Abstract image of a sunrise over the horizon

The Power of Culture

In February 2020, the leadership team of the city of Brownsville, Texas, had just completed the first year of its continuing journey of creating a culture of high performance. Within weeks, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

“I told our team this was a make or break moment for our culture,” said Brownsville City Manager Noel Bernal. “This is going to test us. Either we are having genuine discussions, or we are faking it. COVID will lay it bare.”

As it turns out, Brownsville passed the test. “A year later, we are standing strong,” Bernal said. “COVID galvanized our culture.”

When he became city manager in December 2018, Bernal arrived with a 100-day plan to begin addressing the challenges the governing body identified as priorities: developing a vision, providing professional development for employees who desperately wanted it, and becoming an organization of innovation.

“I committed to the commission that if we lead with culture first, we’ll figure out the answers in working with our employees, the commission, and the community,” he said. “We’ll figure out the answer for the vision, the strategy, and how to structure ourselves.” Not two weeks had passed when Bernal introduced his leadership team to an organizational culture development timeline.

“If we are going to be successful,” he said, “it will be because we have 1,200 people rowing in the same direction. “And my biggest role is to commit to being the steward of the culture.”

A New Way of Thinking

Creating a culture for high performance is an imperative. It demands a shift in thinking about how work gets done in organizations.

To that end, the University of Kansas (KU) School of Public Affairs and Administration and the KU Public Management Center conducted a weeklong seminar in January, “Public Service Leadership: Creating a Culture for High Performance.”

The premise of the classwork was that today’s local government leaders must be able to do the following:

1. Understand the theories and practices that create a smart and sensitive organizational culture and its relationship to the organization’s performance.

2. Consider how organizational values relate to performance.

3. Implement leadership philosophies and strategies to create a culture that inspires and enables employees to excel.

Beginning with this issue and continuing for five more, we’ll discuss the class learnings and share stories and experiences from organizations already working on cultural development. We’ll explore the keys to developing higher performance. We’ll show you that the cultural side of the organization is the place where higher performance is created; that the work of leadership is too often overlooked; and that what we believe, what we do, and how and where we do it all matter.

Our hope is that this article, and those that follow, will entice you not only to read and debate the material, but that they inspire you and pique your interest and energy enough that you begin your own journey to high performance, no matter your position, your organization, or your community. Start today! Exercise leadership from where you are!

The content of the series is based upon materials presented in our class, much of which was developed using course work presented in programs at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia (UVA). We wish to express our sincere appreciation to those who have developed and championed these programs and so inspired us: Dr. Robert Matson, retired professor/director at UVA; John Pickering, founder of Commonwealth Center for Public Service (CCHPO); and Anton Gardner and Craig Gerhart, former city/county managers and faculty in the programs at UVA, and now principles at CCHPO.1

To Make a Difference

Why pursue high or higher performance? The primary answer is the desire to make the world a better place, to make a difference in people’s lives. But there are more pragmatic public management reasons. First, people do really want to be good at what they do. They want their organization to be known as great. We cannot underestimate the impact of those motivations on employees and their level of engagement. Performance and engagement are strongly connected, and culture contributes significantly to engagement. If we want more fully engaged employees, we should provide them with a higher sense of purpose. High performance aspirations are a means to that end.

Secondarily, no matter how good you are now, you can always be better, and being better does really matter. Our residents clearly deserve it. What service can you provide that does not require your best efforts? What are the consequences if we are not high performing? What happens if we do not get better?

For every person in public service, there is at least one story of a life benefitted, a person helped, a thank-you letter for what you did—a difference that was made. That, for us, is the essence of public service—making a difference, making life better, making communities better. For many, that “ethos” is part of the Athenian Oath: “… we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

The very tenets of public management can mean nothing less than a professional commitment to pass our communities on better than we received them. We cannot meet that challenge by doing our same work in the same way. We must find ways to continuously improve, to be better, to perform better. Higher performance is not optional, it is necessary.

Creating a Culture for Higher Performance

In his book, The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni identifies two separate organizational characteristics:

1. Being smart: mastering the business fundamentals like production, finance, and technology.

2. Being healthy: having organizational integrity where the management, strategies, operations, and culture have a consistent fit together.

Culture is found in the health of an organization. A healthy organization knows and actively demonstrates its purpose—why it exists, the behaviors it values, the assumptions and beliefs it holds about people and work, the way it should act in doing its work, and how it performs the work. Healthy organizations intentionally create their culture and work to sustain it, understanding that how they perform is as important as what they achieve. The problem is, as Lencioni notes, most organizations concentrate on being smart and defer the work needed to be healthy. Local government is no exception to that principle. Too often, we take pride in being smart and spend little time and attention on “culture building.”

