What Does a ‘High Performing’ Company Look Like?

Every business leader says that they strive to create a ‘high-performing’ company culture, but logic suggests that not all companies can be truly high-performing organizations.  In fact, most companies are just average, and there are a lot that are below average.  It’s like illusory superiority, the cognitive bias whereby people overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others.  We don’t live in Lake Woebegone, and not everyone is above average.

What does a ‘high-performing’ company look like?  How does the ethos of high performance manifest?  In order to make this a goal, it’s essential to know what success looks like.

I’ve been lucky to have worked at two companies that I felt were truly high performing, and at many that would say they are, but really weren’t.  Which isn’t necessarily a knock on them; it takes a lot of discipline, work, and sacrifice to maintain a high bar on standards.

Here’s how I define ‘high performance’ (which may be different from yours).  It’s not about business outcomes (although great business outcomes are often a consequence), or about employing only the top technical problem-solvers in the world (although many will want to join such an organization).  I’m talking about working at a company where:

  • Every person feels like the lucky “hiring mistake”
  • Everyday conversations can leave you in awe of working with the best and most agile minds around
  • People are able to take on more responsibility and have more impact than they could anywhere else (and certainly more than their peers at other companies)
  • There is intrinsic motivation to contribute and make the company better; nobody says “that’s not my job”
  • There is a palpable sense of pride in maintaining a high quality bar
  • Alums are effusive when talking about the impact the company had on their learning and development.

Here is a list of practices that I’ve seen these types of companies uphold, and would welcome your observations in the ‘Comments’ section.  I’ll start here with Recruiting — the gatekeeping function for organizations.

  • Recruiting:
    • Maintain an uncompromisingly high bar on hiring.  Be willing to wait as long as it takes to score the ‘right’ hire, even if it means internal teams remain incomplete for as long as a year.  Create a sense of specialness for those who are hired (“you’ve joined an exclusive club”).
    • View recruiting as a privilege, and an important responsibility of each and every member of the company.  Give credit for outstanding recruiting efforts in performance reviews.  Have recruiting leadership be known as an important stepping stone to future leadership opportunities at the company.
    • Hold a performance bar on interviewing/recruiting eligibility.  Only seasoned employees who are in good standing are allowed to interact with candidates.  At one company, we even raised the bar to only allow highly rated employees to play a role in interviews. (As they say, “A players attract A players.”)
    • Do whatever it takes to seek out and woo the very brightest.  Change internal recruiting practices and timing to gain the upper hand in campus recruiting.  Develop relationships with professors and campus influencers to get early intel on the best students.
    • Go through a rigorous, and typically structured, interview process.  At least 6 (and often time, many more) interviews with a mix of immediate and adjacent team members.  Clear and consistent set of expectations and questions for each interview.  In-person group meetings to discuss and decide on each candidate, to which everyone brings detailed feedback notes.
    • Require consensus for hires.  Every interviewers’ opinion is counted, factored, discussed.  If ‘nos’ can’t be swayed, then the candidate isn’t hired.  If a contentious candidate is hired, the advocate who pounded the table for him/her is documented, so that, if the hire doesn’t perform well, that advocate is held responsible for coaching and developing.
    • Hire a strong, experienced, and well-staffed recruiting operations team.  Recruit great raw and experienced talent, train and develop them, and instill in them the drive and passion for finding the best people.

More to come in another post…

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