Cultivating a High Performance Environment

By Marianne Hang

The concept of high performance, and supporting and retaining high performers is increasingly relevant in the workplace as we look for efficiency, synergy, ethics, knowledge retention, and all the power skills needed to build and maintain high performance at both the macro organizational level and the micro project level. Soft skills such as ethics, empathy, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, interpersonal communications, and problem solving are so vital to high performance in the workplace that many leaders and influencers are now referring to them as “power skills”. It’s these power skills that truly define high performers and set them apart. For many organizations and projects, this paradigm shift toward the importance of power skills has been the missing link when it comes to building and maintaining high performance.


To stay with an organization, high performers need a high performing culture at both the organization and project levels. If the culture isn’t high performing, one of two things will eventually happen: either high performers will stop high performing or they’ll leave the culture. As the focus on self-awareness, emotional intelligence, problem solving, and other power skills continues to rise, high performers are more motivated to leave or move out of stale environments that don’t support their ambitions or their alignment with the importance of these power skills. Remaining in stale environments can cause high performers to give up and stop high performing. The question is no longer “Will they leave?” but “When will they leave?”  And with them goes their knowledge and high performing mind set.

As more organizations understand what they need to provide high performers in order to retain them, high performers will have reasons to stay. Organizations that are slow to understand this will be left with poor performers. High performers stick together – they find each other, come together, and often stay in touch throughout their careers. They also research organizations before accepting offers, and join other high performers in companies that accommodate and support them. As for organizations with bad reputations, high performers demand high hourly rates as mitigation for taking on the level of risk needed to work there. Some recruiters won’t put their high performers into such organizations, preferring to save them for enlightened organizations where high performers are more likely to stay longer and everyone wins as a result. A reputable recruiter will refuse to churn and burn high performers in bad organizations, and high performers will spread the word.


Organizations and recruiters with bad reputations can only attract and retain resources with either the lowest skill sets or the highest interpersonal issues or both. Cultures are either high performer-friendly or not and word gets out either way. As awareness builds momentum, organizations that are ahead of the wave promoting high performers gain competitive advantage. This is evidenced by the number of organizations closing / being litigated against more frequently because of whistleblowers, workplace scandals, and those rising up against oppression where old expectations are no longer acceptable.  We are seeing this fallout in the news media on almost a daily basis.

The concept of loyalty to a culture based on 1950s social conditioning doesn’t hold with high performers. High performers give their loyalty to a cause, a person, a group, an organization, a project for the period of time in which there is alignment with their high performance qualities. We see this with millennials who require a new paradigm and with mature workers who have learned the benefits of the new paradigm. The old way is no longer acceptable.

High performers are only high performing if that is the way they came into a culture. High performance is intrinsic to the individual – true high performance is internally motivated and the desire to be such is a personal trait. Over time, high performance can be taught, motivated, and supported only if the individual is willing to embrace it. And let’s not forget the imposters. High performance can be faked for a short period of time where, on the surface, an individual appears to be a high performer. However, when the imposter comes into contact with an authentic high performer, their lack of high performing capabilities is quickly exposed. These imposters are only high performing in the skills necessary to hide the fact that they don’t have the make-up of a high performer, but eventually they’re found out.  Unfortunately, too often not until after they have caused damage and potentially impacted the true performers to leave.


So what can organizations and projects do to establish cultures that support high performers? Establishing any kind of culture is a journey. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Corporate cultures are developed over time, and based on principles and philosophies of the founders and owners. Some foundational components need to be in place for culture to prevail. What are the foundational components of a culture that promotes high performance, and attracts and supports high performers?

