Going Up? 4 Habits of High-Performance Organizations
People are often fascinated when we tell them that Ramey is a brand strategy and marketing communications firm built exclusively for high-end brands and high-performance organizations. They understand quickly what we mean by “high-end,” especially if they’ve seen the work we’ve done for such world-class brands as Viking Range or Blackberry Farm. Over the years, we’ve gotten very good at helping our clients build premium brands.
Recently, we compared the way that we define high-performance organizations. Someone suggested that these organizations typically have higher growth curves or better metrics than their peer groups. Another described them as having a flat hierarchy and an entrepreneurial culture. Someone else simply said, “they are winners.”
It is fascinating to think about, especially when you consider that we have such a variety of high-performance clients operating in diverse categories. So we asked our colleague Tom Allin to see if he could identify some markers that were common to all. Working with the client teams within the agency, Tom found some distinguishing characteristics about the way that these organizations operate.
Whether it’s generating profits, exceeding goals or outperforming competitors, metrics vary dramatically by category. What doesn’t vary, however, is a set of habits that are common among most high-performance organizations.
1. Improve – An HPO is driven to make a product or service dramatically better – through adjustment or creation.
2. Focus – An HPO is oriented around a core group of priorities – towards which all functions work.
3. Simplify – An HPO actively seeks complex, difficult situations – and excels at providing solutions to them.
4. Cultivate – An HPO creates a culture in which employees or partners are engaged – and understand how they fit into a greater vision.
An organization does not necessarily need to perform all four actions in order to be considered high performing. In some cases, one may be enough to substantially increase the performance of an organization.
While we may typically associate “improvement” only with small changes made to a service or product, there are, in fact, two basic methods of improvement: revision and creation. In the “New Yorker,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article entitled “The Tweaker,” about Steve Jobs. Gladwell suggested that Jobs’ real genius lay in his ability to make tweaks to products. Rather than making large changes, Jobs refined (and arguably perfected) products through small changes.
Entergy Corp. – one of our clients – is a great example of a “tweaker.” A Fortune 500 energy company based in New Orleans, Entergy has received numerous awards for emergency recovery and assistance, along with community service and sustainability awards, such as being named to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 11 consecutive years. Beyond its recognition, however, Entergy prioritizes improving its emergency response efforts. After every storm, there is a disciplined debriefing and lessons learned session, in which every aspect of Entergy’s response is reviewed, results are discussed, and improvements are documented for the next event. Changes may seem minor, but over time, Entergy is increasingly prepared for anything Mother Nature has to offer.
On the other end of the improvement spectrum is a company like Viking Range Corporation, which literally has a creation story. The brief version goes like this: Fred Carl – a building contractor living in the Mississippi Delta – has a dilemma: his wife wants a heavy-duty range for their kitchen, but it’s out of production (and has been for years). Meanwhile, the closest alternative – a restaurant range – is both impractical and unsafe for a home. What does Fred do next? He designs a high-end, heavy-duty range fit for a residence, and Viking Range is born. For Viking, improvement meant starting from scratch – and building a product (and a category) from the ground up.
In the cases of Viking and Entergy, a commitment to improving a product or a service – whether it be through small or large change – assures not just sustained quality and relevance but opportunities for innovation as well.
As much as we would like to believe it, we can’t do everything – or at least, do it all well. Instead, it’s important to focus on what you do well, what works or what holds the greatest growth potential. Focus may not be flashy, but it pays. Two of our clients who exhibit the habit of focus are Bank of the Ozarks and EastGroup Properties.
In the case of Bank of the Ozarks, while other banks were facing severe challenges in 2009, it reported its ninth consecutive year of record net income. What did they do differently? While other banks were loosening lending standards and requiring less cash equity in construction loans, Bank of the Ozarks was doing just the opposite. At the time, of course, it appeared that the bank was missing lucrative opportunities and – in a sense – it was. But, by safeguarding itself from these risky loans, Bank of the Ozarks was able to buy up large amounts of securities and loans at substantial discounts throughout 2008 and 2009. This focused strategy and commitment to staying on target allowed the bank to build up substantial capital reserves to not only sustain itself – but thrive – during the recession. After all, the “ABA Banking Journal” named Bank of the Ozarks the nation’s number one performing community bank in 2010 and 2011.
Similarly, EastGroup – a real estate investment trust – has enjoyed stellar growth and 132 consecutive quarterly cash dividends. Its secret? An almost single-minded focus on industrial properties in major Sunbelt markets. In its 2009 annual report, the company wrote, “EastGroup has sometimes been accused of having an old-fashioned and overly conservative business strategy. We are guilty, but we view it as a strength that creates strategic flexibility. A company’s business plan is tested during times such as these, and we are pleased to report that ours is working.” Indeed, EastGroup’s “simple” approach of acquiring, developing and operating multi-tenant business distribution facilities was a major reason it weathered the recession as well as it did.
