Performance Series 1: High Performance Culture and its Essential Components

John Harris
March 30, 2017


Culture. Whether you understand it or not, your organization has one. The question is, will you let it evolve on its own, or will you leverage it to perform at your best? A consistent trait of high performing organizations is that they actively evolve their cultures with forethought and planned intentions.In other words, they manage it with the same rigor that they do sales, operations, and accounting.

Growing your culture and business performance

To understand the relationship between business performance and culture, you have to work backwards. Ask yourself: If business performance is ultimately measured in financial terms, what contributes to profit and growth? Surprisingly, there are only three things that make a significant contribution:

  • Efficient spending. Don’t spend where you don’t need to and choose to spend in ways that grow the business. Unnecessary spending on things like turnover, excessive healthcare costs, or accidents are to be avoided. For many leaders, controlling cost is easier than spending for growth, even though both are important.
  • Optimize efficiency. Imagine spending less time on lost talent, replacing absent employees, or correcting errors made. Workers who are fully engaged, excited, and passionate about doing their work are more productive.
  • Gain and retain customers. Delighted customers stay with you and tell others. Your reputation then becomes an asset to your sales.

Organizations that intentionally create a culture where these three things are most likely to happen optimize their chances of being high performing. It sets the tone, expectations, and environment for high performance, and attracts people that thrive in such a culture.In these cases, culture is a productive and high performing state created and used by design.

What do high performers look like?

In our research on high performing organizations, there are 10 common factors that result in the three performance drivers above. Individually, these 10 factors are valuable, but together they offer support for a strong culture. I’ll be going into greater detail on how these factors work together in my next blog, but let me briefly explain them:

  1. Strategic direction – This is the conscious plan that every company needs. It should be based on purpose, mission, vision, and values, but include what the organization is intending to achieve in a specified period of time.
  2. Applied metrics – Companies need accountability for both executing the strategic direction, as well as the tasks required for day-to-day operations. Many organizations fail to use scorecards, dashboards, and other tools to keep workers accountable.
  3. Colleague empowerment – Accountability, empowerment, and relational trust all go hand-in-hand. When work is done through empowerment, workers take ownership, are passionate about what they produce, and have pride in not only their work, but the work of the entire entity.
  4. Relational trust – When trust is a natural part of the work environment, most workers live up to cultural expectations. They are empowered to work independently, and therefore embrace their accountability.
  5. Colleague well-being – For high performing organizations, this is an organizational imperative, led by senior management. These organizations define well-being broadly to include personal purpose, financial, career, social, community, and physical well-being, and believe that the compensation and benefits plan is one of the drivers.
  6. Colleague selection – In the traditional way of hiring, organizations look for the candidate that has the right education, experience, and professional credentials to do the job. High performing companies consider cultural fit first. They look for diversity, but also want employees who thrive in their work culture.
  7. Work environment–The physical work environment provides a pleasant place in which workers can, and want to, do their best work. The social work environment is more difficult to control and includes each worker’s social experience. The leadership of high performing organizations knows that setting and maintaining a tone of respect, support, and encouragement rests on their shoulders.
  8. Intentional culture – The leaders of high performing companies are intentional about how their culture evolves, rather than leaving it to chance. They nurture it with a passion, live it daily, and make certain it is delivering on its promise.
  9. Growth and development – All humans have a need to grow and develop. High performing organizations help workers grow in their jobs, as well as grow as people. This means helping workers grow through skill development, while also helping them be better parents, money managers, and community citizens.
  10. Strategic communications –When organizations drive effective two-way communication down to the grass roots, everyone feels informed and important to the overall success of the organization. As such, when strategic communication is linked with empowerment and trust, problems get solved at the lowest possible level and don’t escalate.

In closing, and to illustrate how these 10 factors work together in high performing organizations, let me use a true story. During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, "Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?" The janitor replied, "Well, Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon." The point is that in a high performance culture, leaders create an environment where the work of every person is valuable and important to the success of the entire operation. Workers reciprocate by performing with accountability to that significant responsibility.

The question to ask yourself as you read this series is, “Am I truly ready, willing, and able to build a culture that leads to high performance?” If so, hold on tight, and prepare for a rewarding ride. If not, ask yourself why.

John Harris is a Partner at Performance pH. This blog post is the first in a four-part series discussing empowered and high-performing companies. Check out the other blogs in this series: