Don’t Water Down a High-Performance Culture

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Beer maker says companies should stick with what makes them great

NEW YORK-If your organization’s culture works, don’t compromise it when expanding to different countries and even to different regions within the same country, said Carlos Brito, CEO of Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev).

“That’s key to performance,” the Brazilian-born leader of the world’s biggest beer manufacturer told attendees Oct. 1, 2013, at the World Business Forum. “If you have a high-performance culture, you don’t want to dilute that culture as you go to different footprints and to different countries.”

Sure, cultures worldwide have different currencies, languages, habits, pastimes and sports teams.

“That’s beautiful and nobody wants to change that—that’s the diverse world that we live in,” Brito enthused.

The key, however, is not to confuse national culture and company culture. Ignore the naysayer who greets you on the first day of work with comments like, “That’s culturally unacceptable,” or “It’s different here,” or “That would never work in this country.”

“You cannot let your culture be compromised by people like this,” Brito stressed.

Creating Employee Owners

Brito joined the global beer giant in 1989, working in finance, operations and sales before being named CEO in 2005. The company has been through six large transnational acquisitions and a host of small ones since 1998.

Although he admitted his firm isn’t perfect—“far from it”—he said that with each acquisition, employees “aimed higher” when it came to performance. Dreaming big elevates expectations, inspires the company’s 140,000 workers and gives them purpose.

“They say, ‘I’m here because we want to be best in class,’” Brito said.

Anheuser-Busch works to attract the best talent and develop and retain top people, he said. Employees who feel a sense of ownership make better decisions because they’re in it for the long haul.

Brito contrasted the value the company places on employees with someone who rents a car and drives it over bumps “just to see if all the wheels come off.” They treat rental cars differently, since they won’t have to live with the consequences.

“I don’t want people to rent my company—I want people to own my company,” he said.

Building a High-Performance Culture

Brito outlined the 10 keys to this type of culture:

1. Dream big but stay humble. Other companies probably do something better than yours—be it logistics, legal, finance, HR, marketing or distribution—so you should benchmark your organization against them. Open and close gaps to improve performance. Look up and get inspired and challenged. “Look down and get comfortable and lazy,” Brito said.

2. Have one culture. In 1989, Brito was promoted to manager of a large plant in a small city. He had ideas about culture: There should be one cafeteria, not three. He wanted to sit with direct reports, instead of in a private office. And he believed there should be no reserved parking for management if everyone else was trudging though snow and rain. Despite some initial trepidation, others welcomed the changes.

3. Don’t be selfish. High-performance leaders deliver results through their teams. It’s not about the leader or that person’s ego but about the company and the group. Know enough details to ask good questions. Leaders who are too strategic often don’t know much about the business and ask irrelevant questions.

4. It’s all about people. People are the only sustainable competitive advantage, Brito noted. Anheuser-Busch InBev has brands, trucks, warehouses and physical assets, but a brewery is successful and efficient because of people management.

5. Face brutal facts. When the beer manufacturer acquired a particular company, the manager sent e-mails only when there was good news and went silent when something bad happened. “I hate that,” Brito said. “I like people who can talk about the good and ugly with the same urgency and the same clarity.”

6. Reward results, not efforts. Efforts can be acknowledged because they’re important for career development, but consumers buy results, not efforts. Therefore, pay bonuses only for results.

7. Keep the right amount of pressure. Employees perform better outside their comfort zone. With the right amount of pressure, “we all learn better … we learn faster; we work harder; we produce more,” Brito said.

8. Welcome healthy conflict. “Consensus is an impossible science,” he said. Alignment is key. Create an environment where people are challenged and challenge others, as this leads to better ideas and outcomes.

9. The consumer is the ultimate test. Don’t lose sight of who pays for company products or services.

10. Turn employees into owners. Many companies have “professionals,” not owners, who aren’t in it for the long haul but for a few years to get the company name on their resume. This leads to “a selfish bunch of professionals,” as opposed to engaged owners, Brito noted.

In the end, he said, business leaders should remember they’re chosen, not elected.

“I don’t need to please everybody,” he said. “And since you can’t please everybody, I want to please the talented people so they stay.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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