Posted by: mikeduckett | October 20, 2010

Success Recipes & Performance Cultures

I was recently asked by a client of mine, the Managing Director of a global company, if I knew anyone who had actually implemented a performance culture in an organisation. Someone who was not a consultant but was an employee who had personal stories to tell of what they did, how they did it and what happened along the way.

My first thought, which turned out to be the same as everyone else’s that I asked, was “what do you mean by performance culture”. At first pass it seems obvious: turning a culture that didn’t perform into one that did. I’m a coach focused on high performance so surely I know what he means!

Well maybe that’s my get out clause – I’m a coach and I work with individuals, not whole cultures. Maybe the ones put on the spot would be culture change consultants and gurus.

However, stepping out of my role as a personal coach for a moment, the reason he’d asked me was because I’ve been in industry as an employee, leading teams and attempting change. So my client and I had a conversation aimed at clarifying my search criteria if I was to help him, which threw up some interesting thoughts. I was trying to run a vision in my mind of some people doing something in a way that clearly identified a performance culture, versus a vision of some people doing something in a way that clearly indicated a non-performance culture.

Surely after 23 years in the pharmaceutical industry and attendance at so many industry conferences on ‘leadership’; ‘performance turnaround’; ‘sales force excellence’ etc. I’d know someone who’d actually done it and not just talked a good game? Someone I could call and ask to simply come and tell the stories to my client’s global management team.

It seemed to us that we both knew people who had demonstrated behaviours we might include in defining a performance culture – inspirational leadership, focus on results etc. But one person who demonstrated all this?

We both also had thoughts about performance; is it defined purely by the measurements you choose, so that it is just another word for ‘result’? Or is performance, as I would claim in a coaching context, something vitally separate from the results gained from that performance?

We both had thoughts about the word ‘culture’; does it include everyone i.e. would everyone have to be performing at some pre-set level or could you still have a performance culture if some people / groups weren’t performing to pre-set levels but others were? Would a focus on the culture side of the equation take you into studies of values & rules. Indeed the IDeA report Making performance management work, defines culture as ‘. . . the sum total of an organisation’s ways of operating and working together . . . the shared beliefs and the written and unwritten policies and procedures that determine the ways in which the organisation and its people behave and solve problems.’

So it was getting quite complicated and not helping either of us identify that one real person we knew who had ‘done it’.

We then began to focus back on individuals to ask the related question, did we know anyone who had the secret recipe for success? We could easily think of numerous success gurus of the “3 Key Steps to Business Success” or “The 11 Behaviours of Successful People” genre. We could even think of specific people who had their own story to tell of their route to a personal success. Indeed what about all the experts on programs such as Dragon’s Den?

Here we came up against my personal belief, (formed I must add from personal experience of working with some very successful people) i.e. I don’t believe there is a secret recipe for success.

I recently heard a public talk given by Mike Clare, the highly successful founder of Dreams, the bed company. His talk was truly both entertaining and enlightening. He was able to describe a number of key steps he took and the underlying beliefs and values that led him to make a great success of a company that sold beds. However, much to his credit what he was also happy to do was tell the story of his failure in the clock business, having tried to replicate his success recipe.

Also, some years ago my wife went into partnership with a high-profile business person who had made all his money in a commodity business that took him to Hong Kong regularly. There he became interested in high quality oriental furniture and he and my wife set up an import business. It went nowhere fast for many reasons.

I have many more similar examples from personal experience and my point is that these people don’t have a success recipe, which if followed unlocks success after success. If someone tries to sell you one then don’t buy it! Success is more complex than that and is always an interplay between personal characteristics and contexts (including timing).

So there we are; back to coaching individuals to create their own personal recipe of thoughts, reactions and behaviours in specific contexts that will be more useful than any sold by the snake oil salesmen.



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