How can leaders foster a high performance culture in their environment? How can leaders create an atmosphere where passionate performance is the foundation for team and company success?
The Munich Leadership Group has developed a pragmatic model, based on recent neuroscientific insights and expertise from more than 20 years of intense work with top executives in different company cultures and countries. From a leadership perspective, six forces are driving the passion for performance.
The HPTI measures the performance of a team for each of these drivers.
Nearly all major companies have sophisticated, customized business systems and procedures in place. These systems are mature and proven. Matrix organizations replace or complement former functional hierarchies. Work takes place in processes rather than in functions. Balanced score cards with goal setting and monitoring systems are the standard. Clearly defined processes and reliable routines are helpful and necessary.
However, getting too technical and rigid with these systems often kills the energy and the spirit of employees – the drivers of a living and innovative organization.
Passion is created from the interaction of individuals who are motivated to achieve meaningful goals while respecting and supporting each other. The real art of leadership is creating a working environment that makes everyone understand why it is so important to live these systems to the fullest -and to contribute to the company’s success with personal conviction and enthusiasm.
Employees must know where the company stands and where it is heading to in order to be able to deliver high performance. Imagine a soccer game, with 20 minutes to go - and no player on your team on the field knows the score, nor has an idea what will happen if they win or lose. Would your players attack, defend, or kill time? You would probably see all these behaviors at the same time, individually different, resulting in a team performance disaster.
Leaders must know and understand the company direction and explain it to their teams. It is the leader’s responsibility to be clear on this and to keep their activities and communication in line with the board’s strategy. Moreover, executives must translate the strategy into inspiring and motivating behavioral orientation for their team.
But “giving orientation” does not only refer to these high level issues. Another common observation is the inappropriate use of hierarchical relationships and a misunderstanding of responsibilities, resulting in low performance. For example, if employees in doubt approach their superior with a seemingly “stupid” question, they expect help and not sarcasm or harsh comments such as “Do you expect me to do your work for you?” Leaders who are successful in creating an atmosphere where high performance takes place are always caring and supportive. They never let employees feel they are superior to them. Instead, they contribute with at least some ideas to the success of their employees, which might result in new ways of seeing things or partly helping to solve problems. They always have an open ear for the questions and difficulties of their teams and they always find ways to develop some inspiring new thoughts that will give direction.
A company in which orientation is given provides and actively fosters a high degree of alignment and clarity.
“Lost in the matrix” is a cynical expression from executives who try to manage processes and responsibilities across lines of businesses, functions, and countries. We met executives in Fortune-500-companies who were not able to explain what their exact task was on the project they were working on; we met individuals from the same companies in meetings who had no idea why they were invited to the meeting. The more complex the world of organizations becomes, the more important it is to focus on the essentials.
During the past years, much has been discussed about managing complexity. But this is not radical enough to create high performance organizations. Managing complexity is Nokia, who manage to provide about 87 different cell phones to the world market at the same time. Reducing complexity was the secret of success for Apple, who was offering exactly two smart phones, both called iPhone. Both offered the highest contemporary technical standard and both were bursting with surprising innovations every year. The only difference between the two models: one of them had double storage capacity. Will I take lots of pictures, videos, listen to music - I will choose the latter. If not – the first one is perfect for me.
The target group does not want to ponder on which buttons are placed to the right or left, and what a better function in which situation is. They don’t want to decide too many different phone colors or seven different screen sizes, all combined somehow. Instead, they welcome all kinds of experts’ preselections and pragmatic decisions in order to reduce complexity. Imagine you are offered fifteen different mineral waters at a meeting, and you get a comprehensive explanation for all of them one after the other in order to make sure you pick the right one. Aren’t chances high you will surrender after the fifth option and ask for a simple coffee instead?
High performance organizations understand this pattern. Their leaders think and behave accordingly. Executives define their task not in flooding their employees with as many options as possible. On the contrary: they focus on the essence and prevent others from useless distractors.
Leaders who are passionate about reducing complexity know how hard it is to get rid of ballast, but they understand it as one of their primarily tasks. Doing so, they act as gatekeepers for dead freight - significantly increasing the efficiency of their teams and sometimes the overall organization.
