If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.

(African Proverb)

There is a lot of buzz around high performance culture. It is the holy grail and has become especially so post-Covid and in this new hybrid way of working, as many leaders realise the need to sustain a connected culture. 

I was grateful to be part of a panel last week on this very topic at CCI-GrowthCon’s Table Talk discussion – with facilitator, Brenda Williams, and fellow speaker, Hilary Ambrose, and leaders from across Africa.

There were some great sharings and learnings:

#1 High performance culture is not just about reaching KPIs 

High performance culture is when organisations bring together BOTH a constructive way of working together AND achieving targets. It’s not either targets or culture, which is often how it seems to manifest – now we focus on targets, and now we focus on culture.

High performance culture is when we reach targets on the back of working well together. 

#2 High performance culture needs to be underpinned by psychological safety

This means people can express their opinions freely without worrying about repercussions, can take risks, can bring their whole selves to work and can be vulnerable and ask for help. Not worrying about repercussions should be distinguished from accountability, which actually increases with psychological safety.

When trust breaks down because of a lack of psychological safety, find something practical that touches people’s hearts and is important to them e.g. having a parking space and make small incremental changes to start rebuilding trust.

#3 Define your culture around who you are authentically

Identify HOW you do things that are the source of your success. Capture your values with verbs and action statements, not generic nouns such as innovation and excellence which don’t point to expected behaviours.

Make behaviours explicit. Involve your people in the codification process, building culture from the inside out. 

#4 Keep culture alive through ongoing conversations

Culture needs to be alive every day, not just put up on walls. Rituals and practices can be varied and creative, and could include storytelling, recognition programmes and values check-ins e.g. what value will you bring today to help you with your priority? 

When things get tough, it’s important to draw on your values and purpose to keep you steady and focused. A great example of this is when Covid kicked in and Yoco, the payments provider for over 200 000 entrepreneurs, called on their purpose and values to guide them forward. Yoco’s purpose is ‘enabling people to thrive’ and one of their values is ‘stay connected’.  So, they stayed connected with their network of entrepreneurs and heard the need for these businesses to continue to operate online to survive, and they helped make this possible. 

Culture also needs to be embedded in organisational systems, from recruitment to onboarding to performance management.

Even though values might be more qualitative and feel hard to measure, embed them in performance management systems and have a conversation with each person around how they are showing up to each value and what their stretch will be. 

#5 Engage each person around what the culture means practically in their role

Culture is not a communications exercise. It’s about engaging each person to connect to what the values mean practically for them in their role. From CEO to supervisor to fruit picker, whatever the role, connect people’s personal values to the company values, and then find practical ways to use the values in their role. 

For example, a call centre agent might interpret a value of ‘engage with intent’ to really listen to customer’s perspectives and try to solve issues together, keeping them informed along the way. 

#6 High performance cultures are led from the front

Leaders need to role model culture and inspire others to live the culture. They also need to hold people accountable to living the culture, which can be tough. 

Coaching skills can be very helpful to leaders to embed culture – listening, asking questions, empowering people, challenging people to take shared responsibility for the culture and taking more of a balcony perspective of what’s happening around culture.

Leaders also need to take time to pause and reflect – “slow down to speed up” – which is generally the opposite to what is done when things are under pressure.

#7 Grow culture through a systems view

Culture is complex and is constantly evolving. We need to be aware of and work with the parts and the whole, nudging the culture along in the desired direction by amplifying things that are working and diminishing activities that are not. 


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