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managing books

Powerhouse: Insider Accounts into the World's Top High-Performance Organizations

By Brian MacNeice and James Bowen

Kogan Page, 280 pages

Here's a list of 12 top performing organizations – "powerhouse performers," in the words of the author of a new book: Grameen Bank, Medécins Sans Frontièrs, Southwest Airlines, U.S. Marine Corps, Curtis Institute of Music, The Finnish state school education system, Tata Group, St. Louis Cardinals, Mariinsky Theatre, New Zealand All Blacks, Mayo Clinic and Toyota Motor Corporation.

It's not the usual suspects we see in such investigations of top performers and unusually eclectic, with sports teams, arts leaders, non-profits, a hospital and a school system. It's therefore revealing to learn about the practices instituted by the top-rated but little-studied organizations consultants Brian MacNeice and James Bowen tackle in Powerhouse.

Each organization gets many things right. But after taking readers through the organization's success story, they draw out one special lesson from each.

  • Ambition: This is the starting point for sustained high performance. Ambition should be “unreasonable,” they argue, challenging the paradigm in the industry, such as Grameen founder Muhammad Yunus’s goal to eliminate poverty forever through his microloans. Ambitions should also be captivating, engaging and energizing for the whole organization.
  • Purpose: Ambition is achieved through purpose, something Medécins Sans Frontièrs exemplifies with its fearless devotion to providing humanitarian aid to those most in need. Clarity of purpose provides a reason for people to join and stay with the organization as well as to give the discretionary effort required for longtime high performance.
  • Measures: Organizations must select and use metrics that matter to drive performance. The fact Southwest Airlines is the example – an organization renowned for its treatment of staff -- reminds us that metrics should be used to unleash, rather than restrain, employees.
  • Standards: The Marines have high standards drilled into them. Organizations need to establish high standards as an organizational value, communicate those, and really live them, at all levels, all the time.
  • Performance gap: The Curtis Institute attracts and selects top young musicians, so there is not much of a gap in performance between them. Usually, the consultants find that when they rank performers in an organization on a one to 10 scale, the top folks score nine and the worst three. Over time, the top performers will get frustrated with those of lower standards and leave or become complacent. Manage your work force so the performance gap is small.
  • Decisions: Organizations are becoming increasingly complex. So follow the Finish school system, which, contrary to what you might expect, offers people a high level of decision-making autonomy. Typically, unless managers are certain they have control over a particular decision, they assume they have no control. You want them to assume they have control unless it is completely obvious they don’t.
  • Governance: The authors argue that governance is where the rubber hits the road. But as with Goldilocks, you don’t want too much or too little governance, since it should free up leaders to lead and people to do what needs to be done.
  • Engagement: Companies with engaged employees outperform those who lack them. The St. Louis Cardinals show engagement is a “contact sport,” with effort at all levels to engage employees and fans, so those fans keep coming back. “Engagement works better with less hype and more substance. Keep it simple,” they stress.
  • Resilience: High-performing organizations like The Mariinsky Theatre constantly reinvent themselves. When things go wrong, they cope and emerge stronger, adopting a positive attitude.
  • Feedback: New Zealand’s All Blacks rarely lose, and that comes in part from operating in a feedback-rich environment, studying performance in every game and learning from it. “The goal should be to make it as easy as possible for people to talk about how they are doing and have regular conversations throughout the organization,” they say.
  • Teamwork: The Mayo Clinic keeps doctors’ egos at bay, getting everyone to work as a team with the patient’s interest the main consideration. The authors say the best performers have a “one-team philosophy,” with individuals working towards collective ends.
  • Improvement: Toyota Motor Corporation is synonymous with constant improvement, and when it had a rough patch in 2009-2010 due to product recalls, its dedication to problem-solving initiated a new round of growth.

Those principles won't surprise, but they are solid and sensible, and the organizational stories help them come alive. Although the writing is a bit dense, reading about organizations not usually studied for their management practices makes it a stimulating book.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter