Wavelength’s Adrian Simpson defines the 10 characteristics of high-performance culture
How often have you heard business leaders say, “we are proud of our high-performance culture”? “High-performance” is something many large organisations claim, and all aim for, but few have defined what it really means. Fewer still successfully redefine how characteristics of “high-performance” culture evolve when the political, economic and social context of markets shift. Some of the hallmarks of high-performing organisations ten or twenty years ago are now outmoded beliefs that can hold people, and therefore performance, back.
Over two decades, Wavelength has been privileged to spend time behind the scenes of some of the world’s legendary businesses, including Airbnb, Alibaba, Apple, JD.com, Tesla, Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Pret a Manger and LEGO. In warehouses and factories, shops and studios, head offices and call centres, thanks to the candour of people making things happen in often turbulent trading conditions, the way these iconic brands do business has revealed what Wavelength believe to be the ten fundamental principles of high performance.
Purpose has had some bad PR in the last few years. Many organisations found themselves playing catch up as global social justice movements heightened consumer awareness of corporate responsibilities. Some have found themselves confecting “purpose” initiatives designed to backfill a perceived void behind commercial imperative with humanity and conscience. Poorly implemented, such inauthentic initiatives are a distraction at best, actively damaging at worst.
But all high performing organisations do have a purpose, whether articulated or not, that relates directly to what the company does and the motivation of its employees. The Aravind Eye Care System in India is perhaps the best example: to eliminate needless blindness. It’s a purpose that is exhibited throughout its hospitals – literally, on signs, but also in the behaviours of staff at all levels. Note that it is unflinchingly specific – elimination, not reduction; needless blindness, not all blindness. Aravind’s purpose is not to improve people’s vision, it exists to stop them going blind.
But public services, charities and NGOs, find it easier than commercial organisations to articulate why they exist in a way that both drives the business and connects with staff and customers emotionally. A purpose is not just about reputation enhancement; it’s a foundational strategic principle on which to design the entire organisation from the inside-out.
Other examples from our clients, hosts and partners:
Southwest Airlines: To connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.
Netflix: To entertain the world.
Apple: to create technology that empowers people and enriches their lives.
Recruiting for “culture fit” has fallen out of fashion, because the meaning of the term has too often been misinterpreted. The practice of recruiting “people like me” leads to the worst kinds of cultural homogeneity and groupthink which can kibosh even the most carefully crafted diversity-boosting hiring processes. But culture, at its heart, is just how people behave.
Thirty minutes on TikTok can give anyone smart sounding answers to common interview questions, which is why interviewers need to reach deep into the organisations’ core values to find ways to elicit the truth about candidates’ attitudinal fit – for good and bad. Airbnb, a hospitality company, would ask, “When was the last time you showed compassion for another person?” to find people who would instinctively align with its core value of empathetic customer service.
Filtering out candidates who are nice to the interviewer but rude to the receptionist is one thing. Using the interview process to spot candidates who have the aptitude to excel but lack the experience and skills is another. Having the courage to select, and actively seek out, such candidates takes concerted, sustained effort. But what can seem like a risk is in fact the opposite. But consider the risk of parachuting in a highly skilled individual from another organisation, especially at a senior level, who expects the organisation to bend to their way of working, not the other way around? It happens.
The whole recruitment operation – from the priorities of hiring managers, the language in job descriptions, the KPIs of the human resources teams and the incentivisation of executive search companies – needs to buy into, then coalesce around, systems that put personal disposition, attitude and character over skills and experience in finding and choosing new people. As Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines once said, “you can’t train nice”.
Even with a sincerely held, motivating purpose, and a team of committed people working towards a common goal, work is still work. Few of us are ever lucky enough to come to work simply for the love of it. Reward systems are more than just financial, of course, but working back from remuneration is a good way to keep people focussed on what really matters.
No organisation is perfect, and a key role for leaders is to choose what not to do. Especially in complex, global companies where different divisions and disciplines have competing priorities, mission-creep is inevitable unless leadership makes clear matters and what doesn’t. Leaders can often fall into a trap where the headline strategic priorities, for example service excellence or product innovation, don’t match up with what teams are incentivised to deliver, for example sales growth or budget efficiency.
First, measure what matters. If the goal is revenue growth, or brand saliency, or NPS, name the metrics that count and report back routinely. Second, incentivise progress on what’s measured, through group and individual bonuses, perks and treats, both financial and otherwise. Reward milestone achievements, collectively and individually, so people built trust in the process and pride in their contribution.
Getting everyone united behind a common goal doesn’t happen once a year at the annual strategy meeting, or even monthly in a Town Hall. Company priorities need to be baked into the day to day workings of every division, every discipline, every team and ultimately every staff member. Misalignment between what leaders say matters and what people are rewarded for delivering breeds mistrust.
