How to create a high performance culture in the workplace

26 Jun 2017

  • Leadership
  • Thought leadership
  • New thinking

By: Alicia Tan, Managing Editor, ADMA

Think about this equation: happy employees equal great work and this in the long-run results in ROI for an organisation. The rationale behind this is quite simple – for years, research have suggested that an organisation’s culture plays a huge role in successful customer experience and business outcomes.

We now operate in a space where organisations need to drive and implement significant and high performance culture in order to put them ahead of their competition. This is how we motivate employees to perform at their best and also stay relevant in the marketplace. But all this talk about the need of performance culture aside, how do we go about cultivating it?

We tap into AdRoll’s Chief Revenue Officer, Suresh Khanna’s brains to find out.

Why is performance culture something that organisations need to pay more attention to?
I think most organisations would say they want to be high-performing, but the question is whether there are leadership principles that can increase your odds of achieving success.

When most people hear performance culture, they think of a cut throat, up or out, very aggressive and negative sort of environment. To me, it’s quite the contrary. A performance culture is an environment in which every employee is pushed to be the best they can be, where the best ideas and the best talent are rewarded regardless of seniority, tenure, gender, colour of skin, sexual orientation or any other variable.  If you can make this happen, you increase your odds of success because you activate the best in your people.

So in your opinion, what would be the holy grail of performance culture?
I’m the son of immigrants from India. My father landed in San Francisco from India in 1965, a 35-year-old civil engineer with a turban and a beard. He’d left my mum and three sisters behind to get set up. It took him two years of dishwashing, a haircut and a shave before he got himself back into engineering, but eventually, he saved enough money to bring the rest of my family over.  I was born several years later, first of my family to be born in the United States, and damned if I was going to let all that struggle happen for nothing. I was wired to try to make something of myself.  
When I joined AdRoll in 2012, we were just 35 people in one office and it was my first chance to intentionally design a culture. I hunted for people with the same raw hunger that was at the core of me, that for me wanted to make my family’s journey worth it but for others might be any other reason. I figured the people that were most worth hiring would have that fire inside. I just needed to find them and unlock that energy by rewarding the best ideas and providing outsized opportunities for growth and advancement and compensation but especially for impact. To me, that is the holy grail of performance culture.

Looking at the current climate, what is the biggest hindrance to achieving high performance culture?
A performance culture isn’t just a single tactic. It’s a philosophy and a set of values that lead to a distinct way of hiring, organising and leading your teams.  If your top level leadership doesn’t buy into the benefits or isn’t committed to making the hard decisions required, then it won’t happen.  If your front line management teams don’t demand excellence from their teams, or if you hire individual contributors who aren’t committed to their own development and success, then it won’t happen.  You have to be all-in to get the benefits of this philosophy.

What are the steps that need to be taken to promote high performance culture?
80% of the battle in creating a performance culture is won or lost by hiring the right people. You’re looking for people who are wired for greatness, who have a primal hunger to be successful. You may think you know it when you see it, but you need to define it in a tangible way so that your entire hiring structure from recruiters to interviewers to hiring managers can hunt for it. I still approve every offer that goes out in my 300+ person organisation, and I scour those hiring packets for evidence that our teams found this trait in a potential new hire.
The second step is to build a nurturing and supportive environment. Your leadership team has to connect with their teams, to understand them and their motivations and then support them completely and put people in a position to thrive.  
When you have individuals who are wired for greatness and they are deeply supported, it creates the room for leaders to then demand excellence and hold people accountable to performance.  It’s this balance that is critical to maintain – celebrating people’s effort and impact while directly calling out gaps. Managers must establish that they care personally and this allows them to challenge their teams directly to be their best.  
The management coaching and expectation setting may the hardest step in achieving a performance culture. How do you get a distributed management team to excel at motivating, inspiring, prodding, pushing, demanding to get the best out of their people? The most useful tip comes from Nike’s old slogan “Just Do It”. At AdRoll, I call it #hardfeedbackfrequently. The key is that the feedback is delivered, that it’s direct and that it happens frequently as a normal course of business. Managers will get better at it over time, and most importantly those super motivated people you hired want to be great. They don’t want a paper-pushing manager who doesn’t make them better. There may be emotions, tears or even anger initially, but your teams will be better off for it and they will respect their leadership teams more for caring over time.

For those who remain unconvinced, what impact does performance culture have on business outcomes?
If you can fill your company with people who are wired for greatness and feel supported and empowered, they are going to come to work and drive themselves crazy in the pursuit of having a big impact. You don’t have to micromanage them, you just have to point them in the right direction with some guard rails.
And when you build a core of people like this, they can set the tone for the culture. And that effect spills across the organisation and has an amplification effect. There’s an energy and an excitement and a healthy competitiveness that fuels the office.

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