9 Paths to Higher Performance

Like high-achieving individuals, some organizations seem to have the Midas touch. Virtually every initiative they touch earns them gold and even those that fail never seem to cost them much of anything at all.

These high-performing organizations seem to have a gut feel for their markets so strong that at times they manage to look positively psychic. The staff members all seem to perform at a peak, day in and day out, never want to leave the company and always have the customers in front of mind. The organizations themselves, their strong, compelling vision etched firmly on the brain of every employee, seem to learn their markets faster and more thoroughly than any competitor ever could and turn effortlessly on a dime as market pressures dictate. And however ambitious the targets they set, they never seem to miss.

High-performing organizations are relentless about constantly measuring business performance, preferably using a selective scorecard

Unfortunately, building such a beast takes time, energy and patience - and it isn't nearly as easy as it looks.

"Most leaders really do struggle with having some type of recipe for building a high-performance team," says Link-up Consulting CEO Paul Burgess. "These people are normally in positions of senior leadership because they've demonstrated an ability to get great results strategically and execution-wise; it doesn't always mean they have got the ability to build high-performance teams."

Burgess says being in a leadership position is no guarantee that you have a proven, reliable methodology or a track record for building high-performance teams because these things do not necessarily go hand in hand. Plenty of those in such positions rely on gut feel or just try to do the right thing by people. Relying on such wishful thinking can prove a big mistake.

Page Break

1. All About Culture

A culture of high performance depends on commitment at the highest levels of the organization - not only to set it in motion but also to maintain the momentum that ensures that high performance is ongoing, point out Robert J Thomas, Fred Harburg and Ana Dutra in a paper for Accenture called How to Create a Culture of High Performance. The authors say successful leaders are those able to get everyone to share the same specific mind-sets.

"Left on its own . . . the performance anatomy of even the best organization will remain at rest, a prisoner of inertia. Only when the necessary force, in the form of leadership, is exerted does performance anatomy become an effective driver of high performance. At that point, continued effort by senior leaders creates the cultural momentum that is critical to ongoing business success. Leaders may also need to recalibrate and redirect a performance anatomy periodically to respond to new strategic needs or changed competitive conditions."

Organizations like Toyota can sustain a very high rate of process improvement and innovation because of what Gartner research director Steve Bittinger calls "innovation at the coalface". When the organizational culture and management practices encourage every single staff member to contribute to process improvement an organization can sustain incredible rates of innovation, he says. It takes a long time to get there - most organizations have barely started - and anyone who thinks the organization can shift rapidly to such a culture is fooling themselves. But abandoning command and control, hierarchically oriented management styles can lead to big pay-offs, he says.

The CIO who is essentially a business leader of his own IT business, and who can improve the process maturity of the IT organization under his command via frameworks such as ITIL (the Information Technology Infrastructure Library), Capability Maturity Model (CMM) software and project portfolio management practices, earns substantial influence, Bittinger says, and shows the rest of the organization what is possible.

For example, after financial services company Axa IT introduced improvements to processes related to program and portfolio management governance, the CEO was so impressed he vowed to expand the initiative into a whole-of-enterprise approach to governance. "If that type of thing helps by demonstrating excellence and results in the IT area, then it helps to set the scene for broader scope across the organization as a whole," Bittinger says.

"So in many cases you have to almost self-optimize individual and silo-oriented performance and get everybody to work on an enterprise-wide performance level, and that's where concepts like the Lean method [short for Lean Manufacturing] come in.

"And there's another buzzword that runs around called 'one version of the truth' - everyone has to have transparency or visibility into what is actually happening, so that minute by minute the decisions are real-time decisions, and that helps everybody know whether they should be focusing on performance issues that are silo-based, team-wide or enterprise-wide."

Page Break

2. All About Culture

High performance starts at the top. Burgess says that although it sounds so simple, people often look past it: the emotional intelligence of the leader is critical. Leaders who are not extremely self-aware tend to constrain and stifle the people below them.

"The self-aware leader knows their strengths and uses them, knows what they're not good at and isn't insecure about other people excelling in those areas," Burgess says. "They don't feel they've got competition so they're happy to develop people who might end up being better than them. They are also aware of how they come across to other people and the impact they have on those people."

The notion of the fish rotting from the head holds resonance because it is true: when a team is performing badly the first place to look is at the leader, Burgess says. "If you have got a leader who is not very self-aware and is insecure, then no amount of work that you do with the team is really going to get legs, because you've got a problem right at the top. So I think it's crucial that the leaders themselves are in a good place in terms of their own self-awareness. I cannot emphasize that enough."

There is also a big difference between leadership and management, as Business Performance International (BPI) managing director Rob Hartnett points out. Hartnett says there are plenty of managers around but very few leaders.

