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25 Oct. 2012 | Comments (0)

Executives everywhere are under intense pressure to keep their organizations performing at a high level. Yet many organizations, despite their actions, still see employee performance sliding downhill. Age-old, sure-fire management strategies that used to work (or seemed to) now don’t seem to be doing the job. Instead of improvements, many struggle to simply stay afloat.

However, by adopting the same leadership practices used by “high performance organizations (HPOs),” a company’s performance stands a much better chance to dramatically change in a positive direction. An HPO is defined as follows:

A High Performance Organization is an organization that achieves financial and non-financial results that are exceedingly better than those of its peer group over a period of time of five years or more, by focusing in a disciplined way on that which really matters to the organization.

Based on research I conducted over many years aimed at identifying the critical traits that “make” an HPO, I have discovered five essential factors necessary to sustain high performance. The qualities that characterize an HPO are:

  1. 1) Management Quality: Managers on all levels of the organization maintain trust relationships with employees by valuing their loyalty, maintaining individual relationships, and treating people fairly. They are decisive, action-focused decision makers.
  2. 2) Openness & Action Orientation: Management values the opinion of employees by frequently having dialogues with them and involving them in business and organizational processes. There is room for experiments and risk taking.
  3. 3) Long-Term Commitment: Long-term gain is far more important than short-term profit. HPO leaders strive to enhance customer value creation by learning what customers want. By doing so, they are able to maintain strong, long-term relationships with all stakeholders, while taking an interest in and giving back to society, and creating mutually beneficial opportunities.
  4. 4) Continuous Improvement & Renewal: The process of continuous improvement starts with an HPO adopting a unique strategy that will set the company apart. It continuously simplifies, improves, and aligns all its processes to respond to events efficiently and effectively.
  5. 5) Employee Quality: An HPO makes sure it assembles a diverse and complementary workforce, and recruits people with maximum flexibility to help detect problems in business processes and uncover creative solutions for solving them. An HPO continuously works on the development of its workforce by training staff and letting them learn from others through partnerships. HPOs encourage their staff to improve their skills so they can accomplish extraordinary results, while holding them responsible for their own performances.

One element that bridges these multiple factors is leadership. Strong leadership is defined as ‘the ability of leading a group of people or an organization, which is not easily damaged or overcome, able to withstand opposition and has determination.’ HPO managers exhibit strong leadership in tough times by not deviating from the pursued course. Yet, at the same time, they are flexible in the ways they get to where they want and need to be. They know there are many paths to Rome, and they will get there.

HPO managers are not afraid to seek out confrontation and to put their foot down if necessary, because they find achieving the agreed upon goals more important than maintaining the harmony in the organization (within reason). They will not hesitate to call employees or colleagues to account if agreements are not honored. During these confrontations, HPO managers are calm, speak clearly, and never make issues personal or damage the other person. They always approach the confrontation from the standpoint of what’s good for the organization and how the other person can contribute to its success.

I talked to Rik van der Kooi, Corporate VP, Advertiser and Publisher Solutions at Microsoft USA about his company’s approach to leadership. Rik told me that “at Microsoft, our top managers are really seen as role models. Using interaction with our chief executive officer Steve Ballmer as an example—when you give him a presentation, he flips through the slides and after two minutes he has internalized it and launches into discussion. Open, direct, and respectful.

“He expects feedback in the same manner, and is looking for healthy debate and dissonance. I also think he is very approachable. For example, if I need a one-on-one meeting with Steve because something is troubling me, I will be able to quickly get half an hour with him. And that is not because I’m an executive at the company; we simply have open and direct communication channels. Steve sets a good example, and one I am trying to follow. If people approach me, I try to be as open and welcoming as Steve is. This openness is a core value of Microsoft.”

Such openness within one’s leadership is also a core feature of becoming, and remaining, an HPO.

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  • About the Author: André de Waal, Ph.D.

    André de Waal, Ph.D.

    André de Waal MSC MBA Ph.D. is the author of the new book What Makes a High Performance Organisation, Five Validated Factors of Competitive Advantage that Apply Worldwide from Global Profession…

    Full Bio | More from André de Waal, Ph.D.


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