“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game.” –Lou Gerstner, former Chairman and CEO, IBM, and author, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? (2002)
How can leaders build a high-performance culture?
Culture is powerful. Culture has a huge influence on what people do on a day-to-day basis, especially when the boss isn’t around. Avoiding all the fancy definitions, we define culture simply as “how we do things around here.”
Do we slack off when the boss is gone? Do we “just ship it” to make the numbers, even if the quality is suspect? Do we mutter behind people’s backs when they are not in the room?
Or are we respectful, honest, engaged, and committed, working hard to serve our stakeholders? Do we seek a better way, achieving results ethically when others cut corners or take the easy way out?
Every organization has a culture, explicit or implicit. How can you build a high-performance culture in your organization or team?
- Be Explicit. Discuss your desired culture with your colleagues until you agree. Then write it down in a paragraph or two. “This is how we want to do things around here…”
- Make Culture a Priority. By focusing on your desired culture as a priority you keep it visible to people. Discuss the state of your culture at team meetings and in your one-on-one discussions. Measure it in some way, like a one to five scale from “terrible” to “outstanding.”
- Define Your Shared Purpose. Why does your team exist? Not what you do. Why are you a team? Again, this discussion is collaborative. The ideal result is a short statement that everybody remembers. Zappos.com has “delivering happiness” as their purpose.
- Define Your Shared Values. Shared values are the norms for how your team wishes people would behave. For example, Fun, Honesty, Respect, and Results (memorable by the acronym FHRR) might be your choice. See our guide to setting values (which can be used for individuals or teams).
- Hire and Promote for Cultural Fit. When you interview new talent, or are considering someone for a promotion, make his or her fit with your desired culture an explicit requirement.
- Model It. You must behave as the exemplar of the desired culture, and when you slip up, as you undoubtedly will, then admit it, apologize, and ask for help to do better.
- Unleash Cultural Stewards. Everybody should have not just a regular job (HR, IT, sales, etc.) but also another job: steward of the culture. That means they have an irrevocable license to speak up, protecting and defending the desired culture, even speaking truth to power (you, the boss).
- Reward. Celebrate, promote, and reward though bonuses and raises to people who are the cultural stewards.
- Be Resolute. Use your leadership authority to insist that everyone operate by the cultural norms you have collaboratively set. No exceptions, even for the top performers. They operate by the shared cultural norms or leave.
- Inculcate Culture in Your Leadership Team. From the top to the bottom of your leadership chain, culture needs to be high on their radar.
Culture is the legacy of leadership. A high-performance culture is the legacy of triple crown leadership.
By creating a high-performance culture, you will engage people, build meaning and commitment into their work, form them into a high-performing team, and bring more joy into your workplace.
- Explicitly make a healthy culture a priority.
- Collaboratively define your shared purpose and values.
- Hire and promote for cultural fit.
- Model the desired culture
- Unleash cultural stewards.
- Reward people for their contributions to the culture.
Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations.