The Motivation Game

How do you motivate people to do things that are important for your company?

Recently a friend of mine who happens to be CEO of a YC-backed company was discussing with me how tricky and challenging it is to keep the team motivated: inspiring the team to do grade A work all the time whoch means doing world class work that changes the world. As I have my own company, I also started thinking how the CEOs can figure out the motivation game. After some thoughts, here is what I have found:

The short answer is there’s no short answer. As a CEO, one of your primary jobs is to keep your team motivated. What I mean by motivated here is that your employees come to work everyday and do things as if tomorrow doesn’t exist. They are so in love with what they do and they are so obsessed with success that it’s you who feels most of the time that as a CEO, it’s your primary duty to take care of them, provide them all the things that they need so they can keep going and doing whatever they are doing. There are couple of assumptions here:

  1. You want to make a world class company that other would envy.
  2. You are making a product that is solving a problem which you deem to be larger than your life. That means you feel privileged that you got to work on such a problem that are going to impact the lives of millions.
  3. You truly eat, breathe, and live your product and company. You are honest about it. It’s the only thing that you can think of when you go to bed and wake up in the morning. One indication of it happening is that your girlfriend or spouse endorsing your love for company saying that you probably care more about your company than herself.
  4. Money is not your primary motivation although it’s not a bad thing that you want to make money. What drives you that you can’t NOT do company—other way of saying that you just can’t live without pursuing the company.
  5. You run a small team of talented engineers. Presumably, it’s a small tech company tackling some very ambitious problems.

The combination of some of these points are common in founders’ mindset. However, the founder mindset is not the focus of this post. The focus of this post is rather how you can embed these characteristics into the mindset of every employee of your company. Truly great companies do this task really, really well. Full disclaimer is that nobody knows the definitive answer because there might not be any definitive answer to this question. However, there are few things that are time tested that a CEO can do:

  1. Lead by example. Demonstrate. Show them how things ought to be done. If you want them to maintain codebase certain way, you maintain code that way. If you want them to review codes fast, you review the things sitting on your desk fast. If you want them to work on long hours, you also work for long hours, preferably longer than your employees.
  2. Listen. Every employee is different. If your team is small enough, understanding each of them can go a long way. You shouldn’t think of spending time with them as non-scalable thing. Like other things in startup, doing things that don’t scale should be the mantra here. Listening to them therefore entails understanding them: from their personal motivation working in your company to what they want in their life.
  3. Provide Feedback. Based on their work, reward or appreciate for their good work and provide constructive feedback for the things that they might be doing wrong.
  4. Keep adjusting to the processes. Believe in your instincts and guts. Your guts probably have more things to say than you might know. It’s not a full-proof process. Don’t expect it to be full-proof process either.

Inspiring a group of people is hard. It’s one of the most challenging task of CEO. CEO always has to find creative ways to instil those values into the fabric of the company. Early on it should be done. Remember Thiel’s law: Any company messed up in the beginning can’t be fixed later (paraphrased).

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