Blog Post

The Motif of Employee Motivations (and how to leverage them).

Finding and retaining talent — true talent — is damn hard in a startup. Some bosses, whether consciously or subconsciously, want sycophantic workers. They would never tell you that, even with a few drinks in them at a bar, but their private, even autocratic styles, determine the ultimate caliber of the folks they hire.

But, for me (and hopefully for you, too) this is not the case. I want to hire people that will shoulder some of the unbearable burden I feel as a founder. Heck, I want someone to take my job someday! Yet, therein lays the problem. How do you find and retain rock stars?

I discovered, years ago, that I could not simply find people that believed in the same things I did. I further discovered that people didn’t work or live for the same reasons. Everyone has their own unique motivation; and, it is precisely this motivation that is the key. If you can uncover someone’s true motivation, you have unlocked the ability to hire them, retain them, and ultimately free yourself… of having a heart attack at 50, having the left side of your face paralyzed, and thereafter being forced to wear a bib for the rest of your life while you errantly stab the numb side of your face with plastic flatware whilst calling your sister “mom “ as she kindly pats you on the head saying “there there” — which consequently you can’t feel because it’s on left side of your head! :D

No, no, I don’t want that. I want sick talent! And, this means that I must learn their true motivations from day one. So, how to learn people’s motivations? Ask them. Bluntly. Right there during the interview process, just look ‘em in the eye and let it rip. And, don’t ask the obvious question, such as: “Why do you want to work here.” That’s a self-serving question. Ask them the harder questions, such as:

“Hey, you seem to be really, really talented, and honestly I am not sure you can learn more about your profession working with me for a few years. So, tell me, what do you really want? What is it that you really want to be doing with your life in a few years?”

People will usually hem-and-haw a bit and try the easy way out, but after pressing, I invariably get one of the following three answers:

* I want to make lots of money

* I want to aggressively grow my skill-set

* I want to become a CEO or business owner

If I don’t get one of these answers, I either don’t have an honest person on my hands, or this person doesn’t give a crap. But, if I do get one of them, I get pretty excited, because it teaches me two things right off the bat:

* It unlocks they key to hiring them.

* It unlocks the key to retaining them.

So, as soon as I hear their answer, I immediately tailor the rest of the interview process around their central theme. Now, this may sound like lip-service to you — even bordering on a con-job, but it isn’t. Once they do come on-board, I keep my word. I make a sustained effort to tailor their entire existence at my company around their original motivation. In fact, I go to bed several nights per month and remind myself of many of their individual motivations. I call this “sleeping with my company.” Then, during the work week, I make an effort to verbally discuss that employee’s motivation right in front of them. That is the key — be verbal about their motivation. Remind them why they are working with you — because, sometimes, they forget too!

I will give you an example. When I was staring this current company of mine — waaaaay back in 2003 when it was just me, my scruffy bathrobe, and a zealous concept — I knew I needed a ROCKSTAR of an engineer. I knew I needed someone who was of higher technical acumen than anyone I had ever met before. And for me — a tech lifer — I knew that this was a tall order. So, after milking my network to the bone, I finally found the guy I knew I wanted. His name was Samy. And, I knew right away, that I had stumbled upon one of the best technical minds around. This kid was 16 years old, had already dropped out of high-school, was earning six figures, supporting his parents at his day job, and on weekends was moonlighting for an enterprise anti-virus company decrypting Russian viruses written in assembler code for $200 per hour. Um, hello Rain Man.

How the hell do you motivate a guy like that, especially when he so coolly told me during my first two attempts to recruit him: “Chris, I get 5 job offers per week for more money than I make now.”

Wheeelp, I knew I couldn’t even match his salary. Via equity? Maybe. But, greenbacks? Never. So, money was out of the question. I also knew that I couldn’t grow him in his chosen profession. He was already my superior in that regard. And, I knew there was no wooing him with my smarts or dynamic personality…he would see right through that.

So, what to do? I up and asked him.

But I didn’t ask the obvious question. I asked him the honest question.

Me: “Samy, dude, you are ridiculous at what you do. I am not going to bullshit you and tell you that my tech company is going to challenge you technically. If you want that you better go work for the government doing cryptology or for Google doing AI work. Look, I also can’t promise you that you will make tons of money. Sure I can promise to *try* to make you rich through equity, but I can’t guarantee it. So, tell me this: what do you want to be doing with your life in five years? Who does Samy want to be? Are you shooting to be the world’s best engineer in five years — aiming for the top of your class?”

[pregnant pause] wait for it…please don’t say yes…oh lord, please don’t say yes…

Him:“Well, um… I want to run my own business; I want to be a CEO.”

[halle-frickin-lujah!] Me:“Ahem, you want my job?”

[bigger pause and throat clearing] Him: “Hehe, uh, well, hehe, uh…I guess.”

Me: “Well, Samy, as it turns out, that is the one thing I can teach you. I used to be you. I used to be das wünderkind tech whiz. I could program Perl so fast it would make your head spin. I could outdo a room of 4 under motivated engineers with my eyes closed. Yet, now, years later, I sit in front of you as a serial entrepreneur who has started three companies and made myself and a lot of other folks a bunch of money. How did I make that conversion? How did I make the leap from binary to boardroom, from memory pointers to management, from programming computers to actually leading people? How did I do all of this? Well, THAT is what I can teach you. And that is what I commit to you right now. Samy, if you quit your current job and take a huge pay cut and come work for me, I will teach you how I went from a 20 year-old engineer to a 30 year-old CEO.”

And, he did. Two weeks later he quit his six figure job, took a 60% pay-cut, and started commuting from San Diego and sleeping on my Los Angeles couch 4 nights a week.

But, I kept my word to Samy. I have kept his motivation on my frontal lobe for these past four years. “I go to sleep with that motivation.” As such, I have exposed him to the arduous fund-raising process. I have taught him how to read a P&L. I have taught him how to create deadlines and keep them. I have grown him from a single engineer to my Director of Engineering, managing dozens and dozens of engineers. I forced him to grow that team himself and learn how to motivate them and lead them and even do the dreaded for a young manager – fire people that are older than you. I even brought him to an official board meeting. You can imagine the surprise of my high-powered board of institutional directors when I showed up to one meeting with an 18 year old Samy in tow and said,

“Hi everyone, meet Samy.”

So, that’s the key. Don’t learn your employees’ motivations to manipulate them. Instead, live their motivations to keep them motivated. Maybe you will find, in time, as I have, that it will have an unexpected side-effect — keeping you motivated!

Chris Lyman is the founder and CEO of enterprise VoIP startup, Fonality. He’s also one of our favorite contributors, penning candid and humorous essays about the challenges of running a startup at his Janitor’s Blog. Chris’ earlier F|R posts include:Startup Math: 1 + 1 = 1/2;The Power of “I Don’t Know”;Roses Where I Walk and most recently, Open Source, Closed Minds.

10 Responses to “The Motif of Employee Motivations (and how to leverage them).”

  1. i would definitely take a job if offered help with my true motivations. your process with samy is something he could never put a price tag on. nice article!