the same time, forcing beliefs and behaviors in the workplace limits individual employees in their agency and hampers accountability. Instead, leaders should plant the seeds of results-driving action by creating meaningful experiences of trust, open communication, and execution on promises. These experiences build mindsets rooted in teamwork and accountability that drive effective actions toward Key Results.

4. Exchange Focused Feedback

A crucial tenet of a high-performance company culture is establishing open feedback loops in the workplace. Unfortunately, annual performance reviews often serve as the only opportunities for employees to receive praise for their “wins” and clear advice on how they can improve their performance.

In order to promote a flourishing company culture, leaders must combat the traditional understanding of feedback as necessarily formal, punitive, retroactive, and one-directional. Instead, they must normalize positive feedback through frequent open dialogues that prioritize encouragement and recognition.

These exchanges can be implemented through structured protocol or casual but regular interactions during working hours. Regardless of the format, leaders should partake in egalitarian, two-directional exchanges in which each party celebrates the other’s accomplishments, pinpoints areas for the other’s improvement, recognizes their own opportunities for growth, and expresses gratitude for the other’s honesty.

By giving and receiving positive, focused feedback at regular intervals, leaders lay the groundwork for a workplace of increased employee engagement and higher rates of productivity. As research consistently demonstrates, these are critical elements in promoting improved organizational performance.  

Achieve a High-Performance Company Culture

When all members of an organization have a clear understanding of the Key Results toward which they should be working every day, feel empowered to take accountability for delivering on results, share a set of cultural beliefs, and engage in focused, encouraging feedback with colleagues and superiors, they collectively create a high-performance company culture.

With increased levels of accountability, engagement, and overall performance, organizations not only drive their bottom line, but gain a foot-up in competitive markets through maximized problem-solving capabilities, speed-to-market, and ability to handle change.

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