5 traits of a high-performance culture — and 8 steps to start building one today

Regardless of industry, companies with sustainable high-performance cultures have several key attributes in common.

They have communicative, transparent leaders who embody the values they promote. They embed the expectation that all employees — no matter role or rank — are accountable for their performance and actions. And they place a strong emphasis on continual development.

Some organizations are built upon these pillars, while others strive to adopt them. In the latter scenario, transforming a company's culture is no small task. It takes a concerted effort by the senior leadership team, buy-in from all of the mid-level managers and enthusiasm among staff. In the long run, cultivating a high-performance culture will have a positive effect on employee morale and will directly influence the organization's ability to execute on its strategic objectives.

"Most leaders know this — culture eats strategy for breakfast," says Mike Harbour, founder and president of Harbour Resources, a leadership consulting, training and talent management firm based in Little Rock, Ark. "We can have great goals and set strategies, but if we don't have a great culture, none of those other things matter. We can set the bar high, but if the culture doesn't demand high performance, we'll never meet those challenges."

What does a high-performance culture look like?

Michael Watkins, PhD, professor of leadership and organizational change at the International Institute for Management and Development and author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, in 2013 published an article in Harvard Business Review with responses from a LinkedIn thread in which he asked users to define "organizational culture."

The responses were nuanced in perspective and interpretation, ranging from "how organizations 'do things,'" to "the sum of values and rituals which serve as glue to integrate the members of the organization."

Dr. Watkins defines culture as an organization's "immune system," which prevents "wrong thinking" and "wrong people" from infiltrating the workplace in the first place, but can also lead to resistance to needed change.

In the broadest sense, organizational culture functions as the unspoken rules and principles that dictate the way employees act, think, solve problems and treat one another and their clients. It is the manifestation of the organization's true values, which may not be the same as those painted on the walls.

Mr. Harbour says all high-performance cultures are highly collaborative. For hospitals, where a team-based approach to care is most effective, collaboration is critical for tearing down the silos that make care fragmented and sometimes inefficient.

Transparency is another key trait. "Leaders at the top can't share everything with their employees, but they don't withhold information," says Mr. Harbour. "They're transparent regarding the organization's goals and where it is heading." Transparency is a key ingredient for fostering trust among staff, which influences levels of engagement and commitment to the organization.

Mr. Harbour says high-performance cultures are built upon powerful communication infrastructure. This does not mean the CEO just blasts messages to the rest of the company, however. Communication must flow to and from all directions. "Leaders can't just sit in the C-suite and create some grandiose vision for the organization without involving anyone else," says Mr. Harbour. "My responsibility as a leader is to empower the next level of leaders to empower the next level, and so forth."

When employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns with the leadership, they will become more engaged and also develop a stronger sense of ownership over their work. The more ownership individuals have, the more they care.

An ingrained sense of accountability is equally as important. "Leaders must be willing to hold everyone accountable," says Mr. Harbour. "We have to stop putting these vision and value statements on the wall and then not holding people accountable. No one can be exempt."

When leaders allow their friends or "superstars" on the team to misbehave, or they do so themselves, they send the message that certain individuals are above the rules. They might also convey the message that ignoring the rules, poor performance or acting unethically can be rationalized in some circumstances.

How do you create a high-performance culture? 8 steps

Reforming an organization's culture is a challenging, long-term endeavor. The transformation will not happen overnight and is only possible if the entire leadership team and staff recognize the need to change and are receptive to it.

Mr. Harbour outlined eight steps for creating a high-performance culture.

1. Define what it looks like. An organization cannot transform its culture without first defining what the desired culture looks like. "What does it look like now and what do you envision it to look like in the future?" Mr. Harbour suggested asking.

2. Clarify values and communicate them every day. An important part of defining the desired future culture is establishing the values that anchor it. "Our values drive our behavior day in and day out," says Mr. Harbour. "They determine how we treat our coworkers, employees and patients." He says leaders must not only define what the organization's values are, but they must also think of how they can model them every day. "It's not enough to say 'trust' is one of our values. You have to go further — my version of trust may look different than your version. You have to define trust and model it."

3. Reinforce positive behavior. Basic psychology has taught us that humans learn which behaviors are OK and which are not based on how others reward or punish them. Therefore, leaders must take the effort to recognize and reward individuals for exemplifying the organization's values, and punish those who oppose them.

4. Get the right people on the team. While he's not keen on firing people, Mr. Harbour says a boss should be prepared to coach his or her employees up or coach them out. "If you've defined these values and behaviors and people aren't following them, you have to hold them accountable," he says. "If you can't get them where they need to be in your organization, help them find their next step elsewhere."

5. Recruit for values. When you're adding new people to the team, assess candidates for compatibility with the high-performance culture the leaders have defined. "If you're seeking a nurse, don't just find someone who has good experience," says Mr. Harbour. "Find someone whose personal values align with those of the organization. If their values don't match up with the hospital's, they won't be a good fit in the long-term."

6. Refine leadership style. To transform an organization's culture, leaders must be extremely deliberate about how they lead, communicate, inspire and engage their employees, according to Mr. Harbour. Even seasoned leaders should be open to adjusting their leadership and communication style.

7. Make meetings matter again. "I've worked with organizations that routinely held meetings just to have them. Nothing was accomplished," says Mr. Harbour. Each meeting takes time out of people's busy days, so each one must be purposeful and follow an agenda. "The point isn't just to report the weather; it's to create the weather. That's the job of leaders."

8. Commit to it forever. Transforming culture must be a lifelong commitment. "Leadership and cultural development are not things that we put in the microwave and warm up one day," says Mr. Harbour. "It's more like a Crock-Pot. It takes a long time to let those values and flavors cook in." And they should be cooking every day.


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