November 7, 2012 in Essays

I was once characterized by a book reviewer as a “motivational writer.” Apparently he felt that this moniker debased me. It didn’t.

I am very happy that my writing sometimes has the effect of motivating people. I find it hard to understand what is wrong with that. If he meant to imply that my work doesn’t have substance he should have said so. But I don’t think he dared say that because the book he was reviewing was about building businesses — and that is something I know a great deal more about than the average reader of that book, including him.

Still, a lot of folks have the idea that motivating people is somehow less legitimate than, say, just providing them with information. The thinking seems to go something like this: “Don’t try to excite me. Don’t try to get me moving. Just tell me the facts.”

But knowing the facts is only 20 percent of success. Testing the facts by putting them into action is 80 percent.

I can’t say for sure when motivation started creeping into my writing. But it was at least 20 years ago — well before I started writing books about marketing and business. I think it began when I became a consultant and realized that I couldn’t force my clients to execute my ideas. If I wanted them to follow my suggestions, I would have to take the extra step of motivating them to do it.

When I make presentations to a group, I try to motivate my audience to take the action I want them to take by using the persuasive techniques that I teach marketers to use in selling products. For one thing, I express the value of my ideas in terms of how the people I’m speaking to (not me or anyone else) will benefit from them.

I also sell one idea at a time. I have learned that if I try to do more, they (and I) will come away with nothing.

Whenever possible, I present my ideas through stories — because stories, more than any other information-sharing technique, have the power to inspire.

And I provide proof to support the claims I make. Tangible, relevant, and impressive proof.

All this is good for group presentations. But when I am trying to motivate my clients to implement my ideas, I have to do more. I have to work with all the key people in the company — the CEO, the top marketers, and the top product people — on an individual basis. It takes a lot of time, but it’s necessary because every one of them has unique problems and concerns that have to be addressed.

Many business owners and senior executives don’t bother to sell their ideas to the people who will be responsible for implementing them. They think it’s enough that they come up with the ideas in the first place. And they prefer to motivate the troops by rewarding them financially, as well as with such gimmicks as business retreats and “employee of the month” plaques.

One of my clients is a big believer in financial incentives. In fact, he attributes a good deal of his success to the substantial, profit-based bonuses he gives out on a regular basis. But I don’t believe he’s right about that. I think there are all sorts of other motivating activities going on in his business that he is not fully aware of.

For example, his top people are very much involved with the people who report to them. They congratulate them publicly for achieving their goals and they also privately counsel those who have failed to hit the mark. This constant interaction and support is, I think, the real reason his employees work so hard and keep the business growing.

When I was a young executive I did what my client is doing now. But over the years I recognized that “automatic” financial incentives failed to work as often as they succeeded. I tried to figure out why that was. I talked to my employees. I sought the counsel of my mentors. And I read books — lots and lots of books about motivation.

One thing I learned was that he best people aren’t motivated by money. They certainly appreciate it. And they will not lose sight of the potential for a bonus as they do their jobs. But what really motivates them is what some experts call internal rewards — the personal pride and gratification that comes from a job well done. In other words, they work hard and smart to please themselves.

You only need to think of Enron to appreciate how things can go bad by attaching business goals to financial incentives.

If you want your business to achieve its true potential you must be willing to give your people personal attention. You have to eschew hard power (the sort of power that Steve Jobs is famous for) and practice the soft skills of listening and coaching and providing a purposeful environment for them to work in. (I’ve read a lot about purposefulness in recent years — but almost nothing about how important it is in business.) If you provide financial incentives, you have to make sure they are fair. But you have to realize that they will affect people differently. You can’t just establish them and walk away.

I got involved in a discussion recently with a client who, I believed, was making a mistake by ignoring his key people. “They’re doing fine on their own,” he told me. “They don’t need me meddling in their affairs.”

Yes, they were doing fine. Still, I argued that he needed to stay in touch with them. He needed to ask them questions and give them suggestions. He didn’t need to make demands or commands, but he did need to make sure that they were feeling fulfilled by the work they were doing. If they weren’t, he was going to lose them or they were going to stop caring about the business — no matter how much he was paying them.

I’ve seen it happen too many times. An executive makes a fast rise and then suddenly breaks though to the upper ranks. He continues to build the business, bringing in smart people to help him. He motivates them with money because it seems to work and because he doesn’t know any better.

All the while, his income is getting bigger and he is acquiring spending habits and pastimes that compete with his work. Eventually — generally after seven to 10 years — he finds that the business is running itself. He doesn’t have to show up every day, so he doesn’t. He’d much rather spend time on his hobbies and outside interests. He gets away with it so it becomes a habit.

A year or two later sales flatten out and profits decline. And he doesn’t understand why.

If you want your business to grow profitably and consistently, you must understand that your job as chief motivator will never go away. You must be willing to interact personally with everyone who reports to you. You must talk to them constantly. You must give them guidance. You must give them freedom. You must praise them and you must occasionally correct them too.

Let me give you an example of how important employee motivation is to the success of a business.

This past year, I have been very much involved with a client whose business had faltered.

I began by meeting with his key employees and trying to understand what they were doing, what they were proud of, and what was frustrating them.

Based on what I learned, I recommended some radical changes in the structure of the business — and as a result, some people had to be fired. In deciding which people to keep, my primary concern was whether any of the company’s employees would be open to new ideas.

I believed I had the knowledge they all needed but I had to be sure they would listen to me. By eliminating the people who were past being motivated, I made my job possible.

Once I had a good group of people that I could motivate, I knew that my ideas for turning the business around could be tested.

To cut to the chase, they managed a miraculous turnaround in less than six months. The improvement was only partially due to the new ideas we introduced. Most of it was due to the fact that the entire team was motivated to execute those ideas well and quickly.

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