The Tools That Drive Performance: Purpose, Vision, and Core Behaviours

By Marty Parker

In my latest book, The Culturepreneur: How High Performance Leaders Craft Culture as Competitive Advantage, I write: “Purpose will align your work and your team with your values, which in turn will drive the behaviours that build your culture.” Purpose plus vision plus core behaviours that define and support your culture is a sure-fire equation for building a high performance organization.

I recently sat down with Zahid Salman, President and CEO at Green Shield Canada (GSC), to talk about how having a strong purpose and vision, and a clear set of core behaviours make it possible for that organization to maintain a high performance culture.

The interview has been edited for space. You can find the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
Now as a leader, in this case the leader, Zahid, what’s your role in helping to grow and sustain the culture?

Zahid Salman:
I think, Marty, that all leaders have a role to play in helping to grow and sustain culture, especially as it relates to things like setting the tone and modeling the right behaviours. Culture, I think has to be a leadership priority, so not just at the executive team, but also the board. That’s something that we try and do regularly at Green Shield, and that culture is a topic that we try and cover as a standing item or the course of our annual board meetings.

For me in particular, joining Green Shield back in 2018, I was the first CEO hire from the outside. So as you could expect, there was naturally some trepidation about, would I be seeking to significantly change the culture having not grown up inside it. So, fortunately though for me, I was very familiar with Green Shield before having joined and really understood many parts of the culture. But as I became more involved, I gained a greater appreciation of the culture, we were very deliberate about making it clear that while we’re embarking on a new strategic plan to sustain our success for the future, that we wanted to ensure that in doing so, we really kept the parts of our culture that made us such a successful organization for so many years. Rather than changing those elements of success, we really looked to build muscle in potential new areas that we would need in the future. But very clear early on that we weren’t seeing a need to make wholesale changes to culture. We very much continue to operate in that way during my tenure with the organization.

Marty Parker:
You have a very strong purpose and vision at Green Shield Canada. Why are these important tools, and how are they helping you achieve your people and your business goals?

Zahid Salman:
Yeah, so our purpose at Green Shield is making it easier for people to live their healthiest lives. Our mission is delivering meaningful solutions to improve health and wellbeing. We were very purposeful in choosing those words. One of the things we tried to do was align ourselves to the broader United Nations sustainable development goals… There as well, early on in our strategic planning process, we set out those foundational elements that outline what we were putting forward as our purpose and our mission. Along with our culture, those things really help guide our priorities and our behaviours as an organization, and in turn that helps align people to what it is we’re trying to achieve.

I think this has an important benefit in regular times, but it’s had, I think, an extraordinary benefit in these unusual times we found ourselves in during the pandemic. I think a really relevant example is just how we’ve managed to navigate through the current pandemic. We started early on by recognizing that COVID-19 was a health crisis first and foremost. So we immediately established the health and wellbeing of our employees, our clients, and our communities as our top priorities. So really went back to our purpose and mission in thinking that through. As a result, despite the business challenges we faced, particularly in the early months of the pandemic, we quickly transitioned 90 per cent of our staff to work from home and committed to no layoffs or workforce reductions, and we continue to abide by that throughout this period. [We] provided our clients with the highest level of premium relief, I mean, in the health and dental industry. We also provided emergency funding to a number of the communities where we operate. We also staffed a food hotline in Windsor in collaboration with the United Way.

So staying true to our purpose and mission really helped, in my mind, successfully guide us through the pandemic. We’re not done yet, but we’ve stayed true to this throughout, and we achieved some good results because of that. Our employee engagement score for last year ended in 90 per cent, which was the highest level we’ve ever achieved as an organization, and our client satisfaction and retention levels as well as a number of our other key performance indicators also did very well. I think it really goes back to, we started with a strong focus on our purpose and on health and wellbeing.

Marty Parker:
On that note, Zahid, what does high performance look like at Green Shield Canada?

