Tech insights: Establishing, Scaling and Maintaining a High-Performance Culture

Establishing, Scaling and Maintaining a High-Performance Culture

By Waldemar Muhl

Designing and implementing a high-performance culture is not an easy task, but doing so can deliver constant improvements, help employees to do their best work, and will eventually perpetuate itself. But where do you start in developing a high-performance culture? As the co-founder of a company, dealing immediately with employee engagement, this is what I’ve learned and how you can get started on the right track.

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I helped found a new organisation part-time, RoslinLab, where we measure employee engagement and present it to management in meaningful ways. This enables them to make more informed decisions that drives their organisation’s culture. But to achieve this, we had to do some research first: I started by researching employee satisfaction at some of the most successful and well-known organisations operating today.

What I found was common across all of the companies I looked at, was a group of happy employees, that felt included, and formed part of a self-perpetuating, high-performance work culture that fuelled them to produce their best work. These employees would even goes as far as to advocate working at their organisation to friends, family and others in their field. It became clear to me how powerful such a culture could be.

However, it’s not only the newest and slickest tech companies that think this way: In the late 1800s to early 1900s, Cadbury (that’s right, the chocolate people!) already strategised around company culture. They integrated their chocolate factory into the village of Bournville in the United Kingdom, so that their workers were never far from their homes or their family. As a result, workers were happy to come to work early because they didn’t have to travel too far from their loved ones. More modern examples of companies that strategise in a similar way are organisations like Google and Netflix, or - more locally - Offerzen and DigiOutsource. If you’re interested, read the Glassdoor reviews to see how employees feel about their employment at these companies.

On seeing how powerful an organisation’s culture could be, I realised I could start implementing similar ideologies in my role as a manager where I was employed at the time. It’s no small task, but I have learned that there are a few key areas that make getting-the-ball-rolling a lot easier:

  • Having regular check-ins with team-members
  • Understanding the impact of your organisation’s vision
  • Enabling people
  • Reading-up, levelling-up, and tooling-up

Having regular check-ins with team-members

In my role as a team lead, I noticed a few problems: I had no way of measuring my team members’ engagement, and no way of telling whether they felt overworked or underworked. These things are easily solved by having regular check-ins with team members.

Measuring team member engagement: By having regular check-ins with my teammates, I could keep track of their levels of engagement (how excited they are to do their jobs) versus their bandwidth (how heavy their workload is). I found that by simply keeping track of these values, I was able to maintain balance between giving them meaningful and impactful work, and not entirely overwhelming them.

Helping encourage growth as team members needed it: These regular check-ins also helped me better understand how and when my team members needed to “grow.” To aid them, I scheduled some time out of their days for studying and innovation by convincing upper management that it would be beneficial to the organisation in terms of quality of work, throughput and morale. I also took it upon myself to help where I could as a senior developer, through things like knowledge sharing and careful guidance.

The results, however, were two-fold: Although employees were picking-up more advanced and more rewarding tasks, it also made my life a little more difficult as I was juggling being a team lead and a senior developer. With all the coaching happening, I wasn’t always getting around to my own tasks, and would often end up sitting late. This is a trade-off one needs to be aware of and potentially willing to make.

There are times, though, when you have the wrong manager in the wrong place, and that can be disastrous. I remember seeing managers that would compete with their own teammates instead of teaching. Managers trying to outshine their teammates instead of enabling. It led to teams that weren’t learning anything new and were ultimately dissatisfied with their positions. This can be boiled down to a corrupt understanding of a company vision.

Understanding the impact of your organisation’s vision

Having a bad vision or mission statement, or not understanding them correctly, can be damaging. Employees won’t be able to fall into any sort of culture if they can’t even remotely relate to the vision, or if you barely believe it yourself. In some cases, it pays off to have no vision at all, but then make it explicit and make sure you’re confident about what you’re putting out there.

Get the management team on board with your way of thinking! By showing your managers how the company vision benefits everyone, and what it means for their future with the organisation, they’re the ones that will carry the flag to the employees. They’re the ones that need to listen to their teams, understand what the organisation really needs, and work with your organisational development team to fulfill those needs.

When your managers are able to understand what the organisation needs in order to excel, the vision evolves into one that makes all employees feel as though they’re part of something greater - something beyond a 9-to-5 job that brings a paycheck.

Ultimately, every person needs to understand why they are in the seat they’re in. Plus, they need help understanding why that’s so important to the company as a whole. This ensures that everyone has the organisation’s success at heart.

