Workforce & Workplace
The Secret to Creating a High Performance Culture: People, Progress & Partnerships
Lorna Donatone
Lorna Donatone
CEO, Sodexo Schools Worldwide President, Sodexo North America

What accounts for the difference between companies that can hit the ball out of the park and those that are merely staying in the game?  According to Swiss research and consulting firm Egon Zehnder a handful of companies enjoy superior growth and profitability because they maintain a high performance culture that drives vision, purpose, action and results.  Encouraging an organizational culture to thrive begins with openness, honesty and transparency. Everyone needs to feel a sense of inclusion and understand how their ideas and contributions positively impact organizational outcomes.

Fostering a strong culture is vital because it acts as the “central operating system” for an organization. It guides the business, holds leadership accountable and gives employees a roadmap for what’s expected of them. I wrote about building a high performance culture in a recent edition of Diplomatic Courier, and I’ll summarize the key points here.

To build a high performance culture that leads to sustainable growth, there are three components to consider.

  • People (Workforce Development)
  • Progress (Innovation, Ideas & Opportunities)
  • Partnerships (Creating Shared Value)


Higher performance is driven by identifying, developing and retaining the best talent. A recent case study featured in the Ivey Business Journal, found that employees at a U.S.-based mortgage banking company who are actively engaged outperform the competition by 20 percent. Simply put, your people are the straightest line to creating a high performance culture.

  • Identify Talent: Skill-set is just part of selecting the right talent – attitude, personality, ambition and integrity are perhaps even more important assets because they cannot be taught.
  • Support development: The better educated a workforce is, the more likely they will deliver increased organizational success.
  • Retain the best people: Employees need to feel their contributions are being acknowledged, appreciated and are adding to the company’s success.


Progress is the means by which an organization moves toward its ambition. Worldwide, 2015 research and development spending by the Global Innovation 1000 companies — the 1,000 public corporations worldwide that spent the most on researching and developing products and services — rose more than  five percent to nearly $700 billion, the strongest increase in the last three years. But how do companies deliver tangible, viable progress? Through innovation, ideas and opportunities.

  • Innovation: Companies like 3M and Google consider innovation so important to their business that they require employees to dedicate 10 percent of their time to exploration and experimentation.
  • Ideas: Whether it is the little ideas that pop up to address everyday challenges or the ‘next big idea’, high performance cultures share the characteristic of supporting idea generation at every level.
  • Opportunities: The best opportunities don’t always knock. High performance culture businesses don’t wait for things to happen, they make things happen.


Very few opportunities in business today offer as much benefit as strategic partnerships with the nonprofit, education or government sectors. Organizations that make giving back to the communities where they live, work and serve a priority reap many rewards including increased sales, enhanced employee engagement, brand loyalty, relationship development and meaningful team building.  A 2014 Nielsen Study found that 42 percent of participants reported they would pay more for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. High performance culture organizations understand that what is good for the local community is also good for business

In summary, cultures based on high performance inspire employees to assume success – to look for and create opportunities, anticipate needs, be informed and get involved, identify solutions and strive for excellence, even when no one is looking. Creating and maintaining a high performance culture is certainly not easy – but can you really afford not to?

Have you had experiences building or working in a high performance culture?  Please share them in the comments below.


Lorna Donatone is the CEO of Sodexo Schools Worldwide and President of Sodexo North America.  Ms. Donatone was honored with the 2015 Trailblazer Award from the Women’s Foodservice Forum and Chairs the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation.  She is on the Board of Directors of Jamba Juice, is a trustee of the Culinary Institute of America, serves on the Tulane Business School Council and Chairs the TCU Business School Board.

One comment on “The Secret to Creating a High Performance Culture: People, Progress & Partnerships

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    Sandie LaVake says:

    I have been looking for a company with these same values for years! I have not found one yet. I have worked for businesses that understand the content of this message but cannot implement. Why? because the culture is not fully realized at the top tier.
    I worked at as a researcher in the paper industry who tried to implement a culture of innovation within their workforce. Introducing Lean and Six sigma for improvement. But the workforce was not actually listened to. The idea’s were set up to fail and the ones taking credit for the small successes were upper middle management. There was no credibility between upper management and the production work force. They did not succeed because they wanted instant results. They could not create a culture, they wanted to “Just add water” and Voila!
    Another business I worked for brought in that culture by hiring a workforce that believed they were important and could make the company successful and thrive. The company is growing but not to its potential. The employees have ideas; great ones, but do not know how to implement those ideas because they do not have the talents to “get there”. It is all about learning… slowly and hoping your customers will understand.
    I also disagree that opportunities don’t knock. They do, they are there, you just have to look for those opportunities. Opportunities that are forced, could be like trying to make your company be a square peg trying to fulfill the needs of a customer that only uses round holes. It could be a waste of time and resources. I don’t think you should wait for opportunities but you do want them to knock, eventually so a business has to be willing to put themselves out there.
    Currently I am working at a place that seems to have the right mix. Talent, a culture that can and is willing to generate ideas, a supportive upper management and opportunities. What is stifling us? Uncertainty about the future. That may be another category under progress; “change” and knowing when to make it.


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