The most important word for motivating your team

Progress. It’s a word that has driven man for generations to grow, develop, learn, and reach for the stars (sometimes even literally). It often feels stale and disheartening when progress isn’t being made.  There’s a reason that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson have all invested in space travel; NASA stopped making progress and they were all inspired to push to advance mankind to space.

For us mere mortals, progress may not be measured on a societal scale, but we all still have goals. These goals are what drive us and motivate us to get up in the morning. As a manager, you are not only accountable to your own goals, but that of everyone on your team.

Do each of your team members make regular progress on their goals? Do projects drag on for months, or do they see results of the fruit of their labors on a regular basis? Whether you’re in sales, marketing, engineering, design or support, progress is hugely important to the mental well being of every team member.

The stakes for progress on your team couldn’t be higher. Engineers that don’t ship product for months have a high propensity for burn out.  Employees in any department will become frustrated and seek challenges at new companies if they feel like they’re no longer growing, learning, and working on things they’re excited about.

As a manager, you need to help your team make progress: Ship. Close deals. Get wins. See results.

But how do you reliably do this? How do you get out in front of potential disaster?

How to ensure your team members are making regular progress

1) Remove Blockers

Few things are as frustrating as feeling like you can’t get your work done because of someone else. Waiting for decisions or dealing with someone who is a bottleneck in a work flow can quickly stall out even the most talented person’s ability to make progress.

As a manager, you can often be the cause of those blockers. Diffuse that source of frustration for your team as much as you can. A great lesson I learned from Jonathan Kay, CEO of Apptopia, is to regularly ask everyone on your team, “Am I blocking you?” and then follow through on anything they ask for you to help them with right away.

When you meet with your team, always ask them if they’re being blocked in any way. The more you can help remove the blockers (even when you’re not directly responsible), the more your team will be able to get done and feel productive.

2) Empower Your Team

Are you a dictator that rules with an iron fist, making every little decision for your team? Or do you delegate effectively to your team, trusting them to make decisions on their own in their areas of expertise?

As a manager, there are too many decisions to make to micromanage everyone. You become much more scalable (and less likely to block them), when you let your team make the little decisions in their jobs. You also are then empowering them to have ownership over their work and focused on accountability to you on the results.

Work with your team to set the goals and expectations, but trust them to do the work you hired them in the best way they see fit. If you can’t trust them to do so, you need to hire people you can trust.

3) Align goals

Every person has different motivations and interests. If you understand what their goals are, you can help them get on the right projects with the right responsibilities. When someone’s work is aligned with their personal and professional goals, you will see them operate at their highest possible performance level.

As a manager, you need to regularly talk about each team member’s goals and interests. Not only will they differ person to person, but they will also change over time. Yee Lee, VP of Engineering at TaskRabbit, reminds himself to check with every member of the engineering team at least every 3 months to see if their long term goals have changed (they often do for many reasons). This ensures that everyone is making progress on their goals and the company keeps everyone aligned with what their asked to do on the job.

4) Watch for warning signs

Every big problem started out as a small one. The more you can identify problems when they’re small, the more likely you are to avoid having to constantly triage major issues that will take up all the time you don’t have.

When projects are making less progress or dragging on, you can often tell based on a shift in morale. Look for signs that people are not as engaged in a project or seem to be growing in frustration. What seems small to you on the outside may be a big issue brewing for those on the inside on a project.

The best early warning is your one on ones. When you ask them how something is going one on one, they’re more likely to be candid than in a group and you can also dig a little deeper by asking revealing questions such as, “What’s the most frustrating part of our project you’re working on now?” Whatever you hear, act on it appropriately and you will not only diffuse the situation, but build trust in your team that they can bring important issues to you no matter the size.

5) Take no one for granted

It’s easy to think that someone who crushes it at their job will want to keep doing it forever. Unfortunately, times and motivations change for everyone and, if you’re not careful, you will lose people when those motivations shift.

You need a strong communication channel to keep your best people. If they trust you, they will tell you.  Joe Stump, co-founder of Sprintly, had a great engineer who told Joe that he wanted to try something new (in his case, marketing). As much as Joe hated losing an engineer, he hated losing a talented team member even more, so Joe worked with the engineer to shift to a growth hacking role they were excited to do and the company needed.

