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Peak practice: instilling the culture of the high-performance organisation

Peak practice: instilling the culture of the high-performance organisationtest
Written by:
Paul Heugh
Paul Heugh

What is a high-performance organisation?

NONE OF US have to think too hard to come up with some examples of a high-performance organisation. In the world of sport, you might think of FC Barcelona or the British Olympic Cycling Team; in the military the SAS would spring to mind; in business Apple or Google; in academia Imperial College or Harvard. But what are the characteristics that set these organisations apart? And what can aspiring businesses learn from them?

Factors driving high performance

A number of business books have looked at excellence – for example, Beyond Performance by Keller & Price, which sets out five frames of performance and business health. Through its work with major, global businesses, Skarbek has identified other common factors that are correlated with high performance regardless of the type of organisation.

Firstly, at the organisational level, leaders must provide their people with absolute clarity on why they are coming to work every day and why success matters.

You can only ensure that the organisation’s energy and effort is fully behind the strategy by ensuring that people know what the strategy is and – importantly – that they are aligned with it. High-performance organisations (HPOs) we know give clarity around “why we are here,” “why we are doing what we are doing,” “why we are following a particular strategy.” Having a cascade process that achieves this is vital to alignment, which in turn is critical for people to act on with initiative and operate with appropriate autonomy.

The toughest challenges. Overcoming obstacles together

Organisational culture, often set by leadership example, is also key. As the newly appointed commanding officer of a British army parachute battalion, Lt Col Chip Chapman took an immediate action that symbolically communicated his performance expectations for his unit. Chapman ordered the removal of all “runners up” sports trophies from the prominent display of trophies in the unit’s silver cabinet. His reasoning was: “In our job, being runner up means losing the battle or war and possible death – it is total failure.” Chapman had already led by example in the battle for Goose Green during the Falklands War in 1982, therefore his gesture was backed by personal credibility and insight. It shows how one small symbolic action can be much more effective than any lengthy written communiqué or “hair dryer” conversation.

Induction into an organisation is greatly underestimated as a factor in fostering high performance. This is where the new recruit’s compass is calibrated, tempo established and expectations understood. The approach of many corporates’ inductions is a two-to-five-day affair, including a welcome from the new boss, introduction to the team, briefing from facilities, HR and so on. Contrast this with the military – Joshua Leakey, a young Lance Corporal awarded the Victoria Cross for Valour in 2015, had an induction of several months, during which he was infused deeply with the ethos of his organisation. No reminder about values was required, no email circulars sent to remind about this or that, and he did not have to self-certify as part of a compliance programme with various expected behaviours, rules and regulations. Leakey did not even have to think about how he acted. He knew in his heart and mind, so, when asked if he was afraid of being shot and dying during the extraordinary and dangerous circumstances he found himself in during a battle in Afghanistan, he said “No, I was only afraid of letting this down,” pointing to his Parachute Regiment cap badge. He was a member of an HPO with an ethos exemplified by high levels of individual drive and personal accountability. Most induction programmes in business are both inadequate and unfit for purpose, and if CEOs were to fully address this, more of them might achieve the status of an HPO.

In addition to induction, what other factors raise individual performance in support of organisational excellence? From our experience, trust is the most important. Last year, when working with a global law firm’s senior partners, we had the opportunity to explore trust. In personal and group reflection following a challenging high-performance team exercise, partners reflected that there were low levels of trust between offices – “Not because we don’t like or don’t want to trust, but just because we don’t know each other well enough.” Their interactions were simply at the transactional level, with inter-office communications dominated by e-mail. In any HPO, people take time to know each other well and build trust through reciprocity. Without trust, we argue there is no sustainable HPO. It is the oxygen on which the organisation depends.

As for the individuals themselves, the concept of “followership” is important in describing optimal behaviours. In his research, Ira Challef described effective followership as courageous followership, citing five dimensions of courage – the courage to:

  1. Assume responsibility for oneself to take action
  2. Energetically support the leader and the team
  3. Constructively challenge counter-productive policies and behaviours
  4. Participate in the transformation of behaviours
  5. Take moral action when needed

Courageous followership forms one strand of an effective bond between the individual, their own values and the organisation.


Paul Heugh is CEO of Skarbek Associates Ltd

Your Strategy. Implemented.

First Published in the Business Reporter Ezine, February 2016