CIPD Podcast 30 - Building sustainable high performance

Date: 07/04/09 Duration: 00:25:36

In this podcast, Lou Burrows and Tim Miller discuss what drives high performance at work and how organisations can develop and sustain a high performance culture. CIPD’s Shaping the Future research project is described by Steve Crabb.


Lou Burrows: You can see on these walls going up the stairs we’ve got our values - so Love, Bravery, Passion, Freshness, Action. And what happens through the week is people notice one another living a value and they just scribble it out on a piece of paper or a post-it note or a bit of A4 and just stick the story up and say “This person went way beyond the call of duty” or “This is what I really appreciate about this person” and then stick the story up. And there’s all sorts of things up there about people who had amazing ideas of supported one another but it’s about the values and not just written like in a book or on a plaque and then forgotten about, they’re happening all the time.

Philippa Lamb: Lou Burrows is the Global Head of People at ?What If!, the creative innovations consultancy. ?What If! works with an extraordinarily wide range or organisations from corporate giants like Unilever and HSBC to non profits such as cancer research, government departments and even start-ups. They specialise in helping their clients to innovate and grow and their philosophy is all about releasing creative potential in people, products and brands. 
Based in the West End of London their relaxed and informal offices look much as you’d expect with big leather sofas, vibrant colours and a fridge full of free drinks. But there is a great deal more substance to ?What If! than beanbags and table football and later I’ll be talking to Lou Burrows about how they’ve developed a culture of exceptionally high performance working there. 

For organisations of every sort high performance is the holy grail and the CIPD is currently devoting a three year research programme to it called Shaping the Future. The aim is to come up with fresh insights into how to build lasting high performance and ?What If! is one of the companies participating in the project, along with Standard Chartered Bank. We’ll hear more from both organisations a bit later on, but first I spoke to Steve Crabb from the CIPD who’s one of the project leaders.

Steve Crabb: We’re attempting to build a community of engaged practitioners, HR people and colleagues in other functions and other disciplines who will come together to debate the issues, to try our ideas out in practice and feed back their conclusions and their insights, and in so doing help us to better understand how you can create high performance working cultures, and sustain them over time, so they don’t just become flashpoints or hot spots that burn brightly for a short time, but actually become something that you can maintain even in downturns like this one and in rapidly changing market conditions where competition is intense.

PL: So this is by no means just an academic study, this is real organisations carrying out projects to see if they actually work, attempting to put these ideas into practice and telling you whether it works or not?

SC: Absolutely. And too often these reports have moulded away in drawers rather than being, okay they’ve been understood and read by the HR community, but often we haven’t reached out beyond that to people in SMEs, for example, to government policy makers and so forth and Shaping the Future is about a different kind of experience. Yes, there is research, high integrity research at the core of the programme, but it’s so much more than that. It’s an attempt to close what’s called the ‘knowing doing gap’ which is the gap between the research community and the practitioners who are actually doing it on the ground. They do one thing or a few things spectacularly well and we want to understand better what it is that they’re doing that enables them to be so successful in that respect.

PL: Lou Burrows told me more about how they’ve developed a culture of exceptionally high performance working at ?What If!.

LB: Well it starts obviously with recruiting the right people, and that’s where a huge amount of our effort goes. So we don’t just have the people team recruiting, we’re all at it all the time. So there’s a very strong culture of everybody is looking for the right kind of people because they could be anywhere. So our Chief Exec’s even been accused of having a slightly sort of stalkerish attitude to people. If he comes across somebody and he thinks they would make a great inventor he will really pursue them. And it works because I was one of those people where I wasn’t actually looking to join ?What If!, I wasn’t even looking for a job, but through a bit of networking we came across one another and he wooed me over, so quite a lot of people here weren’t looking for jobs.

PL: Is there a type, is there a ?What If! type or are you actually an array of different sorts of people?

LB: Yeah we are an array but there’s a really strong DNA which is I think about people who are slightly restless. So people who like to make change, people who don’t like to be told what to do, they don’t want to have things set out for them, they don’t want to hear, “This is the way we do things” they want to be involved in constantly co-authoring and recreating.

PL: It strikes me from what you’re saying you have this cohort of actually already highly motivated autonomous self managing people. It’s possibly an easier task than other organisations in actually achieving high performance because your people are already bought into that idea aren’t they?

LB: Yes completely, completely. I don’t have to sit... I don’t have to sort of come in on a Monday morning and think what am I going to do about performance, they’re very motivated. The thing that I have to be very aware of is how fresh are they because all of our clients are coming to us because they’ve got problems, so our people are connecting with our clients at time when those clients have got a big challenge, a big problem, quite a lot of tension, you know they’re really up for it. So our people are constantly surrounded by clients who are trying to make big change and that’s quite tiring. So we have a mantra in the People Team, our positioning it’s all about freshness and fairness; that’s what we exist for. 
So fairness: we’ve got to make sure people are being treated fairly, that’s very important to people. But freshness is it’s not just one of our values it’s a driving force of the People Team. So who’s been travelling too much? Who’s been working too hard? Who’s driven themselves round the bend trying to sort out someone’s problem?