And remember that measurement doesn’t always have to be on hard metrics. The hugely successful UK retail chain Timpsons, whose tagline is “Great Service by Great People”, has built its success through knowing its people as individuals, many of whom are ex-prisoners. It’s the kind of thing that lots of companies say but few support with meaningful action. At meetings with Timpsons managers, senior teams are challenged to answer detailed questions about the shop floor staff who run their branches – What’s their partner’s name? Do they have a football team? What would make a great birthday gift for them? It’s a way of holding the whole company accountable for making sure that conversations and relationships between colleagues are the lifeblood of Timpson’s culture.
Ed Schein, professor at MIT, said, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” Or in other words, “you either care about your people or you don’t” which was how Declan Ronayne, former CEO of Irish retail chain Woodie’s put it. Of course culture is everyone’s business, but leaders can sometimes need reminding that the whole organisation is watching their every move, all the time. Hiding in a top floor office sends a message as clear as anything that might be said from the platform at a strategy presentation.
Leaders’ behaviour will be mirrored by the executive team, middle management, and right across the business. “Servant leaders” prioritise the good of the wider organisation over their own objectives. They empower people to make their own decisions through an embedded system of mutual trust. They build and nurture frameworks of collective accountability, not command and control from the centre. Most importantly, perhaps, they listen.
Particularly post-Covid, there is a further expectation that senior leaders avoid the infallibility trap. It’s easier to say than to do but being genuinely willing to be challenged, even to being proved wrong, is critical to fostering trust. Likewise, role modelling candid conversations about individual challenges, whether its slip ups and professional mistakes or deeper, more personal experiences of grief and mental ill-health for example, are hallmarks of strong, authentic, modern leadership.
There’s no point offering a free gift with an online order if the order is damaged on arrival, or arrives late. All organisations in which customer service is truly precious are obsessive about the basics. Understanding the basics that really count is itself a strategic decision, because depending on the brand, sector, product and mode of delivery, what constitutes fantastic customer service varies enormously. It may be that speed of delivery matters more than personalised service; or that reliable, detailed product advice at the point of purchase counts for more than breadth of choice. The early execution of the Apple Genius Bar rendered the aesthetic distinction of Apple’s hardware in a high-touch, “exclusive” customer care proposition.
The Four Seasons, one of the world’s greatest luxury brands that has set the global standard for high-end hospitality, has a three step rule of service excellence.
28% of CEOs of business-to-business companies said they adopted a “hands-off policy with sales” in a 2021 Harvard Business Review study. And for good reason, especially when the sales process is long, and the deal value high, the last thing an account handler might want is a poorly briefed CEO swinging in at the last moment!
But the rules are different with B2C where more often than not, the more senior the position, the less direct exposure there is to customers. Retail CEOs don’t tend to staff till points. Airline CEOs don’t do cabin service.
Companies that truly care about customer experience have CEOs who spend an extraordinary amount of time meeting with and talking to real customers. There’s nothing like hearing feedback from the horse’s mouth, and customers can be a rich seam for product ideas, too. At Umpqua Bank, “The World’s Greatest Bank”, any customer at any time in any one of their 350+ stores can pick up the receiver on any one of their iconic silver telephones, press button number eight and speak directly to the CEO.
Amazon takes a different approach, where customer service excellence is exemplified in a seamless, end-to-end transaction with no human interaction at all (until you answer the door to the delivery person!). The best pure play retailers have identified convenience as their “brilliant basic” and eliminated friction from the whole buying process. eBay’s print-at-home postage labels are a fantastic example of a friction-free service that benefits both the seller and the buyer.
But companies that rely on a mix of on and offline interaction often end up with what Wavelength call “sales prevention departments” scuppering transactions, wasting time and driving customers and potential customers to distraction. Human beings are notoriously unpredictable: what the product journey design workshop might consider an “edge-case” could end up accounting for 20% of customer interactions, getting mopped up by demotivated staff at an under-resourced call centre. Customer obsession means caring about every single interaction – returns, complaints, enquiries – not just the ones that follow the simplest path.
“I wish we had another digital communications platform” said nobody, ever. Especially since lockdown, large organisations have quickly adopted a whole range of nifty tech to help teams collaborate, even when they’re working remotely. It can sometimes feel like overload. But there’s a big difference between having access to platforms – Teams, Slack, Zoom, Asana, take your pick – and having really effective internal communication.
High performing organisations use a whole range of formal and informal communication tools, from good old-fashioned daily stand ups and traditional Town Halls to WhatsApp groups, bulletin boards and even handwritten letters from the CEO, to keep everybody up to speed. Getting the mix right depends on taking care to match the medium with the message, and accepting that not everybody needs to know everything all the time. When it comes to communication, clarity is kindness, and brevity is a courtesy.