The Principles of High Performance

Higher performance is not something you do. Rather, it is a mindset, part of the cultural belief system that guides day-to-day decision-making, that builds understanding of expectations and empowerment, and that expands the capacity and capability of the organization to perform.

The framework for that mindset is contained in the following seven questions, crafted by Matson and Pickering:

1. What is high performance for us?

2. How would we know if we were high performing?

3. According to whom are we high performing?

4. Why do we want to be high performing?

5. Are we performing the right things?

6. Are we performing the right way?

7. How are we treating ourselves and others?

While framed as questions, they are better thought of as principles. As principles, they must become a foundational part of the organization’s culture and thinking. They must become common thought processes for all employees, such that each employee is expected to consider: why am I doing this, is it the right thing to do, what is high performance for me in doing it, and how am I treating others as I do it?

To be sure, no two local governments are the same. The meaning of higher performance for each will likely be different, but the mindset will lead each to their own higher-performance culture.

The reality today is that local government organizations are filled with thoughtful, capable workers who can themselves think and decide. Indeed, many believe that in today’s workplace, it is the managers who know least about what needs to be done or how best to do it.

Admittedly, high-performance thinking can be a difficult pivot for managers.

“I had to learn that I was a major impediment to having people bring their best ideas forward,” said Hannes Zacharias, the former manager of Johnson County, Kansas, and now professor of practice for the KU School of Public Affairs and Administration. “I didn’t want to be challenged,” said Zacharias, “I was the guy on the top of the hill. I’d been trained that if I didn’t know the answer, I wasn’t leading.”

It was a major breakthrough for him. “It’s not having the answer that is the most important. It’s having the courage to have your own viewpoints challenged.”

Indeed, as Zacharias realized, managers build a higher-performance culture, not by rules and restrictions, but through how the organization thinks. They ensure that employees have both the knowledge and the capability to perform better, and they ensure that employees have clarity of understanding about organizational values, purpose, and intent—what are the right reasons for determining the right things to do.

High-Performance Thinking

Most local governments provide good services and are comfortable in the status quo. For higher performance, we need to think differently.

Let’s examine this through a common public service: snow removal. To ascertain whether we provide that service at a high level, we need to know whether the snow was indeed removed, was it done in a timely fashion, were employees safe, was property damaged, what was the cost, and so on. We need input from those involved in the services: the homeowners, those driving on the streets, the employees, the budget and financial people, and the taxpayers. If we think in these terms, for each of our services, we get a consistent picture of what we are trying to achieve, at what performance level, where we can improve, and whether we are doing the right things and doing them the right way.

Considering these principles will ultimately identify performance criteria within one of three factors: (1) how well was it done; (2) did it provide value; and (3) did it meet the need or expectation? In other words: quality, efficiency, and effectiveness.

At one time, high performance would have been defined by just quality. Now, to be considered high performing, we need all three at the same time—efficient (cheap), effective (fast), and quality (good). However, as soon as we achieve all three, the target moves to better, faster, and cheaper, and so on. In other words, higher performance is always going to be and require continuous, constant improvement. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” A culture for higher performance makes continuous, constant improvement a habit.

A Model for High-Performance Change

Creating a culture of higher performance cannot be commanded. It must be grown and developed, evolving the existing organization into a higher performing one and norming the habit of continuous, constant improvement. It requires patience, persistence, and perseverance. There is no direct road map or prescriptive formula.

In the early 1990s, Matson and Pickering, as a part of their work on executive leadership, developed a strategic model for organizational performance and change, depicted in Figure 1.2 While the model has been refined over the years, this original version provides a useful guide.

As the model shows, organizational performance is directly derived from the organization’s strategies, structures, and systems, which are designed to manage and control performance. They are intended to ensure consistent and predictable production and performance. However, they are quite resistant to change, innovation, and continuous improvement—the elements we need for higher performance.

Most of our management thinking and practices are rooted in scientific management from the Industrial Revolution and have been slow to evolve. However, as the model further shows, management thinking can be substantially influenced by the type of formal culture the organization has—its vision and values. To meaningfully influence the management practices, the culture must be established with a shared understanding of a set of beliefs, values, and core principles that provide identity, purpose, meaning, direction, and the basis for actions. If it is not, then the culture will be directed more by the rule-driven, control-oriented management practices. Clarity, through shared understanding, provides the parameters for determining and doing the “right things, for the right reasons, in the right way.”

