The Chemistry of High Performance:

Understanding the
Periodic Table of Elements


Understanding the Periodic
Table of Elements

The periodic table of elements below identifies factors that influence context, complexity, and the interrelationship of factors that enable an organization to become a high-performing company.

Today, we see HCM technology driving everything from social sourcing to great employee experiences that engage people in new ways to create a passionate workforce. Each organization has its own unique “chemical signature”— that combination of elements that makes you who you are.

In this ebook, we will look at the interplay of elements in six key areas:


Over the last several years we have seen many trends bubble to the top of the HCM world. Each January brings with it research papers and forecasts of what is hot for the coming year and trends we need to adopt, or at the very least pay attention to. These predictions come from a number of sources—consulting groups, publications, and vendors with solutions for those very trends on the horizon.

We have seen trends and predictions over the last several years that include the year of big data, the year of engagement, the year of the employee, and the year of the manager. We’ve also seen themes like a revolution to forever change how we do performance management; the age of social recruiting;

collaboration tools; and everyone able to connect across the organization (including working on a mobile device with anyone, anytime, and anywhere).

And every year we see greater sophistication in the HCM technology solutions in the market. Wellness and wearables are a new trend for connection and collaboration, and they are considered the next wave of HCM innovation for organizations. Being talent-driven and data-driven are essential to improving business performance (Sierra Cedar, 2015). Self-directed learning, social learning, and development are the priorities for attracting and retaining the workforce you need in order to sustain and grow your business.

There is a growing use of workforce planning and analytics, and many organizations have increased their adoption and use of people analytics tools. In the 2016 Human Capital Trends Report (Deloitte), we see the focus moving to organization design and the rise of teams.

Many organizations have implemented initiatives in all of these areas over the years; some have taken hold, and some have come and gone without much impact or success.

Much has been written about following the trends of the moment and failing to create sustainable results from the efforts. We have seen business best sellers that have a very short shelf life, and then people move on to the next idea.

But here’s the thing: These are not bad ideas—in fact they are, in many ways, essential to organizational survival in today’s talent marketplace. So if all of it is important, how do you make sense out of what is most important

Enter the Chemistry of High Performance

Becoming a high-performing team or organization is more than implementing a new process or initiative. Simply launching another program without vision, purpose, connection, meaning, communication, and belief makes it just another program. People see it for what it is. And the chances that you will be

able to move the organization forward are pretty slim.

We are living in a time where people want more from work. In study after study we see that, no matter what the generation, people want real connection and relationship (Career Systems International, 2014; Universum, 2015).

for your organization, and get on a path to a more vibrant culture, better business performance, and more-passionate, engaged employees?

Maybe, instead of this being the year of one or two trends, this is The Year of Everything—the year where you put together the unique combination of tools, people, strategy, culture, and actions that take business performance to the next level.

They want conversation and acceptance. They want leaders who care about them and help them achieve their aspirations and goals. They are looking for meaning at work and will settle for nothing less. People want real conversation with great thought-provoking questions and personal connections.

They want to matter, and to work for organizations that have values that

align with their own. In essence, they are searching for a workplace where they can engage passionately and make a contribution.

As an organization, how do you make sense of technology, culture, innovation, performance, the talent marketplace, demographics, and the need to
deliver results?

What We Can Learn from Science

A common scientific definition of chemistry is: the study of matter, its properties, how and why substances combine or separate to form other substances, and how substances interact with energy; or, the branch of science that deals with the identification of the substances of which matter is composed; the investigation of their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine, and change; and the use of these processes to form new substances (Google search; Live Science).

Chemistry is a part of all things—the building blocks of life itself. Chemical elements, combined in a unique way, create substances that are essential to survival. What chemistry does not ignore is the context—and how the elements combine in their environment to achieve a particular chemical reaction.

Chemistry is about the connections; about bonding; about taking separate elements and putting them together in a different way to yield something new—something that could have never happened with just one element alone.