At Ritz Carlton, at the beginning of every shift in every hotel globally (including the HQ and Executive Team), a 15 minute “line-up” cascades information to every single one of their 40,000+ employees in 80 countries. Every third day, one of their frontline staff – perhaps a sommelier, receptionist, or somebody from the housekeeping team – takes part in that global broadcast to share a story of legendary customer service. That’s 150 stories every year.
At Woodie’s in Ireland, throughout lockdown the CEO wrote a blog every week in which he shared observations and personal, sometimes controversial, opinions about company culture and inclusion in order to stimulate conversation and encourage people to speak up.
Leading organisations understand that their physical environment, both customer facing and internal, is a key part of their brand experience and should be a vehicle for communicating and reinforcing their core values, their history, purpose and customer stories (good and bad).
Visitors to the head offices of UK consumer champion organisation Which? in London walk through a museum-style interactive gallery which takes them from the brand’s founding through to its greatest hits and modern proposition. Apple’s new European headquarters in London’s iconic Battersea Power Station is an immersive rendering of Steve Jobs’ vision for the brand: curved edges, tactile finishes, soft colours and warm lighting.
Space design is about more than just aesthetics. With changing working patterns post pandemic, high-performing organisations have reshaped spaces that are conducive to collaboration, that make hybrid meetings easy, and are comforting and welcoming to entice people back to the office.
The number of company insolvencies almost doubled in the UK between 2020 and 2022, to over 22,000 – the highest number for 13 years. The pandemic turned everything upside down, but turbulent times are nothing new. Only 28 of the original 100 companies listed on the FTSE100 at its inception in 1984 were still there in 2017. No wonder CEO’s lie awake at night worrying about being Uber’d or Amazon’d. But how can so-called “legacy” companies – from bricks and mortar retail and traditional media to car manufacturers, energy, hospitality, healthcare and more – gauge the level of innovation required to remain relevant? How should it be funded? And whose job is it to do?
High performing organisations are taking an increasingly bold approach to innovation. The days of setting up a “spook room” in the basement, sending in a bunch of bright young people armed with fluorescent post-it notes and hoping for the best are long gone. Innovation isn’t just about launching new products. New technologies and competitors have the capacity to disrupt entire sectors with lightning speed so corporate innovation requires a mindset that is prepared to deconstruct entire business models and processes – set aside supply chain rules, discard cultural orthodoxies, rethink customer profiles. Taking your organisation’s purpose, what value can you create now? And what do customers really value? The answers can be surprising.
There are many ways to structure for agility, by establishing well-funded step-change innovation units, corporate venturing groups, start-up incubators and so forth.
Tesco’s Red Door disruption programme, established in 2020, invited innovators from both inside and outside the business to contact its newly established Group Innovation team with concepts that could change the game for the retailer in future. Reporting directly to the CEO, the Group Innovation Team brought together Tesco staff from all core disciplines and established hubs in London, Israel and San Francisco to develop ideas with the potential to gain competitive advantage in the fields of new products, data, robotics and automation and packaging.
Technological disruption, now with the rise of artificial intelligence, shows no sign of abating. Geopolitical instability and the climate imperative are here to stay. CEOs are also required to demonstrate greater responsibility for employee wellbeing, sustainability and even social justice as well as delivering old-fashioned shareholder value, so it’s no surprise that senior leaders are feeling the pressure and reporting feelings of loneliness and isolation more than ever.
Mercifully, old school leadership training camps which claimed to build “resilience” through gruelling and ultimately useless physical challenges like climbing giant ladders and building rafts have fallen largely out of favour. Resilience no longer means carrying on no matter what. Resilience is more about taking control in order to de-risk the future, by spending time with people outside the organisation to look for patterns, seek inspiration and stimulation that will help to anticipate change, and build a mindset that is adaptable when it comes (which it will).
In the 21st century, nobody is expected to lead alone. Indeed, today’s great leaders have proactively assembled a network of people, both personal and professional, to take seats around their “personal boardroom”. This diverse group of people, representing a wide range of skills, experience and expertise, support them when their energy reserves dip, and can offer different kinds of advice when they need it.
High performing leaders invest time maintaining their own energy. They have made the connection between mental and physical health and actively manage both, prioritising sleep, exercise and nutrition. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former communications lead and now an esteemed mental health campaigner, takes a moment every morning to assess his mental wellbeing. Giving himself a score out of 10, he has a metaphorical jam jar of tactics to deploy to balance his energy – from listening to music, taking a swim, going to dinner with his partner and friends.