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Added by Craig Steel
Developing a performance culture

Companies have come to the realisation that any effort to improve culture is smart business.

Four workers sitting around a table with laptops having a meeting in the evening

In recent years companies have come to the realization that any effort to improve culture is not only smart business, but it is also a vital step to generating sustainable market differentiation. Whilst the rationale behind such a decision varies from company to company, business leaders know it is a necessary undertaking to;


  • Improve team performance and productivity
  • Attract and retain talented staff
  • Strengthen the perceived value of the brand in the market
  • Differentiate the brand (capability and offering) by way of a unique set of employee ‘attitudes and behaviours’


Before we focus on ‘improving’ culture, let’s examine what we mean by culture.

‘Culture’ in a commercial context is simply the inherent ideas, beliefs and values held within an organisation. It is in a sense, the ‘essence’ of an organisation. It not only defines what a company is about, it tells the world what it stands for. For this reason, a company’s culture is its most powerful commercially tradable ‘differentiator’.

Whilst I am an absolute advocate of introducing initiatives to improve organisational ‘culture’, I am concerned many well-intentioned companies get so excited about the possibilities they commit to programmes that, because of the way they are delivered or the approach the training providers use, will not achieve any meaningful (sustainable) benefits.

Because a culture is what it is, the very nature of its existence should give us sufficient insight to realize that it cannot be changed – at least not directly. The only way we can change or improve a company’s ‘culture’, is to change the way people (employees) think, feel, act and behave within the business.

For this reason, it is imperative managers accept the need to challenge the way their team members ‘think’ about the business, otherwise, they will never change (influence) the way their team members ‘feel’ about the business. If they (employees) do not feel better and/or different about the business (and the subsequent nature/value of their work and/or the products and/or services you manufacture or supply), the culture will not improve.


75% of all brand investment worldwide fails

It is estimated over 75% of all brand investment around the world fails to deliver expected value. The reason for such an incomprehensible failure is because

a) the companies concerned were unable to change their culture

b) they were unwilling to invest in an appropriate and robust process to improve their culture, or

c) they committed to a process they hoped would improve their culture but later found out it didn’t (traditional team building exercises sit near the top of this list. They can be good fun but should not be viewed as the chosen solution to build an intended culture).

Consequently, I have had many discussions with disillusioned executives who cannot understand why one of their biggest investments (corporate re-branding) which promised so much, delivered so little. Likewise, I have had many conversations with equally disillusioned brand strategists who cannot understand why their wonderful ideas and beautifully designed promotions failed to reinvent the company as they imagined or promised it would.

The results, whilst both challenging and frustrating, continue to plague key stakeholders hence the reason I regularly observe so many astute executives adopting the Ostrich pose - burying their heads in the sand hoping ‘things get better’ even though they know this undertaking is critical to their company’s long term survival.



If you are serious about building a true high-performance culture, you need to ensure your managers understand the reason for doing so is not to make people happier i.e. it is not about trying to appease disengaged employees (which researchers believe up to 60% of New Zealand’s entire workforce can be), but rather to consider your team the key to your organisation’s success therefore any effort to increase ‘it’s’ capacity to perform is strategically and commercially invaluable.

Identifying what culture ‘your’ company needs to excel is vital. A high-performance culture is not only different across companies and industries, it needs to reflect the specific attitudes and behaviours you believe your team needs to demonstrate to deliver your particular strategy.

To achieve this, consider the following:

  • How do you (as a company) want to be perceived in the market?
  • What do you want customers and/or prospective customers to think of when they think about your business?
  • What are the traditional views the market has of your industry, therefore what could you offer that will not only be different but fundamentally better in the critical areas that matter to customers?

Once understood, you can build the framework required to support the particular attitudes and behaviours managers need to demonstrate to set new standards and therefore advance the organisation.



Values not only underpin a culture, but they should also define the culture. Therefore consider your values as the specific ‘attitudes and behaviours’ you believe your people need to exemplify in order to confirm what you want your customers to think (experience) when dealing with you.

Values should not be considered the mechanism to instill a set of ‘ethical’ standards. One of the primary reasons many companies fail to build an appropriate culture is because they abdicate responsibility for its development as a result of poor leadership and/or they misinterpret the word ‘values’.

Whilst it is critical employees act with honesty and integrity etc, it is very difficult for the majority of employees who are honest to demonstrate more honesty. In other words, values need to provide tangible, demonstrable insight as to how employees should act in order to succeed within the business, not just comply with so-called business rules.

The concept of educating employees on such things as honesty and integrity are management issues and management issues alone. Any employee action or activity that crosses a line i.e. is questionable or inappropriate, must be dealt with by managers, not left to a set of words that hang on the foyer wall that your manager’s hope will cause sufficient guilt within the offender to encourage them to rectify their behaviour.

The question

The question I believe companies need to ask themselves when considering culture is this:

What are the specific attitudes and behaviours we need to demonstrate to deliver our strategy?

i.e. How do we need to think and act in order to become what we want to become and therefore be in a position to achieve what we want to achieve?



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