Chemistry is about transformation and the process by which basic elements become something else. We talk about organization transformation all the time—how we take the elements of technology, strategy, people, vision, purpose, commitment, and values to create something greater—and we create great experiences for both customers and employees.

We create organizations that become talent magnets, where people join, and where they want to stay. We create organizations that consistently

outperform their peers and win in the market. In short, we create high-performing organizations.

But which are the elements in today’s talent marketplace that are the basic building blocks for transformation?
What is the chemistry of high performance, and how can you get there?

In this series, we will look at how you can become a high-performing organization, and the elements any organization must pay attention to on their transformation journey in order to be successful.

These elements, while essential, do not define all things for all people. They are the basic building blocks. How you put them together—how you respond to your unique circumstances and challenges, your people, and your environment—is the chemistry.

Let’s look at the individual chemistry of each area:

  • Finding People

    Understanding the dynamics of the talent marketplace

  • Talent Magnet

    How do you become a talent magnet—a place where people want to join and where they want to stay?

  • Social

    How do you effectively utilize social tools to build your talent brand and create networks of people who want to connect with your organization?

  • Candidate Relationship Management

    Marketers utilize customer relationship management to convert people to customers and then brand ambassadors; we will look at how you use those same principles to transform candidates into passionate employees.

  • Relationship

    Building relationships and becoming a connector are essential to an effective talent-acquisition strategy. How are you building relationships for the long term?

Let’s look at the individual chemistry of each area:

  • Passion

    We have heard a lot about engagement, but it is just
    the first step, not the destination. How do you get from engagement to passion?

  • Culture

    What is it that people want from work, and how is your culture evolving to be an energetic, innovative, and dynamic place to be?

  • High Performance Leaders

    Becoming a high-performing company requires different behaviors from leaders. What is the definition of a high-performance leader, and how do you develop the skills and capabilities in your leaders over time to take individual and team performance to the next level?

Let’s look at the individual chemistry of each area:

  • Performance

    Organizations are transforming their approach to measuring and delivering performance. How are we transforming performance management, and how can you move your organization forward?

  • After the Revolution

    In the spring of 2015, we began to blow up performance management. What has happened since? What has emerged as a trend—and what are the impacts of transforming performance-management practices?

  • Where Are We Now?

    What are organizations doing in the redesign of performance-management processes and tools? How is technology enabling change?

  • What’s Working?

    Ratings? Calibration? Coaching? Crowdsourcing? Enterprise performance? How effective are new performance practices?

Let’s look at the individual chemistry of each area:

  • Working Human

    One can make the case that we have always wanted work to be personal, to be more related, yet now as we enter into the age of accelerated technology creation, the desire for real human connection at work is at the heart of great performance and commitment … so what does it mean to work human?

  • Purpose-Driven

    Engagement is key, and having purpose is critical. If staff are disengaged from their company’s mission and values, how can they align their daily contributions with anything beyond a paycheck?

  • HCM Innovation

    What is considered HCM innovation, and how is HCM technology contributing to retention?

Let’s look at the individual chemistry of each area:

  • Talent Mobility

    What are the innovations in talent review, and how can we build pipelines and talent pools that help sustain and grow the business?

  • Workforce Analytics

    Use workforce planning and analytics
    to make better people decisions.

Let’s look at the individual chemistry of each area:

  • Talent Strategy

    Developing your talent strategy.

  • Talent Market

    Understand the current dynamics of the talent market and how they are shaping the depth and availability of talent.

  • How You Win

    Put it all together—utilize the elements to develop your chemistry of
    high performance.

What is a High-Performing Organization?

For well over a decade, we have been looking at what constitutes a high-performing organization in an effort to uncover the secret formula and then implement it everywhere. But what is this sometimes elusive state of high performance?

“A High Performance Organization is an organization that achieves financial and nonfinancial results that are exceedingly better than those of its peer group over a period of time of five years or more, by focusing in a disciplined way on that which really matters to the organization.”
André de Waal, HPO Center

Often in high-performing organizations, they focus on building high-performing teams that are defined as a group of people with specific roles and complementary talents and skills, aligned with and committed to a common purpose, who consistently show high levels of collaboration and innovation that produce superior results. The high-performance team is regarded as tight-knit, focused on its goal, and having supportive processes that will enable any team member to surmount any barriers to achieving the team’s goals (Wikipedia).

