HR’s role in driving a high-performance culture

by 19 Aug 2009

The HR function has been on the receiving end of criticism, bordering on an outright bashing over the past few years. But, as Libby Sartain writes, a proven method for elevating the professions role is for it to become the change agent for creating a high-performance culture

The global positioning system in my car has a robotic voice that lets me know when I have arrived at my destination. I find that when I hear those words, I already know I am there, or I have no idea where I am at all. In a way, that’s where we are in HR right now.

Over the past few years, the HR profession has been on the receiving end of criticism and outright bashing that caused us to find metrics and measurements to justify our existence, to reposition HR departments as a profit centre, to establish employee self-service centres, use technology and outsourcing to reduce costs, and to re-brand the function as strategic versus tactical. Many CEOs now rank HR as one of the functions that adds the most value to their organisation. And people issues, such as finding and keeping the right talent and building a high-performance culture, are at the top of the corporate strategic agenda as keys to sustainable competitive advantage. When HR can be sure the right talent is available and ready at the right time, and be part of driving a culture that leads to high performance, the consequential relationship with the organisation and senior leaders is one of importance.

More and more executives are saying, “I can't function without my HR person.” We need to get past the criticism so we can be actively involved in helping our organisations shape their future and strategy, and be recognised for the value that we bring to our organisations. So why does it still seem like a losing battle to earn the respect we know we deserve? Because some of us have arrived, and some aren’t there yet. And because the destination is reset again and again as our organisations grow and change. HR as a profession must elevate itself from being a necessary administrative function to a performance driven contributor which can execute for results. But that can only be done one HR professional at a time, one career at a time, and one company at a time. It’s amazing, though, what a difference critical mass can make!

A proven method for elevating the HR role is for HR to become the change agent for creating a high-performance culture. Under this scenario, the HR agenda is crafted to build organisational capability and to drive business performance leading to results. The outcome of this approach is a new way of looking at HR programming and people practices. Organisations that have adopted this approach have adopted balanced scorecards or other metrics to assure that managers are more involved in performance management and accountable for productivity. HR provides the tools that focus on measuring and rewarding the desired outcomes. Performance, execution and delivering results permeate the organisation. There are clear rewards for high levels of performance, and consequences if results are not delivered. HR takes on a high impact role in the organisation, because it is viewed as the driver of the high-performance culture and has a visible impact on overall capability of the people in the organisation. HR’s primary focus in this environment is talent and leadership acquisition and development. Clear expectations are set for excellence in the leadership team and a consistency in how leaders function and take responsibility for results that transcend all lines of business. HR is part of the leadership team at all levels, focusing on business priorities, rather than just people issues. When this is working, the entire enterprise sees the importance of people and leadership and HR becomes a contributor at a much higher level and with much more influence.

Before you decide to undertake the challenge of becoming the change agent who drives a cultural change leading to a high-performance organisation, I have some advice: proceed with caution! I think it is a mistake to look to HR as the sole source or owner of corporate culture. While culture is primarily about people, it is not necessarily just HR’s domain. Beware of falling into a culture trap. Many corporate leaders don’t want to be bothered with such an esoteric, hard to define outcome as culture, so they delegate it to HR. If it doesn’t occupy the top of the business agenda, everyone thinks it’s HR’s problem.

Very few high-performance cultures are created or owned by HR. In fact, HR is rarely at the table at the inception of such a culture. Usually the company’s culture begins from those very first hours when a dream of a new business idea started taking shape. Each business founder has his or her own personal set of values, beliefs and behaviours that shapes the initial work environment. More likely than not, the first group of employees are driven to succeed by their sense of mission, passion and shared values and culture began to evolve, rather than being deliberately created. Certain values, behaviours, work ethics and communications channels become core to the how things get done. If the venture survives and grows, leaders emerge in true entrepreneurial style, reflecting the core cultural attributes. Few start-ups have the foresight to invest in HR, yet start-ups are often praised for their culture. Somehow culture happens without the presence of HR.

HR usually arrives on the scene as the enterprise reaches the stage where HR administration is needed. An organisation’s first HR leader is often focused on getting the basics in place and finding a way to compete for talent, create a good working environment, help the workforce develop new skills, formalise rewards systems, and comply with applicable regulations. These key activities allow HR to lead and drive cultural development, but not to create it. Somewhere along the evolutional path, the best companies recognise the importance of a sustaining a high-performance culture as a competitive advantage. HR plays an important role in creating an overall employee experience in alignment and every employee becomes a ‘keeper of the culture’.

While many in HR talk about the need to transform their cultures, fewer have actually succeeded because it requires changing behaviour of the entire workforce. This is most easily done when a new CEO or leadership team is called in because change is needed to survive. Without a true burning platform, or commitment from the top, cultural change initiatives are doomed. To affect true cultural transformation, the structure and every system and process must reinforce the desired culture. And worse, all leaders must embrace new attitudes and conduct their activities in new and different ways. HR leaders cannot go it alone in these endeavours. Changing the culture requires the efforts of everyone in the enterprise. It is sometimes better to work to shape the culture in a natural evolution, rather than to try to change deeply ingrained working styles and behavioural norms.

