Why are there so few high-performing organisations?

The organisational performance question is a constant challenge for me and many people that I know. Why are there so few truly high-performing organisations?

I’m spending a lot of time talking to leaders in my own organisation about this and how we can really drive what I and a growing number of people would call ‘integral performance’. I don’t think that this is an HR issue. It’s a leadership challenge. The challenge for me rests in how we negotiate the balance between the organisation and the individuals within it.

By ‘organisation’, I mean the consistency of culture, systems, processes, rules, structures and leadership style. By ‘individual’, I mean the performance output from behaviours, attitudes, skills and experience. Driving performance and negotiating a balance here is a real challenge.

So many large, highly structured organisations that rely on a large and often geographically dispersed workforce to deliver a consistent quality of experience – whether product or service – have created systems, structures, styles and expectations that are actively designed to control individual initiative in an attempt to manage consistent delivery.

Inevitably, the customer, legislation and social pressures demand something new, something different. So the organisation is faced with the prospect of shifting behaviours to become more responsive, asking its people to be more adaptable, more responsible, and capable of taking initiative on an individual basis.

But instead of doing this, all too often the response is to change the process, change the structure, change some organisational element, rather than find a way where the individuals can actually start driving the change the organisation needs to deliver the new approach. So many organisations fail because, having adapted to a ‘system’ that reduces the amount of individual initiative, individuals simply don’t have the necessary experience, confidence or self-belief to accept or develop a new way of working.

The result is that they are unable, and probably unwilling, to adopt the new attitudes and behaviours required to deliver the change.

It’s this area that used to keep me awake at night. How on earth do you get people to take responsibility to be the change you need to see? The reality is that you can’t make them. At some stage they have to make an honest and committed choice to do it for themselves.

My challenge is this: how as a leader do I create an environment where behaviours, attitudes, skills and experience can be released and individuals given freedom to innovate so the necessary change can be delivered? And it’s the same challenge for every manager in the organisation. How do I move on from managing and begin to lead in this way?

We are in the process of creating this environment at Staples UK Retail. We started by helping our leaders understand more about the results they have been getting. These results – some of which they wanted, many of which they did not – were all directly linked to beliefs they held about themselves or the organisation. In effect, they were trapped in a cycle that they have now gone about deconstructing and understanding. This new understanding is enabling them to make positive choices about many aspects of their life including, fundamentally, work. They are making choices about being the change they want to see.

To date, 160 leaders – from the board of directors to general managers in our stores – have developed this understanding and challenged some of their limiting assumptions. The results we are getting are remarkable, as is the level of performance leadership we are watching develop. I even have retail managers offering me payroll funds to ensure their teams get access to the same learning. Retail managers just don’t do that. Retail leaders clearly do.

Ewan McCulloch, HR director, Staples UK Retail

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