Human Capital Management

High Performance and the Waiting Game

by Minda Zetlin

February 2017

Some companies start a high-performance culture initiative in response to a business crisis, says executive coach Lars Sudmann. But, he notes, that’s the worst time. “Adapting a culture is really difficult,” he says. “Think of it as changing the direction of an oil tanker. It doesn’t go fast.”

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.’”


A high-performance transformation takes five to seven years on average, says Pamela Stroko, vice president of human capital management transformation and thought leadership at Oracle. “It can be a 10-year journey, too,” she says. “There will be a lot of small wins along the way, and people who are good at creating a high-performance culture are great at hanging onto those wins.”

One reason for the long time frame is that the transition generally involves a shift in personnel. “Not everyone will make it,” says André de Waal, academic director of the HPO Center. “There are people who are afraid of high performance because they cannot do it, and those people will often leave voluntarily.”

Staying Consistent

The best way to create a cultural change is with a great deal of consistency, experts say. That means sticking with cultural transformation goals over the long term. “If it’s death by initiative—this year it’s this, next year it’s that—you’re never going to get there,” Stroko warns.

And you’ll really need to stay consistent when—inevitably—employees test new policies to see if they’ll be enforced. “Identifying and discussing the work culture is interesting, but it’s not the difficult work. The difficult work is two months later,” Sudmann says. “We’ve decided in our high-performance culture we will make fast decisions. Then it’s your time to make a decision and you say, ‘Well . . . let’s take another six months to study it. We are making fast decisions, but this case is different.’”

The first time this sort of thing happens, senior management must step in and correct it, Sudmann stresses, because employees will be watching closely and will draw conclusions about what is and isn’t OK under the new system. “That means seemingly small matters must get discussed and addressed.”

In other words, he says, “Extinguish a fire while it’s still small.”

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