Bernal says that the ideals of a high-performance culture are being shared throughout the organization. And it’s incumbent on the leadership team to model that. “We’ve started the movement,” he said. “But the leadership team needs to own it and share it. We’re at the point that the movement needs to carry on its own.”

Getting to high performance means both building a strong culture as well as evolving the management practices. As Zacharias describes it, high performance is “creating an environment where employees feel safe and encouraged to bring their best ideas and energy forward for the greater good for the organization. It’s cultural change that creates a trusting environment where people feel part of a collective effort.”

It is best attained, when, at a minimum, the organization identifies, understands, and lives each and all of the following:

• A meaningful purpose and inspirational vision.

• A leadership philosophy describing how we choose to lead and manage based upon what we believe about people, motivation, work, trust, and creativity.

• Core values and principles.

• The values that guide how we behave, act, and treat one another and those we serve.

• The operational values that determine how we do our work together.

Gaining organizational clarity and shared understanding is work. It must be attended to with care, as we are reminded in an anecdote from Cheryl Hilvert, who is now ICMA’s midwest regional director, and was doing the hard work of creating a culture of high performance in Montgomery, Ohio.

One day, a frontline worker came to Hilvert and said, “We hear these words, but we don’t know what they mean.” Rather than explain what the values meant to her, Hilvert realized more work had to be done. Not by her, but with and through the employees. She asked the employee to serve on a task force with colleagues from across the organization to define those values. “It was my greatest success when employees felt like they could come and tell me that I wasn’t living the values,” Hilvert said.

Leadership Is the Way

The most significant part of the model is its recognition that culture is created and enacted through leadership. The term leadership does not mean those at the top of the organization. It means the body of work that needs to be done in all organizations. It means the philosophy, style, and type of practices and actions that are expected to be exercised by all employees throughout the organization in performing their responsibilities. And it means the strategic thinking, rather than the tactical management, that guides the performance in the organization.

Doing the work of leadership is an organizational responsibility. In Johnson County, the executive leadership team met for four hours every two weeks specifically around becoming higher performing. That, Zacharias says, was critical to the culture change efforts.

“We developed relationships among the executive team that were more than just window dressing,” he said. “We had conversations about leadership, the nature of people, our values. We took the words off the paper and put it into our hearts. That’s the transformation. It’s not the flip charts on the wall. It’s about whether you believe this stuff.”

Bernal echoed that sentiment, reiterating that the work the leadership had done as they were meeting for a full day each month in 2019 was critical to their response to the pandemic.

“Through those 12 months, we built relationships,” he said. “We became behaviorally cohesive. All decisions that we made (in response to the pandemic) aligned with the values system. There’s not a decision that we made in which we didn’t use our culture development work that we did that first year.”

High Performance Building Blocks

So, want to start your own journey and wonder what the first step is? “Who knows?” says Hilvert. “You just have to start. It’s so individualized for every organization. It has to be tailored to your needs and type of organization. Giving it a name creates a false impression that it’s a program that you can pick up and do. It is different for each organization or even parts of the organization.”

While there is no prescriptive method to create a culture for high performance, there are some essential building blocks:

• A defined leadership philosophy.

• A shared vision and core behavioral and operating values.

• A healthy teamwork dimension that enables interdependence and collaboration.

• An empowered, thinking, and engaged workforce.

• Reformed and aligned management practices.

• A viable parallel organization for leadership work.

In subsequent articles, we’ll take a more in-depth look at each of the building blocks. We’ll examine the need to be clear about what you believe and whom you serve. We’ll discuss leadership philosophy and how leadership differs from management. We’ll focus on creating trust and psychological safety for collaborative and interdependent work. We’ll consider how to grow culture, how to cultivate change, and the concept of a parallel organization. And finally, we’ll contemplate how to put it all together.

Headshot of author Don Jarrett


DON JARRETT is an instructor for the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration. He has over 40 years of professional experience in local government, serving as the chief legal counsel for Johnson County for 35 years before retiring in 2020. (don.jarrett@ku.edu).



Headshot of author Patty Gentrup


PATTY GENTRUP is the consulting services manager for the University of Kansas Public Management Center. She has been in direct service or as a consultant for local governments for 30 years, including six years as a city administrator. (patty.gentrup@ku.edu).



Endnotes and Resources

1 Much of the material can also be found in the book, Building High-Performance Local Governments, Case Studies in Leadership at All Levels, by John Pickering, Gerald Brokaw, Philip Harnden, and Anton Gardner (2014).

2 From an article, “Why Executive Development Programs Alone Don’t Work,” (1992).