During a global high potential conference at one of our international clients, the Head of HR asked the younger participants for their understanding of the “most important leadership capability expected from you”. After some common assumptions from the audience like “being innovative” and “being a team player” he published a startling discovery. Due to extensive research that he and his team had internally completed, he found out that “making decisions” was the most critical issue in their company. Moreover, he was able to prove that decisions that had not been taken had produced more overall costs than wrong decisions.
There are two main reasons that decisions are not made and postponed: hesitation based on a perceived lack of information and/ or two or more parties with (very) different opinions on the situation.
In the first case, executives are often insecure in assessing how much more information they need. Instead of trusting their experience, they are often forced to justify every detail of their decision. They have to explain the reason why, as well as disregarded alternatives, and all kinds of additional information that make everyone fully understand the origin, the content, and the intended effects of the decision. To a certain extent this is a good idea which is intended to create transparency. However, in most of the companies the hunger for justifying decisions is exaggerated. Is it a wonder that the higher you look in the hierarchy, the more often you will find consultants working on expensive reports? Most of the time, they are paid for reinforcing existing opinions.
To a certain extent, the demand for more information comes from company risk management guidelines, and to this extent it is healthy. But there is an unhealthy part that often results from misunderstanding the nature and importance of intuition. A downhill skiing champion will perform at his best and succeed whenever he is fully concentrated – but in most cases he will not be able to rationally explain why he does certain coordinated movements in extreme situations, especially not to semi-experts. Brain researchers recently found that intuitive decisions are often much better than those that are based on extensive information. This is an enormous new field of promising research and groundbreaking insights on decision making.
Imagine you want to hire a new member for your team. In order to assess all applicants carefully, you create a comprehensive job profile. You will conduct interviews and create situations in which you see the applicants behave. You will scrutinize the first candidates, and then compare. But when candidate number twenty appears, you will know in a few minutes if he or she meets your requirements. Would you fail in your judgment? Probably not. You have gained a lot of experience in the meantime, you have created expertise and by this, have developed fair intuition.
In any case, intuitive decisions are much faster. Experienced leaders should not be forced to explain all details of their gut feelings to diverse teams who try to capture all decision facets from a rational perspective. More trust would be a great replacement for forced facts.
In the second case, when there are very diverse opinions of two or more groups, leaders often postpone decisions, hoping the parties will come to converging insights over time. This is one of the most fatal illusions. In reality, you will most often see the opposite occur. The time will be used by the parties for reinforcing their current opinion, resulting in hardened fronts, and therefore in a much more difficult decision making situation over time. In terms of weak decision making this is the main driver for unnecessary costs.
Each decision, no matter if right or wrong, creates a new and real situation with new dynamics and chances. Postponing decisions leads to stagnation. If, in addition to fast decision making, the company supports a climate where people are allowed to learn from mistakes and leaders demonstrate this in their behavior, no one would have to worry about a bad decision making culture in their environment.
It goes without saying that making decisions is one of the top drivers for speed in organizations.
As the most important role models for employees in organizations, leaders are obliged to constantly work on improving themselves. In high performing organizations, there is zero tolerance for not developing oneself. One of the common errors (and often the most popular killer argument) is that this must happen via expensive external programs or waste of time team off-sites. In high performing organizations nearly all demanding situations from daily business are utilized for learning. This happens by constantly scrutinizing the effect of the interaction of mindsets, behaviors, and results. It requires curiosity, openness, excellent feedback skills (giving as well as receiving), and strong intrinsic will for personal growth. Once these prerequisites are discussed and established, and feedback is a substantial part of the team culture, the reward is a culture that does not allow standstill and is built on realistic self-awareness and trust.
Have you ever heard of a golf professional who earns millions of dollars and does not practice every day – in order to constantly improve? Would you trust a jet pilot to fly you into the night who does not constantly stay on the cutting edge of the technical development with all the challenging requirements for his knowledge and his mental and physical fitness?
