One of the goals we set ourselves a few short years ago was to become Australia’s fastest growing top 10 superannuation fund – no small task. We knew that the only way to achieve this goal was to build a high performance culture that could drive strategy execution and transform our culture to one that is constructive, inclusive and collaborative – where hierarchies, siloes and positional power were invisible or irrelevant.

It’s our view that a high performance culture outperforms a really smart strategy any day of the week. So in 2014 we started a cultural transformation internally that centred around our people because we knew that in order to build on our performance and competitive position in the industry, it was our people who would make the difference.

Becoming a high performance organisation

So, how does an organisation develop a high performance culture and become a high performing organisation (HPO)? It’s not really something you can just wake up one morning and decide. For us, setting about defining what a HPO was to us was a journey in itself, but one that we wanted to take the time to do to ensure that our cultural transformation would be a successful and sustainable one. And essentially it came back to our purpose, “to inspire and empower Australians to fulfil their retirement dreams”.

From there we set about building and clearly defining our strategy, vision and values. In doing so we were clear about what was important to us as a business, where we were and how we were different from others in the industry. We needed to be clear on our strategy, vision and values if we wanted to succeed, but we needed it to be relevant if we wanted employee engagement with it.

Once we had put the strategic framework in place, we had to make sure we had the right culture in place across the business that would achieve this strategy.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

We’ve all heard the infamous Peter Drucker saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. At Sunsuper we’re a big believer in this. Our CEO Scott Hartley even calls himself a ‘culture junkie’ as he knows that to sustain winning performance, you absolutely need the right culture. One that is supportive and inclusive, yet performance driven where customers are at the heart of everything we do.

We knew that if we got our culture right, it could adapt to context and situation and be agile in adapting to shifting strategy and responding to market conditions and events.

However, cultural transformation isn’t a quick-win or an easy fix. It takes time, commitment, and perseverance. To help support our employees on this journey we were on, we undertook a lot of activity across our business to embed the cultural changes we were aiming for. We created a clear employee value proposition to define our employer brand and help attract and retain staff, and we increased the regularity of our Great Place to Work surveys to assist getting a pulse check on how our staff were feeling and possible areas for improvement. We put a leadership framework in place and invested in our people to ensure that we were fostering a culture where everyone could truly be their best.

Moving from a group of good managers to great leaders

We recognised that for Sunsuper to become a HPO we need great leaders. We needed these leaders to build the culture we desire so it’s sustainable. You can’t manage a high performance culture – it has to be led. As such, we’ve focused on building our leadership framework to support our leaders across the business to manage their teams and help them grow, and set clear expectations for what is expected of them as a leader at Sunsuper.

For us, leadership is not defined by position or reserved for a ‘lucky’ few – it’s one of our values and everyone at Sunsuper should feel empowered to lead and make decisions. Our role as leaders is to create an environment where our people can get on with their job of inspiring and empowering our members to fulfil their retirement dreams. We’ve also tried to remove the hierarchies so that everyone – no matter their position – can lead.

Hearing how leaders are empowering their people to lead shows that what we’re doing is working. It’s not just about positional leadership at Sunsuper, everyone, no matter their role, title or position, has the chance to lead and grow.

Living the values

This is where I’ve seen the biggest change internally. Our values of trust, accountability, candour, collaboration, leadership and customer first are being lived every day across our organisation. They are part of the day-to-day conversations and fabric at Sunsuper. The level of connection our people have with our purpose and values is evident in the discussions they have, their actions and the daily beautiful stories of employees going above and beyond for our members.

Our key lessons learnt

When reflecting on our journey over the past four years, there are a few lessons we learned along the way that have helped get us to where we are today:

  1. It’s all about your purpose – it sounds obvious but everything you do, from cultural change to capability building, needs to come back to your purpose. Your purpose shouldn’t just be words that sit on a piece of paper in the bottom of a desk drawer or on a screen saver. For us our purpose doesn’t sit in isolation, it links to everything we do.
  2. Be clear with your leaders – set really clear expectations of your leaders and what it means to be a leader in your business. At Sunsuper, this is part of our day-to-day discussions – it’s a living thing.
  3. Trust is the foundation for everything – again, stating the obvious but at Sunsuper trust is literally the foundation for us. It’s one of our values and sits at the core of everything we do. It is also a key element of being a great place to work and helps enable the agility we need.
  4. Put your money where your mouth is – this journey and cultural transformation isn’t just talk for us, it is one of our corporate key performance indicators and requires a large investment of time and effort. CEO buy-in is critical – we’re lucky to have a CEO at Sunsuper that lives and breathes our culture and values. He, along with our entire board and executive leadership team, all understand that for us to achieve our corporate goals, we need the right high performance culture in place. All your culture work can be undone if your CEO and leadership team don’t walk the talk.

And the journey continues

Although we’re not declaring victory yet, and the journey definitely isn’t over, it’s exciting to see that our cultural transformation is translating to outstanding business growth and performance, ultimately benefiting our members. Pleasingly, our fund has doubled in size since we started.

Our performance has been driven by our sharp focus on building our people capability and culture, and centres on our purpose to inspire and empower Australians to fulfil their retirement dreams.