As a manager, it’s easy to spend all your time on weaker team members or people that need the most mentorship. Don’t forget to check in on even your best talents or you may find out when it’s too late. This is why you should do one on ones with *everyone* on your team.

Your people are motivated by one word: Progress.  Are you helping them get there?

Founders: You don’t own your employees

[Ed. note: This is in response to a post by David Hauser entitled, "The Startup Side Project Bubble" which you can read here: http://buff.ly/10Lw9ek]

So many founders forget something simple: You do not own your employees.

They are human beings with their own passions, interests and lives. You have a vision of a reality you want to create. After much labor and hard work to get it off the ground, either funding or your own revenue allows you to hire help. Those people are choosing to devote a significant portion of their lives to your cause to help make it possible. Take a moment to appreciate that. 

In David’s post he argues that employees having side projects is bad for them and his business. This is so backwards.

First, telling someone what they should and shouldn’t do in their free time is a tremendous insult to them and their personal judgment.  It’s also incredibly short-sighted.

You want employees with side projects.

Especially for the creators at a startup (ie- the people that design and build your product), there is tremendous benefit to them having side projects. A few of those benefits are:

  • Experimentation. An outlet to experiment with new technologies before suggesting the company use them; no amount of research compares to having used a new framework and being able to provide first person accounts of the tradeoffs.
  • Independence. A place where they can make all the decisions (for better and worse) versus the negotiations that often happen in a company. You can also call this their creative release.
  • Mastery. The ability to further hone skills in a self-directed fashion, getting them to the 10,000 hours to mastery faster than standard work hours alone would provide.
  • Relief. Providing some variety in their life’s work can help avoid the burnout that comes from only working on one thing for too long.
  • Focus. Motivating them to get their work done efficiently because they don’t have every hour of the day to work on it. The saying goes, “If you want something done, ask a busy person” for a reason.
  • Contribute. The ability to help the greater tech community through contributions to open source projects, which wouldn’t exist without many people having side projects.
  • Network. They’ll often work with people outside their day job on these side projects, which will grow their learning and network. It might even provide the next recruit when you need more help at your startup.

And I’m sure there are others.

Great employees are a package deal.

In the early days of a startup, you want athletes, which are often entrepreneurs themselves.  Later, you want specialists who have deep expertise in their skills. By their nature the same skills you value each day in either group’s work for you also lends itself to having these side projects: In early employees that means a breadth of knowledge, while later, the depth of knowledge that comes from side projects is what makes many great later stage startup employees.

I would not be running product at KISSmetrics if I had only put my head down and worked on my past jobs (I wouldn’t even be in tech now most likely…I have a degree in Electrical Engineering). The skills that are core to my job came from side projects like Greenhorn Connect, taking the time to learn new skills in my free time and reading voraciously. Every founder wants to hire people with passion for their craft and a wide range or depth of skills.  This is a package deal.

“Why don’t you quit your job already?”

Taking a step back and looking at David’s argument, it seems centered around the idea that if an employee has a side project, they should quit their job immediately and start a company. While they should definitely quit their job if they’re ready to make a run at it as a business, they may not do that right away because of a few reasons:

  • Funding. They lack the personal funds and see the foolishness in fundraising when they don’t even know whether an idea has legs whatsoever.  Not all side projects have clear paths to revenue/bootstrapping either.
  • Motivation. Many side projects are for fun and passion. Sometimes those become businesses worthy of full time attention, but usually they are just an enjoyable thing to do with only part of their time.
  • Stability. Depending on what else is happening in their life, it may not be the time to start a company. If they’re getting married, just moved to a new city or a close family member is on their deathbed, they may not want the upheaval of launching a startup on top of that.

None of these reasons prevent a person from being a valuable contributor to your startup. In fact, someone may work for your company and add tremendous value you’d otherwise never receive.

This is a seller’s market.

If you have hard to find skills like design, product management or engineering, it’s a great time to be a startup employee. Companies must compete for you. With salaries skyrocketing, it takes more than money to attract talent. Having a good culture, treating people well and supporting them as individuals become important factors as well.

