Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Five Paths Toward a High-Performing Workforce

8/21/2000
Making the most of front-line employees means more than simply motivating the troops, says Jon Katzenbach, author of Peak Performance (HBS Press). It means unleashing their full individual and collective potential "to achieve and sustain higher levels of performance than the workers themselves thought possible, than management or customers expected, and than competitors can realistically achieve."

Peak Performance

In Peak Performance, Jon Katzenbach draws on an in-depth study of 25 enterprises—from Home Depot and Southwest Airlines to Marriott Corporation and the U.S. Marine Corps—that excel at energizing their employees toward consistently high levels of performance. In this excerpt, Katzenbach tells what the book is about and describes the five "balanced paths" these diverse organizations have followed toward a high-performing workforce.

This book is concerned with energizing people for performance and the different successful paths to that end. It describes how each path concentrates management attention on worker fulfillment to harness the emotions of many people in sustaining a higher-performing workforce. This is a different challenge than simply motivating people to meet demanding financial performance objectives. The latter is what most companies do, and it implies setting unambiguous goals, establishing clear measures, and holding people individually accountable for results (consequence management). Logical, rational motivation is certainly a good thing, but it is no match for engaged, emotional commitment. Just ask anyone who watched the New York Yankees in the 1998 playoff series games, which culminated in a World Series victory and the highest number (125) of games won in a single year by any major league team in baseball history.

Energizing people for performance elevates the game significantly, to the point that many employees go well beyond leaders' expectations, individual accountabilities, financial results, and short-term market objectives. This book describes how to unleash the full individual and collective potential of people-at the front line and across the broad middle-to achieve and sustain higher levels of performance than the workers themselves thought possible, than management or customers expected, and than competitors can realistically achieve.

Unleashing the full potential of people is undeniably a tall order; few institutions have managed to do it consistently. This book explores the approaches of those who apparently have gone far beyond any conventional notions of managing solely to meet ambitious financial objectives. It looks at how such institutions tap into worker fulfillment to develop the extra quotient of emotional commitment that deeply energizes many people to perform well beyond conventional norms.

Each successful institution we have explored pursues peak workforce performance within an integrated organization approach or path that generates widespread emotional energy and is disciplined about how that energy is channeled to yield higher performance. The energy sources and channels of alignment are supported by mechanisms that simultaneously impact performance and fulfillment.

Five Paths That Work
Five paths explain all the higher-performing workforce situations that we explored in depth. They are labeled "balanced paths" to reflect the critical importance of sustaining a dynamic balance between worker/enterprise performance and worker fulfillment (i.e., wherein both the company and its employees benefit by achieving distinctiveness along their chosen paths). This balance means the enterprise pursues simultaneous improvements along both dimensions; it does not trade off one against the other.

Each path constitutes a clearly different approach for energizing a workforce for higher performance. Certainly, there are overlaps and similarities among the paths, but the primary focus and value proposition of each is quite distinct:

1. Mission, Values, and Pride
2. Process and Metrics
3. Entrepreneurial Spirit
4. Individual Achievement
5. Recognition and Celebration

These labels convey the primary focus of each path as indicated by the case research. The paths were not among our initial hypotheses; nor did we select the case examples to highlight any path. Furthermore, the companies did not consciously create or decide on these paths. They emerged as dedicated leaders pursued a balance performance/fulfillment result. We simply discovered the paths as we dissected each case to understand what was energizing the workers. As we explored further, five recurring patterns emerged in the sources of emotional energy and how that energy was channeled into peak performance. Hence, the five patterns, or balanced paths, have become the overarching concept or framework for this book. See Composite Summary of the Five Paths

Clearly the most noticeable difference between the higher-performing workforce and a normal workforce is in the level of energy and emotional commitment that employees exhibit. Even the casual observer can feel the difference when walking through the halls. People move faster, interact with more visible animation, communicate with more palpable emotion and excitement, listen more intently, and respond more vigorously-and really enjoy themselves in the process. They pay little attention to the clock, with most arriving early and leaving late. When they are not on the job, they are probably thinking about improving the job. Moreover, this energy seems to persist throughout the day-day after day-in various parts of the organization. Some call it fun; others describe it as challenging and stimulating. To outside observers, it can appear exhausting as well.

What generates all this energy? Obviously, it must ultimately come from within the people themselves, when something occurs that engages their emotions. A few people, of course, can turn themselves on, so to speak. But within any large group of employees, most will need some kind of outside stimulation, usually on a regular or recurring basis. It can be provided by a leader, one able to reach outside himself or herself and draw upon something other than personal charisma or influence. Emotional energy can be generated by the dynamics of a marketplace, that is, growth, customers, or competitors. It can also come from a history or legacy of remarkable accomplishments, heroes, or martyrs. Whatever the generating source of energy, the leadership system must make a consistent effort to tap into it regularly.

Not all of the more obvious sources of extra energy for an enterprise are available to every aspirant to a higher-performing workforce. To be successful, however, a company needs to use more than one source over time. The examples in part II illustrate how important it can be for a company to have more than one source and a consistent and systematic way of keeping those sources burning brightly in the employees' eyes.