Zahid Salman:
So it’s probably a bit unique for us given we’re a social enterprise. If you think why we exist, it’s this notion of advancing health and wellbeing in our local community, so our primary performance metrics are based on social impact, and we measure impact in a variety of ways. Everything from the level of charitable giving that we do right through to the number of lives that we can measure as being impacted by our granting programs and advocacy work. Then of course, though, all the funding that we have to advance our social impact priorities comes from the performance of our commercial businesses. We also have the regular business KPIs that you would expect any insurance company to have. Things around engagement, client satisfaction, business performance. Essentially when we think about high performance at Green Shield, what we’re really asking our employees to think about and do is to operate with a commercial mindset in order to achieve our desired level of social impact.

The other thing that we really look at when we measure performance is not just the “what” of performance, but also the “how”. So we are very deliberate with the behaviours that we’ve laid out. They’re aligned to our purpose and mission and our values. When we measure people’s performance, it’s also how did they go about achieving the results that they did. I think that’s an important thing to tie back to culture around.

Marty Parker:
You talked just briefly, you mentioned there the behaviours. Talk a little bit about the behaviours at Green Shield Canada, Zahid.

Zahid Salman:
Yeah. So we’ve got six core behaviours that we speak about and that we measure performance, the “how” if you will, with our folks. The first of the six is really being purpose led, and we take that very seriously. Again, I think the fact that we’re a social enterprise really has that resonate as our top behaviour, if you will. So keeping purpose at the forefront of everything that we do, knowing why we exist and where we’re going.

Then we would have other key behaviours. So we try and be a very client-focused organization. Serving our clients with energy and passion is another behaviour. Teamwork is very critical in how we operate. So being an engaged member of the team and thinking of others, which is something that we have done really well, I think, during the pandemic, is the third behaviour.

Then we have things that recognize that as we grow and progress as an organization, things will evolve and we’ll have to continue to embrace change. So embracing change and being nimble is another behaviour. Thinking commercially and being driven to achieve is our fifth. Our final one is thriving with a growth mindset because as we aspire to grow our social impact in the future, we’ll have to grow our business in order to fund those activities.

Those are really the behaviours we have, and we expect those to be modelled, not just at the leadership team level, but as appropriately as possible throughout the organization.

Marty Parker:
Zahid, as you look back now on this last year, 14 months, what have you learned most about your culture during this time?

Zahid Salman:
I think the pandemic has really given us the chance to think back to why we exist, and the core purpose of Green Shield being advancing our social mission. I think that was sort of brought back to be top of mind during the pandemic, just with what I shared earlier on how we responded to it. I think the resilience of that culture and how it’s helped guide us through those challenging times as well as more normal times has really been something we’ve all been struck by.

Even new employees who’ve joined. So we’ve been in this what 14 or so months now, work from home. So we’ve got many new employees who’ve never actually been inside a Green Shield office or met many of their Green Shield colleagues. In fact, one of the things we joke about is we’ve got a bunch of people inside now we’ve never seen what the back of their heads look like. But those same people, Marty, are telling us that they’ve also sensed this Green Shield culture, even though we’ve been working remotely. They sense it just in terms of how we’ve been focused on supporting local communities, how we’ve been focused on taking care of each other, how we’ve continued to do our best to deliver high service levels to our clients. They’re experiencing this just in a different way, but they’re experiencing the same thing that we’ve always talked about in terms of what our culture is. So that resilience, I think, has really struck me during this period.

Marty Parker:
What’s the one piece of advice, Zahid, that you would give to a young person today, or it could be a new leader who’s starting out on their high performance culture journey?

Zahid Salman:
One of my favorite books is one called, How Will You Measure Your Life? It was actually written by Clayton Christensen, who is one of the professors at that advanced management program that both you and I attended at Harvard Business School. In his book he speaks about the importance of balancing career, family, friends, and health as part of measuring your life rather than being too singularly focused on your career. I first read this book a few years ago, and I was reminded of many of his lessons most recently during the pandemic.

I really believe that a high performance culture journey starts with a good fit between the individual and the values of the organization they work at, as well as a clear understanding of what success looks like. I would encourage any young person or new leader that they should first and foremost seek to be authentic to their full selves. That’s begins with choosing a career and an organization whose values are aligned with yours. Once you have that basic tenet, I think from there, you’ve got the platform that you’ll need to build that high performance journey and make sure culture is a key part of it because people who are working there are aligned with what the broader group is trying to achieve.