Four Keys to Creating a High Performance Culture

 In Corporate Culture, Leadership

Turtles and rabbits? Farmers and firefighters? Football players on basketball teams?

These were three points that came up in our small group breakout discussion about “What Makes a High Performance Team?” (More on those ideas below.)

The session was part of the Vail Leadership Institute’s Applied Leadership Series where about 40 business leaders were gathered to hear Fred Martin, president and Chief Investment Officer of Disciplined Growth Investors (DGI) Fund and author of Benjamin Graham and the Power of Growth Stocks.

Martin kicked off the event by sharing lessons in leadership learned across his career, from his service in the Vietnam War, to early business success in the investment market, to running DGI, a 17-person mid-market fund that has outpaced the S&P over its 18-year history.

Here are four lessons he shared about building a high-performance culture.

1) Culture is a choice that takes a long-term commitment.

  • It took Martin 11-years to “get the right people on the bus” at DGI; today he measures the firm’s success by low client turn-over and zero turn-over on his staff.
  • A recent hire went through 21 interviews at DGI before accepting a job. In part it was his choice to keep exploring the opportunity before accepting, but for Martin, it also exemplifies DGI’s hiring standard, “We want this to be the last job you ever take.”
  • Once a part of the DGI team, Martin insists on fair compensation and keeping his word. In the years following the 2008-downturn, he held the line on executive pay, while continuing to bonus support staff.
  • Candor is also and important part of the DGI culture, “We want to hear from the voice that doesn’t always show up,” he says, “So we create safe zones and practice the art of listening.”

2) Purpose provides incentive.

  • Martin firmly believes that “clarity around purpose” is all the incentive an employee needs if they are already paid fairly. He wants employees to understand the “why” and their role in moving the overall business forward.
  • The firm has invested efforts to clearly define their brand based on their investment philosophy that is long-term in nature. This has helped them identify good-fit clients and employees who agree with their approach. It’s helped them let go of relationships where that philosophy isn’t shared.
  • According to Martin, “When individuals understand where they are headed and why, they have clarity around purpose and they become invested in the outcome.”

“So much of business is fear-based. People will tell you what they think you want to hear. If you remove that fear and start from a place of trust, you’ll start to get their best ideas.”

3) Trust fuels performance.

  • When it comes to getting things done, Martin doesn’t believe in delegation. Rather he encourages performance by a process he calls “decision rights” meaning he gives employees the freedom to figure out how to get things done.
  • For Martin, extending trust means letting go of how you might approach a project and providing the resources someone needs to get the job done. It may also require being supportive when things don’t go as planned.

4) Appreciation amplifies results.

  • “Thank you is a phrase that needs to be used more often in business,” says Martin.”
  • Part of the DGI culture is being both generous and specific with appreciation. The firm recently went through an overhaul of their IT system. After the successful completion of the project, they celebrated.
  • For the team directly involved with the initiative there was also a cash bonus and a gift that had special meaning to them as an individual. For example, for a baseball fanatic, he and his wife got tickets to opening day at the newly built Target Field in Minneapolis.

Farmers and Firefighters?

Back in our small groups, Martin challenged us to define a “high-performance culture” based on our experience. The conversation was lively.

We agreed on some key attributes of high performing teams, including these among others:

  • Everyone contributes and has ownership;
  • People put in the extra effort without being asked;
  • There is a positive energy and passion;

We also had some great debate on what personalities fit with performance:

  • Was performance about speed and was a hare better than tortoise?
  • Are people who can perform under pressure (firefighters) more desirable than those who work steadily to cultivate growth (farmers)?
  • Do you need to build a team with the same competencies (basketball players) or diverse skills (add a football player)?

In the end and regardless of our own business goals, we agreed a high performance culture requires a diverse team since diversity encourages debate and stimulates new ideas. Plus performance requires both those who can start and those who can finish.


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