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Pick a leader – any successful leader. Then search Amazon and see how many books and other publications come up on that person. Abraham Lincoln? 83,642. Gandhi? 61,923. Even Barack Obama, who was widely introduced to the world just five years ago, has 8,670. People love studying successful people.

In the same way that many people have an insatiable appetite to study successful leaders, we in the business world tend to be fascinated with high-performance organizations. What are they like? What do they do differently? Is there a secret recipe that allows them to outperform their competition?

Of course, many books have been dedicated to this subject. From Tom Peters’s and Bob Waterman’s early 80′s best seller In Search of Excellence to Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Good to Great, there has been a succession of books that leaders and managers across the globe have devoured. Programs such as GE’s Six Sigma have trained countless people in how to achieve top performance and consultants have built entire practices around elements of high-performing companies.

While business professionals want to learn more about high-performance organizations in the hopes that they can apply some of the secret sauce to their own organization, many of the companies profiled within the pages of the aforementioned books were unable to sustain high performance. In fact, the number is about half. While much has been written on the subject, the truth is that the ingredients to high performance remain something of a mystery.

Part of the reason is the definition – what exactly do we mean by high performance? Is there a difference between simply surviving (which was the fate of some of the companies profiled in Built to Last, for example) and performing well over a long period? Do we mean companies which outperform others in their own industry or across industries? Over how long a time period does an organization need to perform exceptionally well in order to be considered a “high performer”? And which measures, financial or otherwise, are the best ones to use?

Over the last three decades, i4cp researchers have looked at various ways to define high performance and the traits that separate the consistently top organizations from the rest. Through that time, we have come to recognize high-performing organizations as ones that consistently outperform most of their competitors in four primary areas:

  • Revenue growth
  • Market share
  • Profitability
  • Customer satisfaction

And, over the years, our research team has examined well over 100 different core human capital areas and tried to determine the differences between high-performing and low-performing organizations. The research has clearly shown that no single ingredient guarantees organizational success. Rather, high performance is like a delicate entrée – based on a staple of core ingredients any one of which, if left out or of inferior quality, will ruin the entire item.

The Five Domains of High Performance

Our research has shown that there are five basic ingredients which separate higher performers from their lower-performing counterparts:

  1. Their strategies are more consistent, clearly communicated and well thought out. They are more likely than other companies to say that their philosophies are consistent with their strategies and their performance measurements mirror their strategies.
  2. Leadership is clear, fair and talent-oriented. Those leaders are more likely to promote the best people for the job, to make sure performance expectations are well known and consistent with the strategy, and to be committed to developing their people.
  3. There is a commitment to the right talent within the organization, and while employees are treated as unique individuals, the organization takes a holistic approach to managing and making decisions based on data-driven information. This begins with a strategic approach to workforce planning. It entails looking at the organization from an outside-in perspective that identifies the business model components and areas that drive value and then determines what the organization needs.
  4. The culture is strong in all the right ways, and employees are more likely to think the organization is a good place to work. Employees not only adapt well to change, they embrace it. High performers also emphasize a readiness to meet new challenges and are committed to innovation.
  5. They are more likely to have a strong market focus and go above and beyond for their customers. They are organized internally around what’s best for the customer, they think hard about customers’ future and long-term needs, and their strategy is based on customer data. And they are more likely to see customer information as the most important factor for developing new products and services.

While these five domains – Strategy, Leadership, Talent, Culture and Market – may seem a bit broad or even obvious, the separation our research has shown between high and low performers in these domains is startling. For example, in a just-released study on high performance by i4cp, the following graph depicts this separation:

These findings, along with previous studies, have convinced us to target our research on discovering the best ways for companies to boost their performance in these five domains and the numerous sub-domains within. We’re convinced that companies that focus on excelling in these areas are cooking up a surefire recipe for long-term success.

i4cp’s 4-Part Recommendation:

  1. Take stock to determine where your organization stands in these five areas, and be honest – even the best performing companies aren’t always superb in each area. To get an objective view, survey the workforce on these domains as well as use other assessment tools.
  2. Once you’ve determined your areas of strength and weakness, make sure senior management is involved in improving on the weak areas while not taking the eye off of the strengths; in tough economies it can be easy to stop focusing on core areas that the company has excelled in. Don’t forget to investigate the practices of other organizations that are excelling in your areas of weakness; it’s amazing how some very simple and inexpensive ideas can make a huge difference in closing the gap.
  3. Although companies should focus on the specific tactics for boosting their performance in each of these five areas, it’s important to align the five areas as a whole. Each domain feeds off the others, and ignoring one is like leaving a key ingredient out of a culinary masterpiece.
  4. Although these efforts should continue indefinitely to sustain performance over time, organizations should also do regular reevaluations of their progress so they can make course corrections as needed.

View a recording of Thursday’s webinar, The Five Domains of High-Performance Organizations.
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