Enabling people

It is incredibly helpful to enable your managers, your workforce, and even your tools! You cannot expect your employees to fall in with a high-performance culture if they don’t have what they need in order to accomplish what you’re asking them to; similarly, an overworked employee won’t physically be able to work late or teach others. You’d get a far more positive response from that employee if you showed them that their free-time is important to you as well.

You want your employees to feel important - because, after all, they are! When you’re asking them to spend their free time building something for the organisation, always try and motivate it to the employee as though you would motivate it to yourself. Nothing removes engagement as quickly as being asked to learn something new in one’s own time, without a purpose or end goal in sight. Think along these lines:

Help an employee understand what the rewards would be

Would they learn a valuable new skill from it, or would they perhaps be looking at a potential promotion? Maybe it relates to their personal development plan within the organisation?

Ask yourself: What sort of “major impact” would it have?

Perhaps it assists a neighbouring department in producing reports that normally takes them an entire weekend to do, or maybe it assists in revolutionising the way the company does things… find that collateral, and use it to encourage and motivate your team.

When you’re asking someone to give up their free time, enable them by making sure it’s really worth it.

If you’re setting a goal - whether it’s part of their personal development plan, part of a specific project, or a specific role - make it tangible, make them feel rewarded for it, and don’t waste their time. This is key to enabling someone.

If done correctly, you’ll have employees that want to better themselves, and that help sustain a high-performing, self-perpetuating company culture.

Reading-up, levelling-up, and tooling-up

Never assume you know everything, or are equipped enough to do it all! Organisations are ever-evolving and there’s always something new to pick up, and a high-performance environment relies on constant up-skilling.

Even though there are loads of books out there on useful areas to focus on, you don’t have to look that far to find a good one to start with; just look at the successful organisations whose employees can’t stop raving about their workplace, and find literature on what they do. Often, you’ll be able to find their mission statements online, or even sometimes detailed documentation on their culture (this is often used for recruiting purposes so it’s there to be shared with the world!).

Alongside reading material, there are loads of tools that can be used to track statistics related to company culture, employee engagement, promoter scores, etc., and thus ultimately assist managers in making better decisions. We developed RoslinLab specifically with the purpose of tracking these values. If you’re willing to spend some money, you can even get an external company to help you track it.

Bear in mind, though, simply measuring these statistics won’t solve your problem; it’s the results that will assist you in understanding what impact decisions and actions have on the organisation’s culture, and will ultimately help make better decisions to build that culture.

Final considerations

Whether you’re working on building the right culture for a growing startup, that’s hopeful to exceed 100 employees one day, or trying to impact the existing culture of a large corporation currently sitting with 2000+ employees, it’s important to keep certain things in mind:

  • Your employees are unique individuals: Sometimes a “person” may seem slightly different to what you would consider “your culture.” But a culture that has grown organically will be able to withstand outliers and potentially even benefit from them, as long as it’s open to feedback and critique, and flexible enough to adapt.
  • Avoid having the wrong managers in play: We all know how much money a bad manager can cost, but a manager that disagrees with the organisation’s vision and morals can do a lot of damage to their team’s culture. Be highly selective and ruthlessly committed to getting the right manager.
  • Don’t expect things to happen overnight: A forced culture will be put in place quickly, but will just as quickly dissipate. What you want is for it to grow organically with help from management. This takes time, but it pays off in a big way. Hold out!

An organisation is a living, breathing thing; not just a cash-machine for stakeholders. Treat it accordingly, and everyone involved will benefit. A high-performance culture encourages employees to always better themselves, which encourages the culture to keep growing. As such, it’s a self-perpetuating tool that elevates an organisation beyond what many other organisations deem to be optimal, and sets that organisation up for exponential growth.

Further reading

  • You can read more about Bournville here.
  • Looking for some of the best cultures as rated by employees? Voila.
  • Some further advice on cultures and what to look out for can be found here.
  • Glassdoor has some interesting reviews on what it’s like to work at certain companies.

Waldemar Muhl is an entrepreneur programmer (or entreprammer), the co-founder of RoslinLab, and a senior full-stack developer and team lead specialising in .Net development and production. His latest interest in management and leadership in the tech space goes hand-in-hand with a product currently being developed at RoslinLab. Waldemar believes that technology can be used to elevate teams, organisations, and society in its entirety - and not just a select-few individuals. For more of him, you can find him on LinkedIn, check-out his other articles on the Roslin Blog, or read his ramblings on Twitter.

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