  1. Intrinsic and shared belief among cultural leaders about what high performance is. These are the power skills that need to be nurtured and supported, and not the belief that high performance means going forward blindly with no regard for what it takes to be successful. It means not focusing on the bottom line to the exclusion of supporting and empowering people. It also doesn’t mean that high performance equals ruthlessness.  A true high performer combines the technical ability to get the work done with excellence with the power skills to do that ethically.
  2. Cultural leaders learn, embody, and model the culture they believe in as a matter of course rather thanonly when they feel like it. This requires ongoing support and guidance from outside experts in order to remove and manage bias, and other self-defeating behaviors. Cultural leaders must vacate their ivory towers – both physical and mental – and remove themselves from mutual admiration clubs where beliefs and behaviors are supported in a circular manner, and are self-serving with no external challenge, learning, or progression. In other words, they move out of a closed system and into an open system.  This requires courage and dedication to their beliefs, and the ability to walk the talk.
  3. The organizational hierarchy must flatten.High performers don’t respond well to authority unless they can respect that authority. They work better as partners than as subordinates, which supports the new paradigm that this is not the 1950s and an employer is neither parent nor overlord. Millennials don’t tolerate this and mature workers don’t accept it. Since these two groups make up much of the workforce, why would any organization continue with the old paradigm? Outside support from experts must continue as the hierarchy flattens because it is never fully *there* – it’s always a process, there are always changes, and we must always guard against a closed system. This humbles and keeps us focused.
  4. High performers are fully engaged in the development and growth of the culture.As the hierarchy flattens, they have space and support to bring, demonstrate, model, and coach the characteristics that are intrinsic to high performers. Cultural leaders must deal with their egos and realize they don’t have to go it alone. High performers typically wait eagerly for the invitation to get involved, so leaders must make space for high performers to advance and support the paradigm shift. As a result, momentum builds and critical mass takes over, which is the foundation needed to house a truly high performing culture that supports high performers.

It takes work and removing egos to cultivate high performance within an organization. Otherwise, the new paradigm won’t take hold. A true paradigm shift requires the involvement of both high performers and cultural leaders. So engage and support every high performer you can as a Champion!

If we compare this process to a project, we know that one of the first rules necessary for business success is alignment and support of the Sponsor. Without a Sponsor, success is at risk. However, we don’t expect the Sponsor to do the work on their own; they empower others to work with them. They don’t take years to get the project going, but rather months. A paradigm shift can’t lag and still be successful once momentum is lost and purpose exhausted. We simply have to make the decision, resource up, and start. We see pressure to do this at a micro project level and the same process is required at a macro organizational level, despite excuses made to not do so.


At the organizational level, how is a culture that supports high performers put in place and how does it remain in place? The simple answer is that cultural leaders must set the foundation. A great example is Gary Vaynerchuk. As CEO of his organization, he embodies many high performing qualities we’ve identified as power skills. He is the primary champion (Sponsor) for this culture, hires leaders (resources) who make up a group of champions, and these leaders hire others (teams) who expand the group of champions. Tools, tactics, and processes are put in place by all champions at all levels to support, build, and maintain the culture. Those who don’t resonate with high performance are supported as best and as long as possible. If they decide not to support the culture, they are facilitated to leave in a supportive manner.

As organizations change and embrace true high performance (power skills), authentic high performers will proliferate. Organizations don’t really have a choice about whether to move to the new paradigm. This is the way now and of the future. Steve Jobs said it well: “We don’t hire experts to tell them what to do. We hire experts to tell us what to do.” High performers make others feel valued and employees who feel valued directly impact business success.

A high performer is someone who travels with grace, has high aptitude and emotional intelligence, relies on common sense, and empowers others. They demonstrate understanding of things, people, situations, and timelines – and how these work together in a comprehensive picture of the whole. They take well-defined and considered steps to achieve their mandate with the power of compassion, humor, honor, courage, resilience, and positive mind set by building strong relationships, motivating, engaging, solutioning, and bringing out the best in others. They embody and live the best of both the individual and the team.


For high performers, everyone is a customer including themselves, their teams, and their clients.  While the process may differ, the overall path is the same. High performers are dedicated to giving of themselves, supporting others, and making a difference in the world. Their philosophy is to be their very best at all times, based on an inherent desire to do whatever it takes to get the job done ethically and with caring. They understand their capabilities and potential, and have the ability to positively engage others toward accomplishing a common goal. With everything that high performers have to offer, organizations would be wise to align with and support them by accommodating their needs and empowering their qualities in order to make the corporate culture a place high performers will proudly call home. “If, at any point, your team feels like they are simply a metric on the way to either your, or the organization’s success, they will simply strive to meet expectations instead of giving you their best.” According to Forbes, this is what puts high performers in a class of their own.

Ms. Marianne Hang is a Senior Project Manager affiliated with IT Architects in Calgary, Alberta. IT Architects ( is an information consulting firm specializing in business process optimization, system evolution planning, and the deployment of leading-edge technologies. If you require further information, Marianne can be reached at or 403-815-7505.