PL: And you manage that do you, you act as that overseeing eye and take people aside and say, “Actually you need a break, you’ve done too much.”

LB: Well not on our own, we work closely with the people that manage teams and we sit down with them regularly, always having cups of tea, “How’s it going?” And we know who’s travelling a lot we’re very good at noticing, you know putting things in place so that people feel actually when they come back from a big trip there is a lot of support there for them. They don’t have to come into work straight away. They might need some help sorting out something at home, we’ve got lots of things in place, we’ve got very practical things. So, for example, we have an in-house doctor, we have an in-house physiologist; we have what’s called ‘The Friends and Family Helpline’ which is the basic employee assistance line. We do a lot to make sure people are fresh really because if they’re not fresh they can’t do the job.

PL: Impressively ?What If! seems to have successfully embedded a culture of high performance working into the Company. But many other organisations are still on that journey. Steve Crabb told me more about how the Shaping the Future project can help. 

SC: One of the ways in which we’re going to be progressing Shaping the Future is through what we’re calling ‘PEGs’ it stands for practice exchange groups. And what these are they’re groups of people often HR practitioners, but not exclusively, who will be coming together and maybe half a dozen times during the lifetime of the programme to discuss and debate best practice and to jointly solve problems. And so they may have a problem with an issue they want to address to do with employee engagement for how you get employees to connect with what you’re trying to achieve. They may have issues to do with leadership, but they’ll come together and with a minimum of input or direction from us they’ll work together to share insights and best practice. 
Where possible these groups are regional or sectoral and they’re tied in with other networks so we hope that the learning will go beyond just the eight or ten people who participate in these groups but will be fed out into the wider communities that they belong to. So we’ve got groups setting up in the voluntary sector, in higher education, financial services, in central and local government; but regionally and nationally we’ve got groups developing in Scotland and Wales, in Ireland and as far afield as Romania and Dubai.

PL: I think this is a really fascinating approach because it’s an excellent idea clearly isn’t it this sharing of expertise and ideas and will that continue beyond the life of the project itself?

SC: Yes we hope that what we’re doing is lighting a spark really that will continue long after the programme has been formally wound up. It is actually a three year programme so it’s a huge investment for the institute in terms of time and resources, but by partnering with these other organisations and engaging them in debate about best practice in high performance working we hope that there will be an abiding legacy.

PL: Reporter Lucy Greenwell, went to talk to Tim Miller. He’s Director of People, Property and Assurance at Standard Chartered Bank. They recently announced a 19% increase in profits for 2008 and she wanted to know how he achieves and sustains high performance at the Bank.
Lucy Greenwell: Your results came out recently and they were extremely good relative to the current climate. Do you think there’s any way that you can make the link between high performance working and the way you’ve been approaching this over the last few years and those results?

Tim Miller: Well our results were quite good and we’re very pleased with them, but they’re based on doing some simple things well. We have a strategy and we’ve stuck to it. Despite a number of distractions that have come our way we’ve remained firmly on our strategic course. 
Secondly, we’ve made sure that we just do the basics of banking well; a good process, good disciplines around risk management all those things are in place. And thirdly, we’ve managed our culture on a proactive basis over this period to make sure we are building the right sort of behaviours around our employees so they’ll do the right thing irrespective of where they are either by business or geography. And I suppose the other issue that has undoubtedly underpinned our success is that we’ve, in that culture, built a strong focus on performance and with it a strong level of employee engagement. The main link that we’ve established through all our research and our data is that the strongest direction flow, and it’s causal, is between high levels of employee engagement and business performance. And because we measure it we can actually work out just how to improve it. So we find that our higher performing teams tend to perform better because they’re more engaged.

PL: So Standard Chartered sees a clear link between employee engagement and strong business results but how exactly does the Bank define high performance working?

TM: I suppose it means a number of things really. It’s about creating the right culture and climate where people can give of their best. We believe that our culture and values differentiate us from our competition in a very positive way. But to do that I believe you need to have a clear vision about what you're doing with a very, very explicit strategy which you stick to despite perhaps attempts to knock you off course. So at Standard Chartered we have a very simple strategy which is to be the world’s leading international bank in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. So very straight forward and underneath that we have a series of priorities which we continuously reinforce with our staff at all levels, so that everybody is clear about what the purpose, the vision, the mission of the Company is as we go throughout the year. 
In addition, we’re very keen that we build continuous levels of feedback to our staff about how we’re doing. So we spend a lot of time communicating where we’re going and how much progress we’re making on that journey. And, of course, we have our own performance management system, just like many organisations, and we use that to reinforce the messages about our progress and performance - people need lots of feedback. And it’s particularly the case in troubled and turbulent times that we’re currently experiencing that we communicate even more to our staff to help them understand what the issues are and what they can do to support the organisation going forward. 

