Supporting Top Performers

The key is creating meaningful value -- and sustaining it.
July 8, 2009
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

Following publication of my last column on retaining high performers, I received lots of comments and questions. Many of you wanted to know how to develop a culture within your organization that would support top performers, particularly in these difficult economic times.

So what do we know about high-performing organizations?Let's first define what we mean by high performance. My definition encompasses three components: Creating outstanding value for those we serve, creating powerful meaning for those who work within our organizations, and doing both of these things over time.

Creating value is our return on investment for the resources that our communities entrust us to invest on their behalf.Do we produce results that matter and make a difference, and do we produce such results efficiently and effectively?

We must also sustain meaning for the people who work in our organization. Most of us who choose public service do so because we want to make a difference. We want to help individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities. The work we do, therefore, must have value and meaning.

Finally, we must strive toward both of these goals on a consistent rather than sporadic basis. High performance should be part of the culture, not idiosyncratic to a single individual or economic cycle.

Organizations that meet these criteria share many characteristics, but I want to describe six particularly important attributes:

1. These organizations are committed to community building. They engage all segments of the community in defining what is important to them and foster a culture of shared ownership of the future throughout the community and the organization.

2. These organizations are focused. They are relentless in the pursuit of their goals. They are clear about what they want the community to be and will not let the organization be diverted by the flavor of the month.

3. These organizations set the bar high. This is perhaps the most difficult attribute to maintain. They focus on world-class standards, distinguishing between them and "just acceptable." Not settling for average in the areas most important to our communities distinguishes successful organizations from the others.

4. High-performing organizations are prepared to seize opportunity. Most organizations wait until the political and economic stars are aligned before they begin focusing on the opportunities before them. We all know, however, that most windows of opportunity are very short. Successful organizations have done their homework so that when the window opens, they are prepped and ready to go.

5. High-performing organizations encourage strategic risk-taking and innovation. Most state and local governments exist in a very risk-averse environment. Newspaper headlines highlight not our boldest successes but our most obvious mistakes, so we tend to avoid failure at all costs. High-performing organizations concentrate on developing citizen trust because trust is the working capital of innovation. It also provides the political capital to survive occasional failure.

6. High-performing organizations have a specific strategy for dealing with "straddlers." Over the years I've observed that within every organization, 5 to 10 percent of the workforce will lead the effort toward sustained excellence. They buy in quickly and are comfortable out in front. There are also 1 to 2 percent who don't get it and never will get it. What high-performing organizations never lose sight of is that most employees want to do well and make a difference but hesitate to embrace changes designed to improve their organization until they understand the impact those changes will have on them.Organizational leaders must ask, "What can I do to consistently move those employees from straddling the fence to being committed?"

Organizations that cultivate these six attributes find it easier to attract, recruit and retain top performers, even during the most challenging times. If your state or local government is struggling to retain talented leaders, rather than blame the economy or political environment, consider how committed your organization is to building community, achieving results, maintaining high standards, seizing opportunities, taking risks and dealing with less-than-committed employees. By adopting these attributes and improving your organization's culture, you'll have a better chance of retaining the individuals who will move your team forward.