Creating a High Investment—High Expectations Work Culture

Leaders in today’s organizations need to continuously balance the expectations of three different groups of people—shareholders, customers, and employees. How these three groups are ranked within a company will largely determine the type of culture the organization has. A “shareholder first” organization is very different from a “customer first” or an “employee first” company.

In a recent article for Chief Learning Officer, best-selling author Ken Blanchard asks, “Who is customer number one in your organization? How is that impacting the return on investment, level of service, and levels of employee engagement in your company?”

 Using examples from several well known companies such as Southwest Airlines and WD-40 Company, Blanchard shows how companies that adopt an “employee first” mindset perform best.

But that’s only half the story, says Blanchard.  For best results, leaders need to combine a focus on people with a simultaneous focus on results.  It’s this one-two combination that delivers the greatest impact.

Investing in People

As Blanchard explains, “Leaders in ‘employee first’ organizations turn the traditional pyramid upside down so that the customer contact people are essentially at the top of the organization. In other words, the leaders work for the people who report to them.” This is the high investment in people part of the equation.

To illustrate this, Blanchard points to the philosophy of Garry Ridge, CEO of household-products manufacturer WD-40, who even goes so far as to remind managers of their mutual accountability to employees at performance review meetings. If a manager recommends that a person be let go—or “shared with the competition” as WD-40 calls it—the first question asked of the manager is: “What have you done to help your direct report succeed?” If the manager can’t show that he or she has coached and supported the direct report, the manager—not the direct report—might be “shared with the competition.”

Holding People Accountable

One of the benefits of this serious approach to mutual accountability is that it gives leaders permission to step in when tough love is called for—for example, when people engage in inappropriate behavior.

As an example, Blanchard points to Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines.  As Barrett explains, “We are very clear in telling our people what our expectations are. We hold them and ourselves accountable for meeting those expectations every day. Sometimes this means having a real heart-to-heart with people and reminding them what your values are. If you have been intentional and firm in explaining what your expectations are, that gives you the opportunity to point to specific examples where they haven’t exhibited the required behaviors.”

High Investment and High Expectations

As a leader, you need to be supportive and directive at the same time. It can seem like a lot of work, but it is necessary if you want to create the high-investment, high-expectations culture that makes all the difference. When people know that leadership not only expects the best from them, but is also backing them up, they feel safe, prepared and ready to step out to serve the customer in ways that unsupported employees just won’t risk.

What’s your organization’s approach to employee support and accountability? 

Do you use a high-investment, high-expectations approach to talent management? To read more of Ken Blanchard’s thoughts on this topic, check out The Upside-Down Pyramid here.

2 thoughts on “Creating a High Investment—High Expectations Work Culture

  1. The environment people are working in has a clear impact on productivity levels, and shouldn’t be ignored.

    Employees should indeed be held accountable, but so should management to ensure that they are providing the staff with a workplace that fosters & encourages high levels of performance.

  2. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing.

    I find it helps to think of your employees as customers. The product you are selling to them is called “working at our company.”

    As long as they get more value from your “product” than they can from your competitors’ “products,” they will stay at your company and be engaged. Being treated as and feeling like valued customers also gives you license to require value back. It’s a virtuous cycle.

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