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5 Characteristics of a High-Performance Culture

January 10, 2019 • By Ken Gibson

Do you know someone who suffers from culture envy?  This is the business leader who looks at competing organizations that are consistently great and thinks to himself: “Well sure, if I had their people, my company would be killing it too!”  For some reason, it doesn’t dawn on him that his talent may be just as great. 

In many if not most cases, the difference between his organization and his more successful competitor is his inability to breed a culture where employees feel like they are playing an important role a business success story.  Instead of his people feeling like growth partners who share a collective vision about how they can win and what they can achieve, they feel like they’ve been brought in just to do a “job.”  They sense they are just pieces within the enterprise’s overall “labor force,” instead of highly-valued members of a unique, winning team.

In 21st century business, it doesn’t have to be like this.  There is more than adequate information available that illuminates how successful cultures are nurtured and the principles upon which they are based.  No two cultures are alike, but they do have common denominators that under-gird their philosophy about talent development and performance.  We call these high-performance cultures and they are the holy grail of business.

So, let’s let go of our envy and instead pull the curtain back on what makes some organizations so successful when others are struggling. 

5 Distinctions

In my work with companies in a wide range of industries, there are the five characteristics I have observed about the cultures of those that rise to the top.  I’m sure others could be added, but without these they wouldn’t be as successful as they are.

1. They have a purpose that their employees believe in.

Winning organizations know why they exist and why it matters.  They they are able to communicate their core mission and purpose in a way that draws the right people to them.   There is unity between employees’ personal and business purposes, so they feel like they are advancing the things most important to them by working for these companies.

2. They embrace a forward-facing performance management system.

Highly successful businesses have “turned the corner” on how they deal with employee appraisals.  They embraced the performance management revolution by letting go of archaic systems that evaluate historic performance through point systems and awkward assessments.  Instead, they employ a coaching and mentoring approach that matches the speed of change they need to manage.  They have effective mechanisms for keeping their people focused on their roles in building the future company without ignoring the immediate results that have to be achieved over the next three to twelve months.  They employ an agile but enduring rewards system that reinforces the priorities and results that matter most and creates a unified financial vision for growing the business. 

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3. They nurture a sense of stewardship.

High-performance cultures are marked by employees who own results.  Companies achieve this by making sure that their recruiting strategy, employee development systems and value proposition are all focused on role expectations.  Their people feel like they have been recruited to produce certain outcomes and they are set up to succeed in driving those results.  Organizations achieve this by consistently reinforcing the relationship between the company’s vision, it’s business model and strategy, the role an employee plays in both and what’s expected of him in that role, and how he will be rewarded for successfully fulfilling that role.

4. They reward value creation.

This is the natural extension of #3.  Companies with winning cultures don’t pay their people the same way less successful companies do.  You won’t hear them talk about “incentives” or “bonus” plans.  Instead, they help their employees understand how value creation is defined in their business and their belief system about how and with whom value should be shared.  Generally, highly successful businesses adopt a wealth multiplier philosophy that doesn’t limit earnings potential.  This philosophy is rooted in the premise that everyone should participate in the wealth multiple they help create.  The higher the multiple the higher the income potential of those driving it.

5. They communicate that success is an expectation.

This starts by defining success.  And that is more easily accomplished if an organization has a well-defined performance framework that ties together the business, compensation and talent success factors that must be mutually supportive.  In other words, they don’t think about their business vision, model and strategy without identifying what roles are needed to fulfill them.  And they don’t talk about those roles without identifying how success is defined for each, and where their talent gaps are in filling those roles.  This informs both their recruiting strategies as well how they construct the financial component of their value proposition—ensuring that their pay offers are both irresistible to top talent and compatible with their business performance standards.

So…if, in fact, you are one who has fallen prey to culture envy, my suggestion is you focus instead on building these five characteristics within your organization.  You’ll feel more in control of your company’s future and soon other business leaders will start envying the high-performance culture you have developed. 

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Ken Gibson

Ken is Senior Vice-President of The VisionLink Advisory Group. He is a frequent speaker and author on rewards strategies and has advised companies for over 30 years regarding executive compensation and benefit issues.