LG: Getting people to work as high performers is one thing but sustaining that is very different. What particular approaches do you have to ensure that it is a sustainable approach?

TM: Well if you asked our Chief Executive what he thinks our defining... sort of characteristics he would undoubtedly say values and culture. And we do work hard at maintaining a ‘one bank’ culture across all the different products, geographies and businesses that we run so that we are united as an organisation with a single culture rather than a collection of silo cultures which is often typical of a number of other organisations. 
We keep clear focus on our priorities, as I said before, because that again we’ve shown that it is an important ingredient in sustainable high performance. Employee engagement is also another important ingredient in building sustainable performance and that’s why we spend time and money and effort in measuring employee engagement every year, but measuring it on a team base so that each team can then review their scores and work on how they can improve engagement in the following year. And that’s proved to be very successful because it’s another way of ensuring that we deliver to employees the four things that all employees need to know, wherever they are in the world it seems to me, in whatever industry for that matter, which is what am I paid to do? What are the tools and resources to do my job? How about some feedback along the way? And when I’ve done a great job for the Bank how they look after me. If you satisfy those needs of employees you go a long way to building sustainable high performance.

PL: ?What If! like Standard Chartered has been expanding since it was founded in 1992 with offices in Shanghai, New York and London. Both see high performance working as highly dependent on a strong company culture. But how do they keep that vital sense of community across different continents.

LB: I think it starts with who goes out to open up those offices. So with New York and with Shanghai the people who went out to set those businesses up had been in our business for like five or six years and they wanted a fresh challenge. And so it is slightly spooky when you get off a plane and you go into the office in Shanghai or New York you walk through the door and it’s like, “Oh it’s just like London” it is absolutely astonishing. If I were to show you a video of those places you’d be really struck by the spirit. They look very similar in style. The people in there there’s a similar kind of energy. And I’ve just come back from a week in Shanghai and I was sitting at a desk and I said to Sal, “It’s funny it’s just like being in London isn’t it? You know there’s a load of noise. Someone was chucking paper around in the corner tearing something up, some people are laughing. But the only difference is they’re doing it all in Mandarin and I’ve got no idea what they’re laughing about.” But it just feels like you’re in London it’s very similar.

PL: That is really fascinating because lots of other sorts of businesses have found they cannot export their formula abroad. Lots of retailers have failed disastrously trying to do that but it does work for you. You've got the ?What If! corporate way of doing things and you can take that to China wholesale and it works with indigenous Chinese people?

LB: Yes completely. Well it starts with the values, so we recruit to the values, and then we have an induction programme which is called The Academy and those people come over, so it’s quite expensive for us, but it’s well worth it after they’ve been in Shanghai or New York for a few months they come over. In fact the New York office has now grown to a size where they can do their own academy but people still come over. So you’d think wouldn’t you that Chinese people would find it all a bit sort of counter intuitive but they... the loyalty of the people who we have in Shanghai is phenomenal, because for them there just are not these types of organisations that they could choose to work elsewhere at. Whereas in London there’s many, many more companies and in New York that share some of the values or some of the cultural feeling, but in Shanghai there’s just nothing like it. 

PL: Is there a limit to how far you could take that philosophy do you think? If ?What If! became an organisation employing 2,000 people would that formula still work do you think?

LB: If we got the right leader. If we got the right leader and we hired the right people and we kept on paying attention to the culture I think it’s limitless. We’re not that big now, it could fall apart tomorrow if we went to a country and we had the wrong type of leader and they didn’t really bed in the values. So you have to really take care of it.

PL: And in terms of achieving high performance across those three country offices do you measure it in the same way across the organisation, do you have your definition in your head of what is high performance or do you make cultural distinctions?

LB: I think we make cultural distinctions. I mean how do we... we’re very unstructured in our whole approach to performance, so we don’t have appraisals. Some people join and say, “Tell me about the appraisal system” well we don’t have one, we don’t believe that an appraisal system’s going to bring out the best, in fact we have something called ‘BOB’ which is Bringing out the Best - Bringing Out Brilliance. And we very simply train up all the managers in how to bring out the best in people - it’s that wide. I don’t care if your notes come on a piece of paper, on the back of a cigarette packet I really don’t care about where they are, but you must have had a conversation about how to bring out the best in your people.

PL: In terms of sustaining high performance I’m interested to know is it possible for people to be constantly high performance over a period of years, or is it something that people periodically manage and then perhaps come back to at later periods in their life? I mean can you just become a high performance individual perpetually?