In the case of these two organizations, a focus on safe investments and core business principles was an important buffer in insulating both firms from the effects of adversity – but has also been a key driver of growth and persistent success.
As new technologies are developed and new markets appear, business will only become more complex. That’s why companies and organizations that provide simplified solutions to new challenges will be well positioned to grow and succeed.
First Choice Medical Supply understands that medical supply inventory is a major area of complexity in a rapidly growing market. For long term care facilities and hospice providers, there is an intentional focus on efficiency – from keeping costs at a minimum to ensuring individual patient needs are met. It’s an intricate system in need of simplification, even for something as seemingly simple as the purchase of bandages.
When do I order the bandages?
There are 10 types of bandages, which ones?
Which patients need them?
Which will benefit my bottom line the most?
This is the niche where First Choice fits. With over 20,000 medical supply products, First Choice helps clients track their inventory levels while providing personal service to advise clients on which products meet budgetary and clinical needs. By providing simple solutions to clients with big, hairy problems, a business like First Choice fills a vital role – and performs well in it.
Dassault Systèmes (DS) also helps simplify its clients’ work. In its case, Dassault Systèmes created the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform, which allows businesses to design and test products through virtual universes. The software can be used to design anything from a fighter jet to a piece of medical equipment – while supporting internal user collaboration through Product Lifecycle Management (PLM). Through PLM, a product can be managed – in a single format – from conception to use, making for better collaboration and, as a result, better products.
For Dassault Systèmes and First Choice, seeking out complex challenges and providing simple solutions to them is increasingly valuable (and profitable) work.
Finally, amidst minor tweaks to a product and providing solutions to complex problems, increasingly one of the most valuable abilities an organization can have is its ability to cultivate relationships – with employees, customers or external partners.
BankPlus, an independent community bank in Mississippi, places a premium on developing a positive culture among its employees. This approach comes from an understanding that good service to customers starts by respecting and appreciating employees. For BankPlus, that has meant everything from offering employees rewards for seeking out referrals and cross-sells to rewarding healthy lifestyles within the company. But, what does this have to do with customer service? In this case, research has shown that BankPlus customers love BankPlus more than other customers love their respective banks. Happy employees mean happy customers.
Even for an organization with fewer employees, cultivating healthy relationships is still important. The Bower Foundation, which provides grants to improve the health outcomes of Mississippi’s children and adults, places a strong emphasis on developing relationships with key influencers throughout Mississippi. For example, after identifying a shortage of nurses in rural areas of Mississippi, Bower partnered with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to develop an Associate Degree of Nursing. The program directly addresses this critical workforce need, while furthering Bower’s mission. Additionally, Bower has partnered with the Mississippi Department of Education and its Office of Healthy Schools to reach the state’s children directly. Through this partnership, Bower and the Department of Education have instituted increased physical education requirements, replaced fat fryers with combi-ovens, and provided funding for schools to set up school health councils. Without these partnerships, much of the foundation’s work would be much more difficult. Instead, Bower has been able to help make steady advances to improve Mississippi’s health, while furthering the missions of other organizations, as well.
Whether through internal team-building or outside networking, building good relationships pays dividends.
One of the better documentaries from the past few years follows a sushi chef in Tokyo named Jiro Ono. The film, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” details the chef’s almost single-minded pursuit of making perfect sushi. Jiro, who is in his late 80s and still working, explains his drive, saying: “I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top. But no one knows where the top is.” One of the most striking parts of this sentiment is that, for Jiro, his climb is not motivated by others – but by the top. He is not concerned with competitors or outside factors but simply with his relation to the peak of his profession.
In the case of the four habits of an HPO, the most critical (and uniting) element is an awareness of oneself and one’s organization. By improving, focusing, simplifying and cultivating, an organization is forced to turn inward – before striving and growing outward. We may not know where the top is yet, but by examining our own organizations, we can make sure we’re on the right path.
As we often say at Ramey, up is as high as you can imagine.
Viking Range Corporation – Produced the first commercial-type range for the home and, in turn, created the ultra-premium category of kitchen appliances.
Entergy – Recognized not just as a leading energy company but also as an exemplary corporate citizen and leader in energy sustainability.
Bank of the Ozarks – Named the nation’s top performing bank in 2010 and 2011 by the “ABA Banking Journal.”
EastGroup – A self-administered equity real estate investment trust – focused in major Sunbelt markets – which has enjoyed 132 consecutive quarterly cash dividends.
First Choice Medical Supply – A lean medical supply company with a focus on excellent customer service and customized solutions.
Dassault Systèmes – A world leader in 3D design software with over 150,000 customers worldwide.
BankPlus – Independent community bank that places a premium on employees – through employee gatherings, performance rewards and wellness programs.
The Bower Foundation – A grant-making foundation that cultivates strategic partnerships with organizations across Mississippi to improve the health outcomes of the state’s children & adults.
Tom Allin is Associate Account Executive/Planner at The Ramey Agency