Never, in the 30-plus years that I have been helping to drive organizational performance have I seen so much 'C level' interest in organizational culture. Across all industries, leaders are telling me that they've realized that the way to solve performance or leadership issues is to first look at their organization's culture. Culture is what determines if and how our thoughts, ideas, and plans are enacted. Regardless of what you want to happen, culture determines what will happen. This realization has created a thirst for practical ways to move from the default organizational culture -- the one you have if you are not intentional -- to a peak performance culture that will operationalize your greatest intentions and create a great work-life experience for staff.

The good news is that it is entirely possible to design and sustain a peak performance culture -- but before you can understand how to shape culture, you must understand what culture is. Confucius said that the first step to wisdom is the correct naming of things, so let us define culture in simple terms that everyone can understand: Culture is a line any group draws that separates the behaviors they advocate and tolerate from the behaviors they refuse to tolerate. The line always exists.

People tend to fall into one of three relationships regarding their corporate culture.

  1. Default: These are the folks who let the chips fall where they may. They are living a culture that happens on its own with no disciplined approach to shaping it.
  2. Incongruent: These folks have meetings and come up with all sorts of stated aspirations about their culture that sound so good. The problem is that they then fail to live into and experience these aspirations. To see a good example of incongruence, look up Enron's Code of Ethics on the internet.
  3. Intentional: These are the folks who understand the power culture holds over all aspects of their organizational performance and are willing to design and sustain a specific culture. They are committed to enforcing this specific culture in a disciplined manner.

As you can probably guess, the organizations with the most desirable culture almost always fall into the last category. The leadership purposely creates the culture they want, and they lead through example. This is an ongoing effort that requires attention and conditioning. If you are looking to improve your organizational culture, or if you are in the process of starting your own business, here are three of the most important elements of a peak performance culture.

Integrity: People honor their word at all times.

In a peak performance culture, when people say 'yes', they mean 'yes'. When people give their word, regardless of whether it relates to a big or small thing, everybody knows that it is as good as done. No one drops a ball. Meetings start on time. Reports are finalized and delivered when promised. Workability is high. As a result, people and the organization are seen as trustworthy.

Feedback: People have mastered giving and receiving feedback.

In a peak performance culture, the main engine of personal mastery and professional growth are the people who you directly interact with during the workday. Everybody cares enough to take the time to convey generative feedback to their peers in a manner that is effective. Feedback should be given at the right time, to the right person, in the right way, and for the right reason. In a peak performance culture, feedback is seen as an outward expression of caring.

Commitment to customers: People drive value to customers.

Every person in a peak performance culture believes the purpose of their company and the part they play in it is exclusively and inextricably linked to the generation of value to be delivered to the external customer. They discount the idea of 'internal customers.' Customers pay for delivered value. Period. Everybody can 1) name the customer, 2) describe what the customer is trying to do, 3) understands what is making it hard for the customer to do that, 4) can state in priority order the unmet needs of the customer, and 5) have a true assessment of how the company is currently occurring to existing customers and prospects.

But it all begins with integrity. Integrity is the allspark, the keystone, the foundation, the essence of a peak performance culture. It is not possible if people do not honor their word.

What does all this mean to you? Well, if you really want your plans to become reality, if you want to generate the returns from investments in technology, if you want to have the capacity to change at the speed of the market, you are going to have to establish a peak performance culture. Establishing and sustaining this type of culture is not like changing a flat tire. A flat tire is a 'problem' and if you change the tire, the problem disappears.

Sustaining a peak performance culture is not a problem to solve. It is a difficulty to manage. It's more like staying in shape. You have to generate fitness every day. It requires a disciplined commitment. Rust never sleeps. Entropy happens. But here is the good news. A peak performance culture generates the power you need to deliver value to your customers, which in turn opens up extraordinary possibilities for your company and employees.