"Leaders create a vision and then create visuals of that vision, of where they're going and the objectives they need to get there, so they give a much bigger picture. A good example is somebody like Richard Branson saying: 'We're going to do Virgin Galactic; we are going to go into space, space travel.' And you think, wow, that's really big. But what he doesn't fail to do then is to say: 'Okay, this is how we are going to do it.' And it's the follow-through that is so important."

Good leaders know how to connect the program with the people, says 333 Performance Management managing director Martyn Strickland. In one manufacturing business Strickland consulted to recently there were posters around the factory that were two and even three years old, much of the data for the business was out of date and the canteen still sported Friday Drinks Night posters from the year before. These were all symptoms, Strickland says, of a business feeling disconnected and disenfranchised.

"Get down to the root cause and in this case it was leadership. Leadership had started to make decisions where things like communication, regular meetings and posters that kept people informed were not important, and they made the decision that a few dollars spent on T-shirts actually didn't have a positive trade-off in business feel," Strickland says. "One of the most common root causes of failure is leadership. And in this particular case, it was leadership that led to all these other cascading effects including the feeling of disenchantment at the shop floor level."

The cure? Helping the leaders to develop an action-oriented approach to examining performance failures and fixing them.

Thoughtful and consistent leadership practices can go a long way to minimizing failure, says CIO-at-large and IT management consultant Hemant Kogekar. That means being consistent about trust and respect, reward and recognition, and the collaborative team processes, he says.

Page Break

3. Have Clarity and a Compelling Vision

The best leaders know how to develop a vision so emotionally compelling that it is almost impossible not to buy into it. That is not easy, Burgess says, but it can be achieved if those involved can discuss the issue frankly while resisting the temptation to be overly altruistic or sophisticated.

It is also vital that that vision is developed in a forum where no participants are running an agenda. "If I come into a meeting as a leader trying to push a certain barrow, then my agenda is going to block me from being as receptive as I need to be to everyone else's input," he says.

Burgess says his own organization recently had a meeting to try to develop such a vision where little progress was made until the team ended up coming up with a question that helped focus everyone's minds. Asking: What are we gunning for over the next six to 12 months?, rather than: What is our organizational vision? ultimately helped the team to develop a vision so powerful that people told him it gave them goose bumps.

However, few organizations will find themselves capable of developing a goose bumps-raising vision without having absolute clarity of purpose, something VisionFlow general manager Rod Fraser says the vast majority of companies currently lack. "I find that over and over again, at every business that I work with, they are just not clear about what they want and don't have the right measurement in place to know what's working.

"It means sitting down and working out what the business is and what they are about. There are many different ways to do that, but really the best way to do it is to have someone come in from the outside to facilitate, so they're not tied into all the emotional baggage or whatever is going on in the business, and really put someone through their paces. And if it's a team, then put the team through their paces to see whether they really know and what it is that they are about: What their services are, what their product is, how well they know their market and their clients, and most importantly, what the promise is.

"I've seen that really work well in a small furniture business here in Sydney where each week I would go in and sit down with the two owners, and just keep them really, really focused on what they are about. That allowed us to take a business that was only doing $90,000 in revenue, which is really tiny, to a $1.2 million dollars turnover business, literally within 18 months, because of clarity focus."

"You've got to have the involvement of people, that's the most critical thing by far."

Page Break

4. Build the Right Team

Managers in lower-performing organizations complain that they don't have time for the "people stuff", the Accenture analysts point out. But no knowledge-age business has a hope of achieving high performance unless its top executives lead the charge to acquire, develop, assess and retain talent. And the analysts mean lead the charge. It is no good just pushing HR harder, they say. Leaders must get personally involved in the quest for talent and the improving of employee development.

"One way they can do that is by becoming obsessive talent scouts. By continually scanning for the best people both inside and outside the organization, executives clearly communicate by word and deed that they care deeply about finding, developing and retaining talent. They often make subordinates uncomfortable unless they, too, demonstrate a keen awareness of their people's talent and look for ways to multiply its value," the authors say.

High performance demands the right team with the right focus and the right capabilities. A team that has the right outcomes focus yet lacks the skills to do the job will not get far, Kogekar says. "If the team has a common purpose and there is clarity on what the purpose is, then there is a greater focus on outcome, not just on process or actions that they take."

Research published by Gallup and others has shown that engaged employees are productive employees. Kogekar says during his time at Suncorp the organization boosted employee productivity using the Gallup process for achieving a more engaged workforce. Gallup's programs offer integrated solutions including research-based measurement, coursework and strategic advisory services that improve work group - and organizational - performance.

Research also proves that engaged employees are more profitable, more customer-focused, safer and more likely to withstand temptations to leave (see, "Only 1 in 5 Global Workers Is Engaged", at end of story). "We started the process in 2003 and I was last there in 2006. We were sub-50 percentile in 2003 as an IT group and it went up to around 70 percentile." Kogekar says the organization enhanced performance by making major investments in the people management capabilities of IT team leaders through a number of tools including training courses, workshops and seminars.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
7 secrets of successful remote IT teams