There have been numerous studies to determine high-performing characteristics. For example, Jim Collins wrote, in Good to Great, about how organizations make the transition to a high-performing company, and

how they can sustain it. Collins looked at organizations that sustained high performance for a period of 15 years, and highlighted practices and contributing factors that were essential in the transition from good to great.

Susan Annunzio from the Center for High Performance in Chicago conducted a comprehensive global study of knowledge workers and linked 15 organizational attributes to high performance. André de Waal from the High Performance Organization Center connected high performance and linked them to business outcomes.

The quality of leadership matters …
a lot. In fact, Gallup research (2015) estimates that as much as 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores is dependent on the manager. While we will explore leadership at length in the “Leadership” element, it is worth noting the key themes that seek to define great leadership that have emerged over the last several years.

Seven key skills every
high-performance leader now needs to adopt:

  1. Build trust and be inclusive.
  2. Create a culture of accountability.
  3. Listen, ask great questions, and show concern for employees.
  4. Inspire people to achieve levels of high personal performance.
  5. Bring passion to the workplace and have palpable energy and enthusiasm.
  6. Make balanced and informed decisions, regardless of office politics and moments of madness.
  7. Do not ever throw people under
    the bus!

In the last 10 years, here are five recurring key themes:

Having the right people, at the right time, in the right place to sustain and grow the business—and yes, get the right people “on the bus”
(Jim Collins, Good to Great, 2001). Organizations that do this are open to moving people to the right job if there is a fit issue. Plus, they can make difficult decisions to get the wrong people off the bus. 1.

Building the right culture, and hiring the right employees that fit the culture, is a critical building block. Open communication, collaboration, and connection create an environment where success can flourish. People are not afraid to speak their minds—to tell the truth about what is happening, what’s working, and what’s not. There is no blame for telling the truth; there is no search for guilty colleagues when something goes wrong. Instead, there is an earnest effort to review difficulties and challenges, 2.

as well as collaboratively seek solutions that work. There is an inclusiveness where entire teams are part of the solution, and everyone plays a valuable role in contributing to success. The best ideas, from whatever the source, are used to move the business forward. They harness individual strengths and turn them into collective genius.

Agility and adaptability are key. Change is in their DNA—that capacity to assess what is going on, identify what is needed, then go about making the changes to get there. This includes continually asking fundamental questions: How can we adapt? What do we need to do? How can we develop great capacity and capability to grow? How do we win in this marketplace? How do we tap the best talents of our teams to get there? This keeps them in a state of growth and renewal. 3.

Investing in people is the X factor; it makes all the difference. People joining organizations today want development for their current job, but also want to grow into future roles. In Deloitte 2020, they cite that 86 percent of people leave a job because of lack of career development. Supporting self-directed learning, focusing on great employee experiences from prehire to retire, developing your capacity for social learning, and connecting people through social and mobile technology all contribute to retention. The investments needed are not just in learning, but in technology and developing the tools and resources people need to do the work effectively. 4.

Delivering great results often comes down to a strategic action orientation. High-performing companies are able to act on opportunities of the moment—and take the long view. They have clear values around who they are, what they stand for, and how they will operate. They focus on market success, customer success, and they invest in employee success—because they recognize that all three are inextricably linked. They tend not to get bogged down in hierarchy or politics—getting things done often involves informal networks, as well as formal structures, to deliver superior business performance. 5.

Being a high-performing organization has evolved into an amalgam of productivity and innovation. And while individuals might be in control of their own level of participation, and might be able to perform and innovate, they must also be able to spark and sustain innovation in order to create a compelling, organizationwide culture of high performance. What distinguishes those who believe they are in a
high-performing workgroup? How do they provide evidence of driving business results?