With support of the senior team, HR can begin to define what the current cultural status is and how it adds or detracts from the company’s objectives. We can determine whether or not the culture attracts, retains and engages the right talent. We can identify the best parts of the culture, and the undesirable aspects can be discussed. This work leads to identifying what aspects of your culture are actually cultural imperatives (what Collins and Porras call “core ideology” in Built to Last). Within most organisations there are non-negotiables that would immediately spit out people who somehow don’t fit. At Southwest, for example, our culture was zany, fun, but very disciplined. At Yahoo!, one has to hit quickly and learn how to navigate a complex labyrinth of businesses and personalities to determine how to get things done.

Where HR can add the most value

Start the culture conversation at all levels. One way to accomplish this is to conduct a cultural assessment or audit of your organisation through employee surveys, focus groups or interviews. Review your organisational history, leadership styles, HR programming and industry practices to determine what currently drives and reinforces the culture. Finally, what is your customer experience? What cultural elements are obvious to customers? Is culture aligned with business strategy? Where are the disconnects? What needs to change? This can be the basis for healthy discussion at team meetings and employee chat sessions.

Develop a business case for cultural change. Why is the change needed? How will desired changes in culture support the business strategy?

Work with the senior leadership team to determine the desired culture. Core values, desired behaviours and shared vision are essential for a positive culture change effort to succeed. Every leader must embrace the need to change, or it won’t happen. Senior leaders must make new behaviours their way of life to reinforce desired change.

Develop an agenda or action plan for enhancing the culture or bringing about change. Start with the highest priorities and work on the toughest issues. For your culture to become self replicating, the way things are done will have to reinforce the core values and the culture.

Communicate what needs to change and why. Solicit input from people. Once the needed changes and process for change is defined, tell people what is expected. What are the rewards for changing, and the consequences for more of the same.

Change the organisational structure to enable change. Find new ways to accomplish work tasks. Use teams for one-time projects. Broaden roles and responsibilities.

Acquire talent based on cultural fit. Identify the characteristics of people who exhibit those behaviours that you’ve identified as desirable. The people who fit and thrive in your culture will perpetuate that culture in everything they do. If you have to choose between the candidate who has better skills or knowledge but doesn’t fit, and a candidate who is slightly less qualified but fits culturally, choose the slightly less qualified person and provide the necessary training or on-the-job experience. Get rid of those who don’t fit in the culture.

Redesign your on-boarding process. Make sure that every new hire knows what it will take to fit in, and understands the cultural imperatives. Talk about the ways of working that lead to success and those that will derail careers. Create legendary stories of successes and failures.

Create cultural messages. Be sure that every meeting, every training program, every communication to people includes cultural messaging and reinforces the values, mission, traditions and practices.

Involve everyone. Southwest Airlines has a culture committee, but there are many ways to get people involved. Try focus groups around topics. Form cross functional teams. Call random groups of employees together for monthly breakfast or lunch meetings. Engage the help and support of a group of passionate, committed people to identify cultural disconnects and recommend remedies.

Build an internal brand that supports the external brand. Make a promise to deliver a consistent employee experience. Be sure that your employees know the differentiating elements in their experience in the organisation that will enhance their work lives and careers. Begin to create an employer of choice reputation internally and externally.

Recognise and reward results. Your recognition and rewards should support the culture that you are working to reinforce.

Cultivate leaders who promote your culture. Develop excellent leaders who will propel the culture down the ranks. Identify high potential leaders and promote them. Invest in leadership development programs. Be sure content reinforces cultural messages. Keep the good ones, and get rid of those who are unable to pass the culture on.

Make it interesting and fun. Create contests, activities that enhance the culture. Decorate the office in inspiring ways. Celebrations and events can reinforce the message.

Use HR tools. Something as mundane as the annual benefits enrolment can be a source of key cultural messages. Every training class should reinforce the basic behaviours and values that reinforce the culture. Performance review forms should measure cultural fit, as well as, job performance.

No one should be locked out of the efforts to build a high-performance culture. Culture has to become the DNA that forms the building blocks over everything else. So the entire organisation must have a role in keeping it alive. Work with corporate communications, advertising, and marketing to capture the culture messages and tout these internally and externally. Let product management see that new product development manifests the cultural values in the way it responds to the marketplace demand for quality and service. Work with your legal department to demonstrate the company culture by developing ethical standards and a code of conduct that is not just in compliance but also the right thing to do.

And remember that no one department can force corporate culture on to the rest of the company. You must achieve buy-in from everyone, from the CEO all the way down. This way you play it safe and also to win!

Libby Sartain is senior vice president of human resources and chief of people at Yahoo! Inc. Reprinted with permission from Heads Count: An Anthology for the Competitive Enterprise. Copyright 2003 PeopleSoft.