‘High performance’ is one of those terms that gets tossed around like a soccer ball, especially in the business world. What does it mean and how can you achieve it?
First of all it doesn't mean the same as ‘peak performance’. Kathy Freeman built up to peak performance when she won the 400 metre sprint at the 2000 Olympics. She wouldn't have been able to sustain that state indefinitely and probably wouldn't want to. High performance means something else.
What does ‘high performance’ mean?
Definitions differ. High performance is seen as ‘working to your full potential’, or ‘doing things faster, better or more efficiently’, or ‘kicking goals’. Ros Coffey, Global Head of People, Culture & Client Experience, Macquarie Bank, defines it in terms of environment:
An environment that inspires and enables individuals and teams to continually improve performance to achieve superior results.
I think she’s right. We can define individual high performance, however, it doesn't happen in a vacuum. People are able to consistently perform at high levels only if the workplace culture and structure enables them to do so.
Is my organisation a high performing workplace?
Back in 2011, UNSW led several universities in a study of high performing organisations: Leadership, Culture and Management Practice of High Performing Workplaces in Australia. The high performing workplace had, predictably, a much higher profitability, people who were empowered and engaged towards innovation; employees characterised by pride, commitment, and optimism; a sense of distributive and procedural fairness; a higher level of customer focus; and better quality leadership at all levels.
There is a persuasive argument that higher performing workplaces are those where all employees are encouraged, enabled and motivated to contribute to their full potential and to actively lead and champion workplace change. As such, a leader is not necessarily determined by his or her position in the organisational hierarchy but rather by his/her capacity to champion a given agenda, have a vision and implement this to affect workplace change for the benefit of the organisation and its customers. (UNSW Report p.43)
What has the most impact on high performance in the workplace?
Leadership! A 2016 Melbourne University Leaders at Work Report also underlined the importance of leadership as driving workplace performance, innovation, employee engagement and talent management. Both studies are talking about leadership at every level of the organisation.
Good leaders walk the talk, are open to feedback, and clear on vision and goals. They involve people in decision-making and problem-solving, encourage people to try out new things, and support employees to be the best that they can be.
Leadership undoubtedly has one of the biggest impacts on an individual's performance and work. UNSW Report
We need high performing leaders
I think the greatest measure of a high performing leader is the degree to which they unlock the potential of people around them. A huge part of that is being a great role model, with a strong vision and commitment to people. If a leader can do this, and support creativity and innovation, the impact they can have on culture is massive.
And what about high performers themselves?
In my experience, high performers are focused. They are clear on their strengths and goals. They know who they are, what they want and how they are going to get there. They also have the courage to take risks and stay on purpose. High performance is not synonymous with excellence. No one can be excellent all of the time, and high performers will sometimes fail on the way to success.
High performers maintain their fitness – and I don't just mean physical fitness. They look after their energy levels, their brain fitness and their health, and are able to use time well. This starts to sound like someone who is self-focused, but the high performers I know are also very generous. They give other people time and support, and generate a lot of loyalty through this.
I have coached numerous people who were and are, well down the path to achieving that kind of impact. The common link in all of them has been their ability to master the “emotional value” with people at the same time as driving the “logical value” through results.
So how can I become a high performer?
Firstly it’s helpful to be in a workplace that is supportive of high performance. Most companies say that they are, but you may need to dig a little deeper on this one.
Another thing is to find a good coach. You knew I was going to say that – I’m a coach, after all! I believe in what I do. But seriously, a coach can help you clarify your goals and get solid on your motivations. He or she can help you discard negative thinking patterns and develop a disciplined approach to a work-life balance.
Finally, build a support team. That’s right, no-one is an island, and you need other people to work with, people who will support and go into bat for you when needed. Your coach or mentor can be one of these people.
Why bother with high performance?
Good question. Only you can answer it, but the fact is, life goes by in a flash, and it’s kind of good to look back and know that you did the best you could and left a legacy. Also the process of life is a million times more fulfilling when you are being the best you can be.
The good news is that high performance is learned, not genetic. There can only be one winner of the 400m sprint but we can all be winners as high performers.