Unfortunately, a surge of extra energy can be a bit like a torrential downpour that causes rivers to overflow and run amok. Unless the energy is channeled properly, it can create confusion, do a lot of damage, and divert the organization from its purpose and goals. Enterprises that would sustain a higher-performing workforce by generating extra energy cannot afford to leave the alignment of that energy to chance. By alignment, we mean individual decisions and actions that reinforce one another in boosting enterprise performance. Nor can they count on shibboleths like empowerment, shared values, and individual freedom to keep things on target. Instead, the companies we studied are very disciplined about maintaining certain channels of alignment supported by a wide variety of mechanisms to ensure both enterprise performance and worker fulfillment.

These mechanisms can be categorized within several alignment approaches. Moreover, it is imperative to make such a choice. In other words, an enterprise wisely picks only a few approaches, which it expects to execute with distinction. This focused distinction within a few approaches differentiates the peak-performance workforce. Different enterprises choose to emphasize different channels and sometimes vary that emphasis over time. Unfortunately, many companies today are trying to pay equal attention to far too many alignment approaches. It takes remarkable discipline-both applied by the enterprise and self-imposed by the workers-for an organization to be truly distinctive in a few approaches. Those few must also strike a dynamic balance between enterprise performance and worker fulfillment.

Certainly, engaging the emotions of employees can stimulate higher performance from them. Moreover, many factors-not all of them positive-can stir the emotions of a workforce. Nonetheless, our research indicates that three basic lines of inquiry offer richer learning opportunities for the reader:

  1. What are the five patterns or cohesive paths that lead to an emotionally committed, higher-performing workforce? What do they have in common, how do they differ, and what conditions favor following one path over the others?
  2. Why do the more than twenty top-performing institutions, carefully selected and studied in depth, follow different paths, and how do they generate and channel the emotional energy that their choices require?
  3. How can a company use this framework to decide on the right path(s) to pursue; the sources of energy to tap; and the approaches, mechanisms, and tools to channel that energy to higher levels of performance?

Above all, we hope the reader who sees the potential in an emotionally committed workforce will become as convinced as we are about the importance of being purposeful and disciplined in selecting and following one or two of these paths.

Shaping a Balanced Construct
The primary purpose of this book is to help leaders shape their own balanced configuration or path. In each enterprise that we studied, we found a few critical sources of energy and a few alignment approaches to be instrumental in creating a balanced, distinctive construct, which sometimes integrates two paths. Though each company pays some attention to most of the approaches, each also concentrates on and integrates a few defining ones.

As previously mentioned, the more surprising discovery was that five paths (or combinations of energy sources and alignment approaches) seemed to explain all the cases that we explored. These unique configurations are all characterized by disciplined and distinctive execution of a few key alignment approaches and draw on more than one unique source of energy. Whatever path they take, companies with peak performance workforces enjoy a common feature: a dynamic balance between worker fulfillment and company performance over time.

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Excerpted from Peak Performance: Aligning Hearts and Minds of Your Employees. HBS Press, 2000.

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COMPOSITE SUMMARY OF THE FIVE PATHS
Balanced Path Conditions that Favor a Balanced Path Most Likely Sources of Energy Most Frequently Applied Alignment Approaches Notable Examples
Mission, Values and Pride Rich history employees are proud of

Noble purpose in the eyes of employees

Value-driven leadership

Ample team opportunities

Magnetic leaders

Compelling legacy

Impossible dreams

Creating broader pictures

Articulating what matters most

Making purposeful selection

Showing people their true value

U.S. Marine Corps

Marriott International

3M

Process and Metrics High value in behavioral consistency

Clear measures for business priorities

Maturing marketplace conditions

Priority on continuous improvement

Accessible and credible database

Unrelenting customers

Dynamic marketplace

Providing performance transparency

Distributing leadership broadly

Enhancing the work itself

Avon Manufacturing

Hill's Pet Nutrition

Johnson Controls

Entrepreneurial Spirit Plentiful high-risk, high-reward opportunities

Significant employee "ownership" potential

Rapidly growing, dynamic marketplace

High value in individual initiative and risk taking

Hands-off leadership philosophy

Magnetic leaders

Impossible dreams

Dynamic marketplace

Creating widespread opportunity

Distributing leadership broadly

Making purposeful selection

Providing meaningful recognition and rewards

Hambrecht & Quist

BMC

Vail Ski School

Individual Achievement Highly ambitious individuals predominating in the workforce

Individual growth and achievement of prime importance to enterprise performance

Attractive earnings potential without significant personal risk

Highly competitive and mobile marketplace for members of the workforce

Dynamic marketplace

Unrelenting customers

Articulating what matters most

Providing performance transparency

Making purposeful selection

Creating widespread opportunity

The Home Depot

McKinsey & Company

First USA

Recognition and Celebration Performance of "average" workers is critical

Work is not intrinsically stimulating

Monetary rewards are constrained

Marketplace for people is very competitive

Labor pool is largely unskilled

Magnetic leaders

Dynamic marketplace

Compelling legacy

Showing people their true value

Generating collective energy

Providing meaningful recognition and rewards

KFC

Marriott International

Southwest Airlines