The following is adapted from my new book, Thrive: The Leader’s Guide to Building a High-Performance Culture

As a firm focused on positively transforming workforce engagement and performance, we meet many company executives who are looking for ways to help to improve business results in some fashion. Usually, our clients ask us things like how we can increase sales results or manager effectiveness, improve customer retention or employee engagement scores, or increase throughput in their production. 

Every business wants to improve their performance (or they will eventually die). Growth is a key part of any thriving business! Interestingly, we find that at the start in many of these conversations, executives almost always lack a key element as they envision the future of their organization: a unified, clear definition of success. 

In our work, we find that independently asking executives the qualitative and quantitative metrics that matter most in a key business result area, there is significant variance in the answer from members of the same team. For example, when asking about what metrics matter the most in improving sales effectiveness, we hear answers that range from traditional lagging indicators such as revenue and new clients, to the quality of relationships, emotional intelligence, number of new appointments, number of proposals, and business acumen. 

If executives cannot agree on the definition of what high performance looks like, it’s no surprise that their organizations struggle to have consistent high levels of performance. Which is why the first step in the process of creating a thriving organization is clearly defining what “success” means to your business, then creating structured and clear ways for employees to bring that vision to life through their work.

Get Your Key Stakeholders In One Room

When we begin working with any company, we always begin the process by identifying executive leaders and key stakeholders, and bringing those people together— those who have the most at stake in driving success across the organization. 

When you get key leaders to agree upon and understand an initiative’s objectives, the alignment created will increase your likelihood of success and accelerate the transformation efforts. 

Start by asking these leaders to identify the following: 

  • Their most important business metrics (what success will look and feel like)
  • The risks of not achieving the specific outcomes intended through the company’s strategic plans and goals
  • The critical roles that have the most impact on bringing the desired business results to fruition. 

Once you have aligned your team on a shared understanding of these answers, you can start defining your specific goals for your initiative.

Refine Vague Ideas Into Specific Ideas.

Leaders often state a desired result as a high-level goal, such as achieving 30% revenue growth or maintaining a balanced scorecard. 

However, these goals are often too nebulous and vague as a starting point. To more effectively define success and foster higher levels of performance, aim to develop more specific goals so that the means of attaining them can be clearly communicated. 

For example, will growth be obtained through new business, customer retention, a mix of both, or some other way? The best goals are richly detailed, not one-dimensional or confusing.  

Get On The Ground With Your Employees. 

New goals and strategies often are declared from the top down. While this may seem like the obvious way to implement initiatives, they are actually an outdated, incomplete, and ineffective approach to this critical business process. 

When high-level leaders announce sweeping changes, employees may be initially inspired, only to find themselves later scratching their heads, trying to figure out what these high-level targets mean for them. They receive their goals and responsibilities arbitrarily, cascaded through a performance management system with little role context or clarity to how they can impact the organization’s desired results. 

To better ground your initiatives for employees at every level, make sure you give color and texture to the big picture: how will these changes be implemented, down to the details? Create and distribute a clearly defined action plan that has relevant goals and measurable outcomes at every level. Then, managers and employees in various roles can have an aligned understanding of the specific goals you created earlier in the process. 

Create a “Why” For Each Employee

People want to understand why their roles matter, and how their work connects to the bigger picture. Even if you’re excited about a new initiative, your workers simply will not put their heart and soul into something just for the money—they want purpose, goals, and connection.

A friend of ours is an economic development consultant for the state of Maryland. He recently visited a plant in Baltimore that had a large physical space with a small workforce. He had a brief meeting with the plant manager, and as the manager escorted him out, he stopped to say goodbye to an employee who was retiring—it was his last day after thirty years of service.

After thanking and congratulating this employee, he asked the employee if he had any requests before leaving. The employee said he had never been on a tour of the whole plant, so he wanted to walk through and see the work process from start to finish. In thirty years, he had never seen how his work impacted the big picture.

It should have been surprising that this employee was never introduced to the full work process, but unfortunately, this happens all the time. People show up to work and have no idea what the value proposition is for their role, except in a narrow and constrained way. There can be a complete disconnect between a company’s strategy and purpose, and what employees experience on a day-to-day basis. 

Helping an employee understand the “why” behind what she does, and the upstream and downstream relationships in a work process, creates a sense of responsibility for the individual. Accountability among coworkers is established. Understanding the “why” has a positive impact on standards of quality. When people understand a process, and their individual component of the process, their commitment to quality is renewed.

This is the final (and perhaps most important) element of success in your organization: the people carrying out the ideas are inspired to do their jobs well. 

Success Is Made On Purpose 

High-performing companies and employees are not created by accident. To build a thriving business that continues to evolve and grow, you have to start by aligning your leadership, clearly defining your goals, helping employees understand their roles, and then inspiring those people to take purposeful action. 

Success will look different for everyone, but all successful companies have one thing in common: they know what they want and why they want it, and they have a clear path to get there. Start by defining success.

For more advice on business transformation, you can find Thrive on Amazon.

Andrew Freedman is a lifelong advocate for maximizing human potential and creating positive change, personally and professionally. For over 25 years, he’s been a driving force in designing strategies that provide leaders a foundation to translate individual, team, and organizational talent into tangible business growth. As Managing Partner of SHIFT Consulting, he’s helped countless companies across diverse industries flourish through vibrant company cultures and a high performance mindset. Additionally, through his work as an affiliate faculty member of the University of Baltimore, Andrew’s continued goal is to use his insatiable passion for human performance to inspire new generations of business leaders with the art and science of creating and executing successful, people-focused business strategies.

Paul is President, Founder, and Chief Performance Architect at Exemplary Performance LLC. Designing high-performance work systems is Paul’s passion. Working across sectors (financial services, high technology, telecommunications, etc.) and functions (sales, product development, customer service, operations, management, etc.), Paul leverages his experience with Fortune 500 organizations to help clients achieve exceptional results by optimizing the performance of teams and individuals.