Whoever has had the privilege of working in an environment where this is considered common sense would never want anything else. In a team, this automatically leads to challenging mindsets, mutual support and a positive future approach. Neuroscientists have recently pointed out the outstanding relevance of mirror neurons, the neurological structures in the brain that fire both when we perceive action and when we take it. These neurons enhance the paramount effect of role modeling, especially in the situation of leading and collaborating in teams. However, most executives unfortunately only dream the dream of leading a high performing team instead of starting to make it real. They are usually not aware that the first step must be to become the role model for the desired behavior themselves.
From an organizational point of view, self-development is the prerequisite for all change and innovation. Imagine an organization which employs only individuals who do not develop. As a result, they will never change anything, except when the competition or the market forces them to do so. But this is reaction and never results in being a leading company. High performance organizations are different. They are literally determined to behave proactively, since their leaders and employees constantly develop. They actively gain new insights every day and consequently change their perception of their products and services faster than the rest of the market.
Nobody is an island – this is especially true in the context of todays’ corporate life. As soon as a manager is a leader, his success depends on the performance of the people he is directly and indirectly working with. One of the biggest failures while climbing the career ladder is not enabling the team to work together. Companies succeed because of collective efforts. The leader’s performance will be measured by the performance of his complete team, department, business unit, line of business, or company. One of the most convincing analogies for the empowerment of others leading to great team work is the interaction of a conductor with his orchestra.
But even more, the leader is depending on a network of colleagues. In most cases, this network does not consist only of individuals from the leader’s own company. It might consist of suppliers and clients, and sometimes even competitors. This network works on a voluntary, give-and-take basis, and is not based on formal obligations. Although this seems to be obvious, there are only a small number of leaders who fully understand this system and live up to it.
If a leader emphasizes too much on the “take”-part and neglects the “give,” there will soon be an imbalance in the empowerment system. Sooner or later this will lead to a decrease in support from his or her environment. The most successful leaders always give support – and thereby multiply their own success, while creating a high performance culture.
Again, leaders serve as role models for everyone in their environment. Those who are empowering others at their best use a capability that psychologists call social intelligence. They seem to have a social peripheral view which makes them very special. They take care of everything in their direct environment– as soon as they discover that something might work better they automatically help and support. And they are not in the least bit selfish. In return, they receive a lot of support. One of the most prominent examples was the former U.S. president Bill Clinton. People who closely worked with him often said with pride “He cares.”
High performance companies understand more and more the tremendous benefit of this fifth leadership force. They launch large international events where they specifically foster global networking opportunities. Very often, knowledge sharing and coaching among peers is initiated and supported by forward-looking HR work. At the same time, these HR professionals hire the best external experts to develop their leaders into coaches for their employees and teams. In the business world of tomorrow, where the borders between companies, clients, suppliers and even competitors are melting down and project-organized work is getting more important, the will and ability to empower others will be one of the most winning characteristics.
Perceived from the high performance company’s organizational perspective, empowering others creates strong momentum and alignment.
Sometimes teams fulfill all five previous criteria but still do not achieve the desired results. Although they work in full clarity, are efficient, fast, flexible, and create a strong momentum, they underperform in terms of business key performance indicators. It seems that they are not able to find ways to turn their strengths into countable results.
The main reasons can often be found in the "front end": insufficient target formulation, lack of customer orientation, or missing opportunities for learning directly from failure. The team also might not have access to those information that is relevant for their success, or they simply do not share or delegate their tasks effectively. It sometimes seems that they have professionally set up all promising prerequisites for their success, but then are missing out on the last consequence
In order to find out about the status of these topics in your team, the driver "Operating Excellence" measures the most relevant items that represent this driver.
The High Performance Wheel is a pragmatic model for creating and sustaining high performance. In dozens of performance coaching situations over the last years, we encouraged leaders to write down these five leadership forces on a piece of paper.
Then, we asked them to do a simple check every workday evening by asking themselves:
If you ask yourself these questions every evening, and if you answer all of these questions with a clear YES over a certain period of time, you will certainly realize an increasing high performance culture develop around you.