A study by the Center for High Performance, led by Susan Annunzio, uncovered three common environmental elements shared by all the study’s
high-performing workgroups:

  • They valued people. Smart people were treated as if they were smart. 1.

  • They optimized critical thinking. People were given the information they needed to do their best work. 2.

  • They seized opportunities. People were allowed to take risks, explore new ideas, and make mistakes. 3.

Ultimately, the Center for High Performance concluded that each of these factors is vital to achieving high performance throughout an organization.

As Boris Groysberg found during research for his book Chasing Stars, around 65 percent of high-performing executives placed into new, less supportive workplaces ended up leaving the company within their first year. Something in their environments wasn’t functioning right. And odds are, if you have tried to build a high-performing organization and failed, something surrounding one of these areas is broken for you, too. It’s time to figure out what’s not working, and fix it.

What Is It That You Do to Move Toward High Performance?

In the broadcast Unlock Results! (Contagious Success by Susan Annunzio), developed with Susan Annunzio and hosted by the Taleo Corporation,* Pamela Stroko discussed her research on what actually supports each high-performance driver. The focus of how to get to high performance was at workgroup level—because that is perceived as the place where actions can have high impact with more immediate results.

Driver One:
Valuing People

  • People in the group feel valued
  • It is fun to be part of this group
  • The group makes use of the highest and best talents of its members
  • The group works to retain the
    best people
  • People understand how their work fits the goals of the group

Driver Two:
Optimizing Critical Thinking

  • The group leader promotes high performance by example
  • Important information about the state of the business is shared with everyone

Driver Three:
Seizing Opportunities

  • The group continually looks for ways to work more efficiently
  • Information is freely exchanged in the workgroup
  • The workgroup turns problems into opportunities
  • New ideas are constantly sought
  • Learning is rewarded
  • The group adapts quickly to changes in the environment
  • New ideas are tried
  • Mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn

Attributes Enabling a High-Performing Environment

Fifteen attributes, taken together, provide a portrait of the high-performing work environment. Each attribute is associated with specific behaviors that leaders can demonstrate, followed by examples of actions that characterize the behavior.

  • People in the group feel valued

  • It is fun to be part of this group

  • The group makes use of the highest performance and best talents of its members

  • The group works to retain the best people

  • People understand how their work fits the goals of the group

  • Demonstrate confidence in employees’ ability to solve problems and accomplish work goals.
  • Treat smart people as if they are smart.
  • Tell employees what the goal is, not how to accomplish it.
  • Build a sense of common purpose and community that cultivates enthusiasm
    and creativity.
  • Be positive and enthusiastic about what your group is working to achieve.
  • Take into account people’s skills and natural strengths (such as good listener, organized, strategic thinker, good presenter, and so on) when assigning roles and responsibilities.
  • Challenge and nurture your top performers.
  • Meet regularly with your best performers to identify what the group needs to maximize results, and which environmental factors are getting in the way.
  • Clearly communicate how individual assignments further the group’s goals.
  • Keep employees informed if goals change
    or evolve.
  • Seek employee input on
    business imperatives.
  • Give capable employees increasing levels
    of responsibility.
  • Value viewpoints different from your own.
  • Encourage employees to find creative ways of reaching the group’s goals.
  • Highlight how accomplishments relate to the group’s purpose.
  • Make sure group members understand the specific steps taken to accomplish the group’s goals.
  • Match employees’ skills and strengths with their assignments.
  • Encourage people to focus on developing their strengths (as opposed to shoring up their weaknesses).
  • Figure out ways to challenge your
    top performers.
  • Ask your top performers for their ideas on how the group should meet its goals.
  • Assist top performers in gaining skills that will advance their careers.
  • Give people ample opportunity to ask questions and clarify how their work relates to the group’s goals.
  • The group leader promotes high performance by example

