At the end of a long, hot work day, we caught up with Glenn Ball on a Kirribilli veranda, for a glass of chilled rose and a chat about what makes a company a fabulous place to work.
We talked about ‘high performance cultures’ or ‘high performance workplaces’, drilling down into what it is to build a culture of employee engagement: a space where people are able to and want to consistently bring their best performance to the table.
Can you tell me about your involvement in creating high performance cultures?
I guess I do that with every organisation I work with. I think about the leadership needed – it’s about setting clear expectations. High performance is also about discretionary effort. How do you encourage that? There are several inter-related factors but one of them is about rewarding and recognising people who take a step outside the ‘expected’.
From a leadership perspective it’s about creating a brand that people want to be part of. If I go and work for Macquarie Bank or Google or the Fire Brigade, I work really hard, because it’s a privilege to be a part of that brand.
Years ago I worked in a NSW Government Department. We ran the Media unit when there were a lot of bad media stories about the sector. So we had a great leader who came in and adopted a strategy of making staff feel good about what they were doing. She pushed back against the media frenzy, saying to our people, “This is what the media is saying but we don't agree with what’s being said: we think you are doing a great job.” The morale had previously been appalling – after all, who would be proud of working for an organisation that was being slammed all the time? And what we started to see was performance improve and a lot of the supposed issues melting away.
Hmm, it sounds like the organisation was taking back the narrative.
Exactly. I think it’s vital that leaders create a brand that you really want to be a part of. It could be a sexy project, it could be the overall look and feel of the organisation, or it might be that there’s a really strongly aligned executive team who are nailing it. Everyone wants a piece of that, and this creates a buzzing culture.
People need to feel an association with the brand. Then you get the discretionary effort. There are of course different motivators for different people and good leaders will know how to cater to that.
I think there’s an element of trust involved. I’m not going to engage in discretionary effort unless I trust that the organisation is going to do the right thing by me.
Yes, and people like different rewards. Some like more responsibilities as rewards, others like specific feedback on their work, and others public recognition. However the more you work with intrinsic rewards the better.
What’s an example of a company you’ve worked with to build a high performance culture?
I was the change manager for the merger of two big councils. The CEO of the merged councils was a charismatic guy, an absolute driver. Everyone wanted to buy into that.
What were the ingredients there?
Authenticity, transparency, no bullshit, very clear expectations of everyone, and rewards/recognition when you did something good. It wasn't perfect of course, nothing ever is.
Do you think that to build high performance, it’s not enough to focus on culture – you’ve got to make business process improvements as well. You have to give them the opportunity and tools to do a great job.
Yes, if the overall goal is to develop a performance culture, you’ve got to have the governance right (structures, communities of interest), a delegation model that says ‘yes we trust you to get on with the work’, as well as great systems.
We have to keep in mind that high-performance workplaces don't last forever. There are so many impacting factors. Never take it for granted.
What is high performance culture?
A good starting point for a discussion about high-performance culture is the 2016 Workplace Leadership Report, which categorises the attributes of a high-performance workplace as:
The ability to perform: employees have the skills they need through effective recruitment and on- and off-the-job training.
The motivation to perform: performance-based pay, opportunities for internal promotion, and effective performance appraisal and development systems.
The opportunity to perform: employees can make discretionary effort and make decisions about processes so they enjoy work, use their skills effectively and perform at a high level.
Another useful resource is the High Performing Workplace Index, an initiative set up by the Federal Government, SA State Government and business, which lists measures such as