Human Capital Management

Flying High

How smart organizations create a culture of high performance

by Minda Zetlin

February 2017

Most large organizations have a grand vision, but few have one as ambitious as the San Diego Zoo’s: to end extinction, one species at a time. This isn’t just an aspiration confined to motivational posters and annual reports. It’s something all 3,000 employees are encouraged to think about every day.

A biologist working in one of the zoo’s research labs might have an easier time seeing how his or her job helps fight extinction than a food service worker handing out hot dogs to zoo visitors. So in addition to regular training related to their jobs, all employees get training in the zoo’s strategic mission, according to Tim Mulligan, chief human resources officer at the San Diego Zoo. That way, he says, they can be “velcroed to the ‘Why.’”

Employees know if they up-sell in the gift shop and restaurants, or they work at converting visitors into members and members into donors, the money they raise will aid the zoo’s conservation work. They’re also encouraged to learn about—and talk with customers about—their own favorite animals and species.


It’s a big change from 12 years ago, before Mulligan—coauthor of ROAR: How to Build a Resilient Organization the World-Famous San Diego Zoo Way (High Point Executive Publishing, 2016)—came on board with instructions to instill a performance-based culture at the now century-old zoo. At the time, he says, organizational goals rarely filtered down to employees, and there was no pay-for-performance or other incentives. Things are different now. The zoo has won an award from the magazine HRO Today for its employee engagement, which surveys show is up by 300 percent.

The zoo is a great example of how good management can transform a large organization, creating a high-performance culture that permeates everything it does from the executive suite to the janitorial closet. It isn’t ever quick or easy, but organizations that make the transition reap huge rewards in employee engagement, recruitment, retention, productivity, and innovation.

Defining a High-Performance Culture

Like many such terms, high performance is in danger of becoming a buzz phrase that everyone automatically adopts without giving the matter much thought. That’s why organizations that are serious about high performance must begin by identifying exactly what that terms means, in terms of specific results they hope to achieve.

Lars Sudmann, executive coach and former CFO of Procter & Gamble Belgium, recommends choosing a group of key metrics by which organizations will measure their own performance, such as output, financial results compared with competitors, turnover, and so on. To get a clear view, combine those metrics with surveys that will tell you your own organization’s sentiment. “It’s always good to do quick polls to see if we’re on track or not,” he says. Even more important, he also recommends tracking what he calls input metrics, such as the quantity of feedback to a proposal or question, the number of discussions on internal chat systems, and so on. “In the end, the input metrics are what you truly have control over and are what lead to high performance,” he says.

What are some of the prerequisites for a high-performing culture? It begins with valuing people, says Pamela Stroko, vice president of human capital management transformation and thought leadership at Oracle and author of the ebook The Chemistry of High Performance, available on this summer. Stroko and her team did extensive research to see how high-performing “magnet” companies differed from the norm. “Are you able to attract and retain talent? Do you have a place where people want to work, where they can grow their careers? If not, you’re not going to be able to have a high-performance culture,” Stroko says.

Do you have a place where people want to work, where they can grow their careers? If not, you’re not going to be able to have a high-performance culture.”–Pamela Stroko, Vice President of Human Capital Management Transformation and Thought Leadership, Oracle

Another hallmark of a high-performance culture is continuous improvement for both the organization and individuals within it, says Andy Fleming, co-CEO of Way to Grow INC, a consulting and education firm based in Atlanta, Georgia, and a contributing author of An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016).

“The organization is not only getting better, but it’s getting better at getting better,” Fleming says. “A high-performance culture in the twenty-first century requires that you’re growing the capabilities of your people individually and collectively all the time.”

How can an organization begin to create a high-performance culture? It won’t be quick or easy, experts warn. The performance metrics measured and the end results will look different for every company. But the following are fundamental principles and practices every high-performance organization needs to have.

A purpose everyone understands. When working with large organizations, Claudette Rowley, founder of Cultural Brilliance, a Boston, Massachusetts–area consulting firm, and her team will ask a wide range of employees if they know the company’s strategic goals for the year—and most of them don’t. Ideally, Rowley says, even in a company with 50,000 employees, each of those employees would know the answer to that question. “They’d all be able to say, ‘This is what our company is focused on this year. This is what our department is focused on, and this is what our team is focused on.’ If you put those goals together, you would see that at every level, the organization was aligned to support the company’s purpose.”

