Building a Performance-Oriented Team
Most people have heard the anecdote. The CEO of a major company says, “It wouldn’t matter if I left our strategic plan on the seat of an airplane – because it’s not about the plan, it’s about our ability to execute on the plan.” It’s a powerful observation, especially because we all know that no strategic plan implementation goes exactly as designed: circumstances change, opportunities arise, core assumptions underpinning the plan prove to be wrong. This doesn’t mean that strategic planning is an inherently futile effort; it just means that as much organizational energy needs to go into developing the actual ability to execute a strategy as goes into developing the strategic plan itself. Or, said another way, culture matters.
There is no single, right organizational culture; they are as varied as the companies themselves. And, of course, there are often multiple sub-cultures within companies. At Sunflower Bank, we work intentionally to develop a culture in pursuit of our mission of “Bringing out the best in the lives we touch … Creating Possibility.”
Nature or Nurture
Culture begins with leadership. Sometimes it is sparked by a particularly charismatic leader, but for a culture to truly take hold, it must be embraced by the broader leadership. That requires nurturing. I’ve always liked the simplest definition of culture that I’ve heard: Culture comes down to What’s Allowed and What’s Not Allowed. For example, if an organization promotes a culture of accountability, but people see the practice of pointing fingers or laying blame elsewhere as common, then accountability isn’t truly part of the culture. The practices that fall in the What’s Not Allowed category are like weeds. They are often naturally occurring responses and may even come with good intentions, or may be a product of a commitment to help the company reach its goals – but they must be “pulled” so they don’t take over the landscape. This is the nurturing side of creating culture, and it doesn’t end. Each time a new element is introduced, whether it is new people in the organization or competitive pressures, naturally occurring responses may pop up, and it is up to organizational leadership to keep its intended culture thriving.
At Sunflower Bank, we are proud to have leaders who are right in the game with their teams. We are committed to staying connected to our associates, our customers, and our communities, and that cannot be done from the sidelines. We believe that enabling our leaders to call plays from the field contributes to our agility and adaptability. Strong teams grow stronger when they know they are in the game together, and they have deep knowledge of each other’s capabilities and roles. Further, we are better able to drive a culture of continuous improvement when our leadership can see first-hand how things are working and how our markets are responding to what we do. On a humorous note, there is also an added benefit that the player-coach must be very good at setting appropriate priorities, because there just isn’t time to meddle too deeply in their team’s efforts! All eyes must be set on the goals, and players need to be given the latitude to play according to the rules. This is one way to look at empowerment, and educated empowerment is a key aspect of a team’s ability to execute on a plan.
Diversity and Inclusion
Much has been written and discussed about the merits of embracing diversity in the workforce, and more importantly, in leadership. This is a significant topic, and both its importance and value cannot be underestimated; nor can it be generalized, as each company faces different challenges. Our leaders know that their primary responsibilities – in fact their ability to maximize the leverage they can achieve within their teams – are (A) recruiting; and (B) coaching. It is often human nature, to tend to recruit people who we know, or just as often, people who are like us. And we tend to coach what we know to help others be more like us. The benefit of this is speed, because these types of teams come from similar experiences. It’s easy to take shortcuts through ideas because everyone basically knows where they are leading. But what is sacrificed in this process are innovation and the ability to identify variances from the plan early, since people coming from similar experiences tend to look for similar patterns, and can even impose familiar patterns unintentionally. A confirmation bias develops, and rather than adapting quickly to the fact patterns, it is common for teams to spend their energy on trying to explain away the variances, or determine that there are uncontrollable forces at play … or in the worst case, blame others. None of this is supportive of an execution mindset; moreover, it comprises one of the dangers of too much homogeneity in the ranks.
Command-and-control workplaces do not allow for inclusion, whether or not the teams are diverse. In order to truly maximize the organizational benefit of diversity, it is critical to have a culture of inclusion, which means having a workplace environment that is open to contribution from multiple sources. When the organization is practiced in considering all ideas that are focused on achieving the company’s goals, different ideas become much less threatening and can create a clear competitive advantage.
The Power of Performance Standards
In a high-performing company, there often lies a belief that helping people be successful is better than protecting them. Just as growth seldom comes without planning, individual success cannot come without proper goal-setting and attention to key indicators. Setting goals too low cheapens the value of the individual and slows the pace of helping them achieve their potential, in addition to placing all the excess burden on the established performers. Clearly, setting goals at an unrealistic level can be demoralizing, and only in some cases actually helps the individual reach their potential. The intent of goal-setting in an execution environment should be to encourage each team member to go beyond the way they have always operated. This is important because markets and customer needs change, and if we are trying to maintain business as we are accustomed to doing it – in our comfort zone – we will miss these sensitivities. This is the same level of rigor the company uses to look at annual planning. Simply planning for “what the market will give” doesn’t help the company stretch itself to be its very best, and this ultimately deprives customers, fellow associates, and shareholders of their potential as well.
Executing on Our Purpose
Each company is unique in some way, whether it is by means of their strategy, their culture, or some other defining factor. At Sunflower Bank, we set out to build a high-performance company that delivers, through a community banking model, the products and services our customers need to thrive, whether they are individuals or businesses. Our commitment to executing on that strategic plan drives everything we do. It has driven investment in our business lines and in our specialty lending areas. It has driven us to build upon our solid Midwest foundation by expanding into high-growth markets in the Southwest. Moreover, it has also driven significant investment in talent, both in our salesforce and in our support areas, which enables appropriate risk management. We are proud of our teams and our leadership, which operate with great accountability, collaboration, and a continuous improvement mindset that ensures we are able to successfully execute our plans.