Some thoughts on motivating company talent

An engineer tops up the swear jar, he got caught ;-)

At Node Africa, we have been fortunate to have a uniquely competent and committed team, which has been able to achieve a lot with very little in a remarkably short amount of time. A few people have asked us how we’ve accomplished this. A company, when broken down to its basics, is a collection of people unified and working to solve a particular problem. At Node, our raison d’être is reliable computing infrastructure for the African continent. That means that my job, as a founder, is to recruit and retain the best possible people to solve this problem. It requires intentionality — not a lucky streak — to get the right people, working cohesively, towards solving difficult problems. Here are the top lessons I’ve learned and put into practice.

Firstly, we rarely find perfect talent. There is a lot of refinement that goes into adapting an individual to one’s own business use case. That means that, as a company, we must be willing to invest time and money in training our team. The fact that a graduate leaves the university and isn’t immediately ready to work in our company isn’t a bug; it is a feature of the system. The role of a university is to give its students a well-rounded education and competencies required to grow into functional roles in a company. New job categories exist today that could not have been conceived ten years ago, yet university majors have not changed much both in terms of content and variety over the last twenty years. This shows that we can mould our team to our business’ needs as well as customize career plans for each individual’s growth.
The second lesson I’ve learned over time is that people do not leave a company; they leave a boss. This is from my own experience as an employee. How you treat your team determines their level of commitment, their output, and your reputation in the market. It also has longer term impact on the company. For example, if you treat your engineers well, good engineering talent will want to work for you meaning that you will have a better pool of engineers to pick from. The best talent attracts the best talent, and happy talent attracts the best talent. This becomes a virtuous cycle that ensures that you have a good pipeline of talent looking to work with you.
Related to this is remuneration. You don’t have to have the highest salaries in the market, but you do need to be seen as fair. This means that those who go above and beyond what is expected of them should be assured of being rewarded. The pay structure must both reward the outperformers and be viewed as just to everyone else. Salary discrepancies are usual in an organization with varied levels of skill and output. However, you cannot make assumptions that your team members do not know what their peers are earning as this information invariably leaks, whether it is because of “accidents” or perceived lifestyle variances.
Recognition is another item that is often neglected. It is tightly related to rewards but we can’t always peg what people do or achieve to monetary compensation. Whether a tangible gift, or a day off, or a holiday, or a company wide email, recognition for good work done lets the team members know that they are valued, that they matter. Rewards and recognition may also come in the form of increased responsibilities and promotions.
The final and most important thing that attracts good talent is interesting work: solving difficult problems. This both unites the team through difficult days and motivates them to do their best work. It also has the additional benefit of being a signal for competent individuals; highly qualified talent tend to look for environments that challenge them to grow and that are known for having interesting projects, further ensuring that you have the best people approaching your organization.

This sums up my rough guideline on this topic; different individuals and organizations can pick out what works for them. This has worked for us at Node Africa, where we are proud of the team that we are building.