LB: That’s a really... yes it’s a good question I don’t think you can be performing level doing the same thing for a long time. But I think that it’s up to the organisation to get in step with the people. So if somebody’s had two years doing brilliantly maybe running a country office what’s their next step going to be. Is it right for them to go and run another country office or should they maybe do a different type of work - you need to allow people the opportunity to stretch and change in terms of what they’re doing to have... they like to learn how to do new things, being high performing but in different ways.

PL: You are essentially a creative organisation you come up with imaginative solutions to other peoples’ problems, can your way or working be transferred to more conventional types of business? Could you operate your sort of ‘personnel policies’ for want of a better phrase, within a bank or a firm of lawyers or is it actually something that really only works within a creative context?

LB: I think it could work anywhere I really do. But you've got to have people at the top who believe that it’s got a value and constantly live the values. It’s not the sort of thing I would recommend any HR team thought “Let’s adopt some of this stuff and start rolling it out” because if you didn’t have leaders that supported it you’re on a hiding to nothing. One of the things that really inspires people here is about the passion and the energy of the guys that set this up 16 years ago. So a small example, in our Academy induction one of the things we do is we all get on what’s known as ‘The Magic Bus’ it’s not that magic it’s actually just a bus, but Matt and Dave are the tour leaders and they take you on a history tour. 
So it would be so easy to just sit people in a room and say, “Here’s a PowerPoint presentation of when we started and what we did” but they bring it alive - they get on the bus, you pile on, you’ve got your sandwiches and they take you to the office where they were five, the office where they were ten, the office where they decided to set up in New York and you go on this wonderful tour of London. 
And one of the things that struck me in my first month was there was some big client do and it clashed with the Magic Bus so my immediate reaction was “Okay well let’s try and move the Magic Bus” it was like, “No way I’m not moving that” and I was so impressed I thought I don’t believe it this is like... this is so important to them they are not moving this for anyone. And if something comes up, if one of them can’t make it they don’t move it, they move something else so they can both be there because this means so much to them.

PL: Lucy Greenwell asked Tim Miller at Standard Chartered if it would be possible to apply a ?What If! type culture to the Bank.

LG: We spoke to Lou Burrows at the creative solutions agency, ?What If!, about their high performance strategy there and it’s very interesting, it’s absolutely without hierarchy a very linear structure. They put a very high onus on personal freedom and autonomy and she was convinced that that kind of unstructured approach could work in any given organisation as long as the people there were willing to implement it. Can you see that working here at Standard Chartered?

TM: We’ve always encouraged people to operate as if they are shareholders in the Bank whether they are or not - some are some are not, and to participate in the Bank in that way. We don’t like to create hierarchies but we do need structure and discipline in which people have to operate. After all we are bound by regulators around the world to perform in certain ways and we have to do that and demonstrate that we can comply with that. 
Within that, however, again coming back to culture and values it’s the behaviours of our employees that are paramount to the success of the organisation. We have five values: Trustworthy; Creative; International; Responsive and Courageous. And within that we expect employees to behave against those five values. So we want people to be thoughtful, creative, innovative; we want people to come up with fresh ideas about how we can improve what we’re doing, so we’re trying to encourage a culture of continuous improvement within a relatively regulated environment which we have to, obviously, comply with. So a completely unstructured approach would not be helpful to an organisation like ours. But on the other hand we still have to then balance the need for discipline and adherence to regulatory requirements with the need to encourage employees to give of their best and be creative and supportive and responsive to our customers.

PL: Standard Chartered and ?What If! are very different organisations but there are striking similarities in the way they achieve and sustain high performance. They both share clear, strategic visions along with a strong sense of culture and they both place employee engagement at the very heart of the organisation. 
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve heard, why not get involved in the Shaping the Future project yourself. Steve Crabb is keen to have input from as wide a variety of people as possible and here’s his advice.

SC: The simplest way to get involved with Shaping the Future is just to go to our website which is where all you have to do is register your email address and a few details and we promise you won’t get deluged with marketing bumph. And we’ll send you a regular update letting you know about our polls, our surveys, our podcasts, our webinars and groups that are forming in your area. So everyone’s welcome you don’t have to be a CIPD member to register or to engage in any of the debates.

PL: It sounds from what you’re saying people can just dip in as much as they want, they’re not committing themselves to a whole three year involvement if they do decide to find out more about this?

SC: No absolutely. We welcome lurkers who just want to sit there and watch from the sidelines and if they see something going past that interests them then they’re welcome to join in as much or as little as they want.

PL: There’s more information on Shaping the Future in the show notes on the podcast webpage and next month we’ll be investigating how to achieve quick and effective organisational change. Join me then.

You’ve been listening to the CIPD podcast series. 



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