Company Culture

What are High Performing Cultures?

Kathleen O'Donnell
February 21, 2024
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What’s the difference between a positive company culture with high employee satisfaction and a high-performing culture? Well, it’s basically the difference between a Toyota Camry and a McLaren sports car. 

Both will get you where you need to go reliably. A Camry is a sturdy, time-tested car that you see on the road all the time—nothing wrong with that—and is a cut above most basic cars. But a McLaren is unmatched for speed and performance; it’s in another league, and in a head-to-head race would dominate.

A positive company culture with a healthy work environment is like a Toyota Camry: good, solid, reliable, and will get you where you need to go. But high-performing company cultures are like McLarens: they’re rarer because they’re harder to build and maintain. But if you want to come out so far ahead of the competition that it’s not even a race, that’s the car you need. 

Fortunately, building a high-performing culture is a heck of a lot easier than building a McLaren. The key is understanding what makes these great organizations tick, and what separates them from all the Camrys out there on the road. 

--> [Checklist] Practical Steps to Building a High-Performing Culture

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What is a high-performing culture?

A high-performing culture is an environment where employees are enabled and empowered to support business goals and provide maximum value. That means providing teams with the tools, tech, processes, and environment needed to innovate, collaborate, listen, learn, and lead so your organization can thrive. 

High-performing company cultures are ambitious, accountable, and autonomous, and those qualities enable employees at all levels and across all departments to do highly engaging work every day. Sounds amazing, right?

These companies achieve better, faster results than companies without that kind of culture. Recent research by Bain found that companies with high-performing cultures generate ten (!) times the revenue growth of companies without that kind of culture. But that kind of profitable growth isn’t the only perk. High-performing companies also have better financial results, lower turnover, and more loyal customers, among many other benefits. Apple is a great example of this kind of company, but they exist in every industry. 

We’ve talked before about high-performing teams, and those are powerful too. But a team is just one part of a larger organization, and if they’re confined to certain small pockets or siloed, your company won’t reap the full benefits. Creating an overall high-performing company culture helps every team and every employee contribute and thrive, and is an incredible engine for growth, productivity, and retention

--> [Checklist] Practical Steps to Building a High-Performing Culture

Key elements of high-performing cultures 

The whole notion of a high-performing culture can seem… a little bit vague. It’s hard to assign a whole bunch of specific KPIs to measure it directly, and cultures can vary widely across companies in the same industry and region. 

But these exciting, innovative cultures have some shared qualities that every business can learn from.  

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High retention rates 

High-performing workplaces are super attractive to employees, especially high performers. It’s no surprise: talented and driven people want to work in cultures that support that drive, surrounded by people who are also talented, in a highly-engaged organization. It’s a lot more fun to drive a McLaren than a Camry, if you’re someone whose passion is cars.  

These work cultures provide an engaging mission, an environment of dedication and high achievement, and a connection to the vision of the organization. Employees at all levels want to stick around in these cultures because they love the environment, and that has benefits like deeper institutional knowledge, lower recruiting costs, and higher ROI on talent spend. 

Inspirational and motivational leadership 

High-performing cultures are exciting and inspiring places to work—and that energy needs to come from your leadership team to set the tone. Leaders in these kinds of cultures come up with big, innovative visions for the company and can effectively communicate that vision to employees to inspire them. They embody the company’s core values, and are constantly thinking about how to move the company forward while enabling and empowering employees at every level. 

Engaged employees with lots of autonomy 

While leadership sets the tone and brings the energy, it’s your employees who bring everything else that makes your culture a dynamic, innovative, and inspiring one. And micro-managing them is not going to inspire the best in them, especially with high performers. Once your leadership has communicated your mission, your goals, and your company values, it’s time to let your employees free to do the work you hired them to do. 

Plenty of psychological safety and trust 

There’s loads of data and research on the importance of psychological safety in the workplace—spoiler alert, it’s important! That, combined with high levels of trust, allows your people to embrace making mistakes and learning from them, to ask questions, to give and receive feedback, and to try doing things differently. Those are all behaviors that lead to higher-performing teams because they’re not afraid to thoughtfully shake things up instead of getting stuck. 

A truly inclusive and equitable culture is also a critical component here. It’s not possible to build a culture of safety and trust if your people don’t feel they can bring their whole selves to work, or if they don’t think they’re treated with fairness and respect. 

Clear goals and a clear path to get there 

Setting goals that align with your mission is the first essential task for your leadership team—the whole company needs to have a clear roadmap and an endpoint to guide them. But a more critical component of high-performing cultures is what comes next: evaluating the roadblocks in front of those goals, and getting them out of the way so your teams can thrive. 

Roadblocks can take a lot of different forms like outdated systems and technology, burned-out managers, poor hiring processes, and so on—the list is long, and it may take some deep and dedicated research to uncover all of them. But once you identify them and can remove them, all of your teams will go farther, your people will perform better, and their motivation will increase too. 

A curious approach to learning and growing 

Reviewing numbers and metrics to look at performance is necessary for any business. But what separates high-performing cultures is that they go beyond the numbers to get curious and discover how to build on their successes and learn from their failures. 

That means digging into what happened in the past with an open mind, but also how that will affect the future of your company and your employees as well. Plus, getting curious about how your current organizational culture contributes to your results (for better and for worse) will help you uncover the roadmap to a more effective, inspiring culture. 

Open and honest feedback 

High-performing cultures embrace giving frequent, high-quality feedback—especially constructive negative feedback. That doesn’t mean they’re overly critical or harsh, as that’s not great for morale or motivation. 

Instead, they focus on delivering the feedback employees need to hear to be their best selves at work. Most of the time that involves giving them specific and timely recognition for their hard work. But it also means taking the time to give them thoughtful, empathetic, constructive criticism so they can learn, grow, and succeed. 

Delivering this kind of feedback is hard for most managers, but that means employees value it all the more—and it makes that positive recognition feel more genuine and valued as well. 

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The takeaway

High-performing cultures are incredibly powerful—and exciting. They’re not easy to build, not least because they require having the right leadership and a commitment to coaching and empowering employees instead of micromanaging them. But they’re a much faster, and more fun, way to get to your goals—so if you’re ready to start driving a McLaren instead of a Camry, start with these building blocks to creating a high-performing culture. 

--> [Checklist] Practical Steps to Building a High-Performing Culture

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