David’s views may work for him, but I caution other founders from adopting his cynical attitude towards those with side projects. The potential gains far outweigh any losses in hours David seems so concerned with and run the risk of turning off potential great team members.

Leadership Lessons First Time Entrepreneurs Forget

While building Greenhorn Connect, I’ve spent a great deal of my time with young and first time entrepreneurs.  If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate, it’s the absurd odds stacked against any of us succeeding; there’s just so much that you have no idea about and need to quickly learn.

You could spend years learning just one small subsection of your duties like SEO, analytics, customer development, copywriting, design, fundraising, product development, development architecture or simply great coding, but the demands of startups says you need to become competent and relatively adept at all of those and more.  Amongst all those hard skills, I didn’t even mention leadership, which I think is the most underrated skill to develop as a young entrepreneur.

Leadership is a bit different, because it’s a soft skill; it’s not as easy to measure as the success of your marketing campaign or the elegance and functionality of your code.  However, it’s an immensely important skill and one with more long term value than becoming an expert in any one of the aforementioned hard skill areas; if your goal is to build a company with more than yourself as an employee, then you’re going to be leading others.  As you grow, you’ll be leading more people and spending less time on any of the individual skills you used in the early days and much more on communication, vision and goal setting and coordination across teams.

As I’ve learned through my own errors and in talking to other young entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed there are 2 major concepts most of us don’t recognize that are absolutely critical to leading your team even when you only have one or two employees:

1) Your employees don’t work for you; You serve them.

Having employees means that you’ve been able to convince others to work with you on your idea.  Appreciate the incredible feat that it is.

However, do not think that because they work for you that they are now enlisted to your dictatorship. You need to involve them in core discussions, listen to their ideas and feedback and cultivate a culture of appreciation and shared passion.   A happy, engaged employee is 5x as productive as a frustrated, stymied or sad employee.  This ebbs and flows, so you really need to watch for it on a daily basis.

Showing appreciation for those that work for with you is not optional; you cannot over-recognize their best efforts.  At the same time, it is a balancing act.  There are times for the carrot and other times it is best to lead them with a stick.  Each employee will respond differently, so it’s a skill that requires fine tuning for everyone you work with.   Personally, as much as I love a good reward, I value constructive criticism significantly more; I’d much rather hear how I can do even better next time than dwell on what went right. Unfortunately, what I, you, or anyone else prefer is completely different than the next person you hire.

I constantly feel humbled by the fact that I have a team helping me make Greenhorn Connect a success today.  I do everything I can to make sure Pardees and Ian know that and have learned well the power of having excited, motivated people helping you fulfill your vision. An hour spent cultivating your employees will pay you back exponentially.

2) Uncover and fix problems when they’re small.

With all the hustle and constant activity buzzing around a startup, it’s easy to overlook small problems. Don’t.

When problems are small, solutions are small as well. When problems grow up, then it takes big, dramatic solutions to overcome them. If it’s an interpersonal issue or a major team issue, then suddenly that small issue can lead to someone having to be let go.

Catch problems when they’re small by reading your employees;  look at their face and posture, and if an employee seems down or upset…asking them if something is up and if you can help has huge immediate and long term benefits.

Conflicts and small issues are often simple misunderstandings or honest mistakes. Tackling them head on breeds a culture of accountability and openness to healthy criticism.  When you get your team in this habit, it becomes much easier to avoid major problems, because they never get that big.  Having a discussion about firing someone is a much more dramatic discussion than talking to an employee about a minor issue that may have caused conflict or hurt the company.  Nip problems in the bud and encourage your employees to do so as well.

This post may seem like stating the obvious, but theory and practice are two very different things.  Just like hard skills require practice and active use to become sharper, leadership skills like the issues above require active diligence to become adept at them. Ask yourself how your team is doing at managing these issues; I bet there’s times you’ve noticed your team’s mood affected productivity or a problem grew larger than it should have and caused trouble.

Have you learned these lessons the hard way? What key leadership skills do you think first time entrepreneurs need most?