  • Important information about the state of the business is shared with everyone

  • The group continually looks for ways to work more efficiently

  • Information is freely exchanged in the workgroup

  • The workgroup turns problems into opportunities

  • Match your words and actions.
  • Take responsibility for your own actions.
  • Explain your intentions to your group.
  • Establish procedures to ensure that group members are informed about aspects of the business relevant to achieving company objectives.
  • Provide employees with relevant financial, customer, and competitor data.
  • Re-examine group and organizational processes frequently.
  • Embrace suggestions about better ways
    to work.
  • Share information that will allow the group
    to work effectively.
  • Encourage open debate.
  • Allow people to raise concerns openly without fear of retribution.
  • Re-examine your assumptions about
    the problem.
  • Determine whether the problem is actually a symptom of a deeper issue.
  • Engender a sense of trust and loyalty by encouraging people to bring up difficult or sensitive issues.
  • Stand up for your convictions.
  • Be willing to show weakness or imperfection.
  • Pass along company information without embellishment or “spin.”
  • Share relevant information even if you believe it will cause concern.
  • Share relevant information even if you feel it might diminish your power or popularity.
  • Delegate work that could be done better by someone else.
  • Invest in new technology and resources
    when appropriate.
  • Establish procedures to openly
    exchange information.
  • Communicate group goals, priorities, and deadlines to all group members.
  • Communicate who is accountable for achieving specific objectives to all
    group members.
  • Consider whether what appears to be a problem could be a critical component of
    your success.
  • Be willing to radically change course in response to new information.
  • New ideas are constantly sought

  • Learning is rewarded

  • The group adapts quickly to changes in the environment

  • New ideas are tried

  • Mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn

  • Provide employees with opportunities to learn.
  • Encourage brainstorming and creative problem solving to address complex problems.
  • Allow people to work in teams to maximize thinking and harness collective intelligence.
  • Be willing to incorporate new ideas.
  • Encourage new approaches to solving business problems.
  • Refine organizational practices to reflect changes in the external environment.
  • Regularly ask your customers what
    they want.
  • Explain/demonstrate how new ideas contribute to a positive result.
  • Explain/establish the process for idea generation (a great example is IDEO).
  • Conduct a thorough analysis of substantive mistakes or areas where the expected performance never quite materialized.
  • Evaluate why things went wrong.
  • Identify what’s smart about an imperfect idea before dismissing it.
  • Encourage people to broaden their normal frame of reference for new ideas.
  • Avoid placing blame if the outcome is
    not ideal.
  • Do not punish people for good-faith efforts that do not succeed.
  • Continuously monitor and respond to the external environment.
  • Meet your customers’ and employees’ changing needs.
  • Encourage employees to take
    measured risks.
  • Identify what’s smart about a new idea.
  • Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine the feasibility of new ideas.
  • Take the time to understand what went wrong—conduct an after-action review.
  • Apply the lessons learned from your mistakes to other situations.

There are many pathways to becoming a high-performing organization—some people choose to start at the workgroup level; others look at the macro context of the organization. There are similar themes at both levels. For instance, the High Performance Organization Center proposes a framework of five factors that have a direct impact on
business performance:

  • The quality of management 1.
  • Openness and action orientation 2.
  • Long-term orientation 3.
  • Continuous improvement
    and renewal 4.
  • Quality of employees 5.

Their research determined that high-performing companies significantly outperform their competition. While the range of increases in performance indicators varies greatly, the impact on financial performance is undeniable:

Improved revenue growth: by 4 to 16 percent

Profitability: up 14 to 44 percent

Return on assets: up 1 to 12 percent

Return on equity: up 9 to 25 percent

Return on investment: up 15 to 26 percent

Return on sales: up 2 to 18 percent

Total shareholder return: up 4 to 42 percent

While the studies on high-performance factors point us in the direction of great practices and frameworks, many organizations have still not become high-performing. It may be that all the factors and attributes we have discussed are necessary, but not sufficient. There is something more—and that’s where the chemistry of high performance comes in. In the coming chapters, we will take into account context, environment, intangibles, talent economics, the human factor, passion, the state of talent acquisition and retention, as well as elements of talent strategy and
HCM innovation.

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