A focus on employee experience. Beyond giving employees lots of support and attractive compensation and perks, in a high-performance culture, employees are constantly advancing their skill sets and broadening their responsibilities. One company Fleming and his coauthors studied operates movie theaters. That company has put together impressive on-the-job training that allows an entry-level hire to develop into a qualified theater manager in 40 percent less time than in the rest of the industry. With qualified theater managers already in-house, the company has an easier time than its peers hiring for these positions. It doesn’t have to pay headhunters or offer huge salaries to lure theater managers away from other employers—and if an employee is trained as a theater manager but there is no such position immediately available, managers will actually help the employee find the right job elsewhere.

“A lot of companies aspire to be great places to work,” Fleming says. In today’s world, that’s not good enough. High-performance organizations are not just great places to work; they’re great places to grow, he says, “not just for ‘high potentials’ and for key leaders, but for everybody.”

Authority and accountability. One hallmark of high-performance organizations is that they are “always pushing responsibility down to the lowest-possible level and the level closest to the customer,” Fleming says. One company he’s studied embraces the idea that people are 10 times more capable than we think they are, and it keeps that axiom in mind when making decisions about how much responsibility to hand off to lower-level employees.

But making that heightened degree of responsibility work also requires a greater level of accountability. That’s something that company leaders sometimes miss, he says. “In a high-performance culture, people are held more responsible for business results than in a traditional culture. They’re also more responsible for what they’re learning. If they don’t deliver business results, there will be a conversation about that, but also about what kept them from delivering business results, and what they need to work on to be able to achieve those results next time.”

Dialogue with leadership. “Most people are working a second job putting a lot of energy into covering up their weaknesses and making themselves look good,” Fleming says. In a high-performance culture, that kind of concealment becomes unnecessary. “People are honest about what they’re struggling with. They feel it’s OK to ask for help rather than pretend to hold it all together.”

A real two-way dialogue can have powerful results. At the San Diego Zoo, the CEO visits each of the organization’s seven locations once a quarter and holds a town hall–style meeting where he answers every question with very little information held back. The quarterly visits were Mulligan’s idea, because when he first came on board and began surveying employees, he found the zoo scored some of its weakest ratings in the areas of communicating with employees and respect for executive leadership. That situation exists no longer. Today, the zoo has an astoundingly high 98 percent response rate for employee surveys. “The reason we have so much excitement about the survey is that we actually do something with the results,” he says.


Response rate to employee surveys at the San Diego Zoo, which CHRO Tim Mulligan attributes to the fact that “we actually do something with the results”


A willingness to listen. Before a company can become high-performing, executives need to start really listening, Rowley says. “There’s something incredible that can happen when leaders who tend to do a lot of talking actually listen instead, not discounting anything but taking it all in.”

At the same time, people at all levels must learn to talk honestly about whatever’s going wrong. “I see a lot of companies trying to become high-performing without actually talking about the issues related to that,” she says. “But you can’t change what you don’t talk about. You have to tell the truth about what’s really going on.”

André De Waal, academic director of the Netherlands-based HPO Center, saw the power of truth-telling at a large banana exporter in the Philippines where he and his team were brought in to evaluate the level of performance of the organization. An important recommendation was to improve dialogue throughout the organization and with the suppliers. Because a dialogue promotes truth-telling in the company, the number of mistakes at the warehouse decreased rapidly, and coordination with distributors improved so much that the quality of the bananas delivered to supermarkets became much better (and so did profits for all parties in the supply chain).

It’s the kind of thing that can happen when you have a high-performance culture. Even though it can take years and requires constant effort along with a big investment in education, companies that create a high-performance culture reap rewards in profitability, productivity, recruitment, and retention that make it all worthwhile. In today’s world, no organization can ignore the imperative to help employees grow and to provide a great work experience. Create a high-performance culture and you’ll bring the talent you need to your door.

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