Written by: Andy Longley, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
We are often hearing that the secret to building a successful organisation is to nurture a ‘performance culture’. It’s great to know this, but it doesn’t really help us because we neither know what actually constitutes a performance culture, nor what we are meant to do in order to nurture one! So let’s deep-dive this together through this entrepreneur’s guide to creating a true performance culture.
Founders and business leaders have it tough. Often, we’re the ones with a great idea, we have created a great product or service, or it’s likely that we’re even solving a significant problem for many people. For many entrepreneurs, this can be the easy part.
Once we’ve launched our business and have gone to market we are solely focused on getting the right product-market fit, iterating and scaling. It’s exhilarating and adrenaline filled. Then once we start to become a little more successful, we need to build our teams up because we need more people…and quickly.
So, we start speed hiring so we can meet increasing customer demands and keep our growth heading in the right direction. As we recruit more and more people, we prioritise focusing on the customer, product development and sales. We are building the plane as we fly it!
Then at one point in the not-too-distant future, we often start to lose good employees, struggle to attract the best talent, plus the mood and motivation amongst our teams drop.
I have seen this time and time again with start-ups and scale-ups.
As business leaders, we are so focused on growing our business and driving commercial success, we forget that at the heart of our success are our people. And people are generally predictable and consistent. We are all motivated by the same things as evidenced by this foundational piece of neuroscience research by Rock & Cox into the universal human motivators. People universally want the same things from our work. We want:
to grow and develop
to experience a sense of progress and achievement
to work with clarity and a sense of autonomy
The problem with the all-too-familiar situation described above is that we neglect to focus on creating our high-performance culture as we build our business, and we only realize this once it's too late and the wrong type of culture has already been embedded. That's the thing about culture, it needs to be intentionally shaped and nurtured, and it’s notoriously impossible to change once it’s in place. Culture is what we see and feel in our workplace. It’s the sum of all of the everyday behaviours we experience.
This is exactly why as entrepreneurs and business leaders, we must start to intentionally create the culture of high-performance that we need to scale our business as soon as we make our very first hires, and keep this as a clear business priority alongside the product and commercial focus...forever. This is how we can create measurable success through our people.
In my professional life, I have been fortunate to have advised and worked with some of the most successful businesses out there, including adidas, IBM, Emirates Airline, N26 and Zalando and what these market-leading companies do is start by answering the question: what is a high performing culture?
Their definitions are remarkably similar, and they all include a culture where feedback is a habit, where team members are motivated and developing, and where everybody clearly understands their role and feels empowered. This is a high-performance culture because it is hacking into these universal human motivators to create a culture of engagement, growth and innovation.
So how exactly do they create a high-performance culture?
The way they create a high-performance culture is to have targeted training for every employee which teaches them the three fundamental skills where:
all employees know how to give and receive effective feedback
they have in place stretching goals that drive progress and motivation
they provide clear performance expectations to drive high-performance and empower the people to own this themselves
If every employee can do these three things well every day, we're well on our way to creating our high-performance culture. This is because we will have a workplace environment that is rich in feedback (fundamental for our growth and development), drives personal and business growth (stretch goals motivate us and continually raise the performance bar) and employees act with speed and ownership (clear expectations reduce inefficiencies and empower us).
So now, let’s break these three areas down so we can see exactly why these are the foundations of a high-performance culture. This will enable you to bring it to life in your own companies and teams.
1. The importance of effective feedback
We cannot have high performance without a feedback culture. This is because, according to neuroscience, feedback is one of only two ways our brains learn along with failure. And we don’t want to let failure be the main way we learn!
When under pressure, we need to be faultless with our communication and our ability to both give and receive effective feedback is paramount to performance. The feedback we provide must be clear, immediately understood and actionable. But we equally must be able to actively listen in order to receive the feedback provided to us. So, without a strong ability with both directions of feedback, we cannot learn and improve. If we need to grow and adapt, it’s essential we do feedback well.
Working with high-performing organisations I learned that to receive feedback effectively, we are best placed when we follow these four recommendations:
intentionally create the mindset to see it through the lens of learning
we cultivate a growth mindset
we view it as a powerful opportunity to better illuminate our blindspots, and
we separate ourselves from the issue to depersonalise it where possible.
When we can do these things, we’re nurturing a feedback and growth culture which sparks innovation.
2. The need to have clear and stretching goals
We cannot have high performance without motivated and developing people. Goals are a key source of motivation, engagement and purpose. They sit at the heart of our drive and achievements. We absolutely need powerful goals to keep us focused when under pressure because it becomes far too easy to check out of our work when the going gets tough. But often, we get goals wrong and think SMART goals are the gold standard. They are not. Have SMART goals ever got you out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step?
The latest scientific research on goals is clear – goals need to be:
memorable and rehearsed
most importantly meaningful to us otherwise, they simply will not work.
Setting stretch goals with these characteristics is at the heart of sustained motivation and performance.
3. The need to clearly align on performance expectations
We cannot have high performance without driven and empowered people. Under pressure, like when we are busy or under-resourced, all too often, our performance expectations are left to assumptions. This leads to major performance, motivation and efficiency issues because without clarity of expectation, we don’t know how to move forward ourselves. We spend too much time trying to figure out what we need to be doing and not enough time actually doing it.
Using two simple 4-step checklists that I learned working as a Peacekeeper with the United Nations, as leaders, we can set clear and inspiring expectations with our team members that provide clarity, direction, autonomy and empowerment. These 4-step checklists are:
The Four ingredients for setting performance expectations as a leader:
define what good looks like (use company values, OKRs, benchmarks, data, etc. as available)
use relevant stories and examples with detail to bring them to life (makes them more memorable and hence actionable)
include ‘why’ these expectations are important (helps motivate us and keeps us focused through ambiguity and change)
bring them to life with relevant possible scenarios to support understanding (easier to understand when we have context)
The Four Steps to co-creating aligned expectations with our team members:
team members share their expectations on what good looks like for the different aspects of their role first, and leaders go second (reduces the inevitable authority bias)
discuss any variations in order to be aligned (helps address assumptions and creates speed)
discuss and reinforce similarities and commonalities (come together where you agree to reinforce these)
confirm and align on the next steps with details (drives ownership and fast autonomous action)
As a business leader, by using these two simple four-step checklists to co-create performance expectations, along with creating a culture of feedback where team members are motivated and developing via stretch goals, you’ll be taking a huge step towards intentionally creating your own performance culture…right from the start.
Drawing from my career experiences and insights gained across industries and geographies, I would strongly recommend you enable the most critical factor for your success, your people, by focusing on providing expert training for these three areas to create your own high-performance culture.
If you’d like some ideas for how to do this immediately, check them out here
Andy is a performance psychologist, leadership expert, and former United Nations Peacekeeper who shares his time between Europe and New Zealand while leading a Start-up called Psych-io
Andy Longley, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Andy Longley is a performance psychologist & neuroscientist who specialises in people development, culture building & scaling leadership. He started off as a psychologist in the Navy, before going on to work in executive leadership roles in the United Nations, Emirates Airline, adidas & German unicorn Zalando. It was across these diverse global companies & industries where he learned first-hand what great leadership looks like & how to build a true performance culture. Andy launched his own company called Psych-io where he shares these key insights with leaders to help them transition from early-stage Founder to transformational business leader, or build a culture that sustains & scales.