Motivation – How Great Leaders Do It!

How many people do you know wake up in the morning planning on being ineffective in their job? I haven’t met a manager or executive who doesn’t want to be seen as an effective leader. Yet, we all know there are some people who just seem to get more out of their employees than other people can. They know how to motivate people. How do they do it? Is it a talent that you are born with or something you can learn?

The answer is that it is an art, skill and attitude that you can learn if you work at it. According to the research on executive effectiveness and what I’ve learned coaching executives and managers in all sizes of companies, when you boil it all down there are six important steps to being a high powered motivator.

1. Generate and Sustain Trust

The number one ingredient for becoming a top flight motivator is “generating and sustaining trust,” according to Warren Bennis, in his classic, “On Becoming a Leader.” When I’ve spoken to line personnel I frequently will ask, “What’s the one thing you admire about your boss? Invariably, they will respond that “I respect my boss.” When I dig deeper, they will say something like, “She or he wouldn’t ask me to do something that I know they wouldn’t do.” Or, “I never get the feeling that my boss treats me or anyone as an inferior.”

Great motivators generate trust through leading by example or “modeling the way” according to James Kouzes and Barry Posner, noted authorities on leadership. Leaders model the way through their personal example and their observable dedication. They also act quickly to stop behaviors that breakdown trust and collaboration, e.g., unethical behavior, backbiting and unproductive complaining. In the wake of Enron, leaders are under increased scrutiny. Therefore, walking the talk is crucial, as it should be. When a boss treats people with respect, employees become energized and want to follow in his or her footsteps. They want to excel…for their boss and for themselves.

2. Have the Right People

The second ingredient is to be sure you have the “right people on the bus,” according to Jim Collins who wrote the best-selling business book, “Good to Great.” While researching what made great companies great he discovered that they all had a particular type of leader at the helm. He discovered that the best CEOs were those who hire highly competent people, people who don’t need to be actively managed. However, you have to be self-confident enough to be able to hire people who may well be smarter than you. If you can do that, then your primary task will not be thinking about how to motivate them but how to help them do their job.

Therefore, learning how to interview and assess potential employees well should be taken very seriously. It’s a learned skill. Do not leave picking top people to chemistry. People are easily fooled by their “gut” feelings. Picking top people requires a more rigorous process that helps you avoid “interview bias errors.” For example, the primacy effect: interviewers invariably rate the first or last interviewee as best simply because by nature of the order they are interviewed, they are freshest in our memory. If you haven’t received training in a systematic behavioral interview process… get it! If your company doesn’t use a systematic behaviorally oriented interviewing process…. lobby to have one!

3. Inspire a Shared Vision

The third ingredient is “inspiring a shared vision.” Kouzes and Posner found that highly effective leaders see their vision, and then they communicate it in a manner that taps into and engages the dreams of their constituents. Effective leaders really do rally the troops.

Inspiring a shared vision can be done at all levels of management. It’s not just the job of the CEO. Line supervisors, who are not responsible for developing the “vision” for the company can, nevertheless, use that vision to inspire their subordinates. It requires helping line employees see that the company is doing is something of value and how what they do fits into the big picture. Top motivators help employees connect the dots between what they do and where the company is going.

4. Enable Others to Act

Fourth, top motivators enable others to act. Top motivators tend to be comfortable in their skins and don’t need others to make them feel important. It’s paradoxical but, the more successful and effective an executive is (those who build great companies that is), the humbler they are. In fact, they make you feel important because they take you seriously. Top motivators don’t cast a large shadow that prevents others from being in the light. They are not publicity hogs (e.g., Donald Trump). They also foster a team effort by promoting collaboration through relationships and supporting personal development.

5. Prepare Successors for Success

Fifth, Collins found that great leaders encourage others by preparing their successors for success. They are not afraid of losing their jobs to an upstart. They do this by giving their subordinates plenty of developmental help (e.g., coaching, training, etc.) and by allowing their subordinates to shine. Kouzes and Posner call this attribute, “management of respect.” Great leaders notice and celebrate their follower’s contributions and achievements.

6. Search for Opportunities

Lastly, challenging the process: Effective leaders search for opportunities, experiment and take reasonable risks to help their organizations. Effective leaders don’t hunker down during difficult economic times…they take reasonable risks. Doing the same thing over and over may be safe but, it doesn’t motivate people very much. Frankly, it gets boring. Top motivators are constantly asking, “Can we do this better?”

The De-Motivators

Keeping these six tips in mind, there are also five de-motivators to avoid or change. Otherwise, you may be doomed to failure. Specifically, Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman, who wrote "The Extraordinary Leader," discovered by analyzing the data from over 25,000 360-degree (multi-rater) feedback results for managers and executives that there were five "fatal flaws" that you must avoid or change in your behavior and attitude.

These are sure de-motivators and career derailers:

  1. Inability to learn from mistakes
  2. Lack of core interpersonal skills and competencies
  3. Lack of openness to new or different ideas
  4. Lack of accountability and excessive defensiveness and
  5. Lack of initiative.

“What is fascinating about the five fatal flaws is that these traits reflect a pattern of inactivity. It is not the pattern of someone who is doing too much of something, but the pattern of someone doing way too little.”

Excessive defensiveness and having poor interpersonal skills are the most frequently cited issues that cause managers to be referred to executive coaches. And, of those, excessive defensiveness is the most difficult to turn around while being the biggest de-motivator. Employees will stop bringing suggestions for improving processes to any boss who is excessively defensive and shoots the messenger. Interestingly, those executives frequently come across as super confident (they overcompensate) when in fact they are really insecure. Their fatal flaw makes it impossible for them to ask for help much less admit they need it. Whereas, people with poor interpersonal skills often want to learn and can become more adept if they work hard at it.

Any one of these flaws can put the brakes on energizing employees. The best employees will become frustrated and quit while those less competent may stick around because they are afraid to quit. The upshot, poor managers end up with poorly motivated, compliant and less competent employees. Not a recipe for success.

The Next Step

Let’s return to the traits of great motivators. Imagine, if you will, that the 6 traits of great motivators are 6 pistons within the leadership engine. Ask yourself, am I firing fully on all 6 cylinders? How do you know? Top flight leaders proactively and continuously monitor their performance and make necessary improvements. How? The best practices behind performance management and leadership development are based in the use of objective, scientifically valid assessments e.g., 360 multi-rate feedback surveys and business based personality inventories.

However, taking multi-rater evaluations is not for the faint of heart. If the survey is conducted well (and they are too frequently poorly designed and conducted), you will solicit confidential input (without a guarantee of confidentiality people rarely give accurate feedback) from a wide variety of sources, some of whom will probably be critical of your performance. In essence, you will need to do what pro athletes do…review your “game tapes.”

With good feedback data you will avoid spinning your wheels taking executive development courses/trainings that feel good (the leadership fad du jour) but have nothing to do with your particular developmental needs. Once you get accurate and useful feedback, you will be able to construct a program to hone your strengths, overcome or work around barriers and supercharge your effectiveness and performance.

Therefore, if you want to become a great motivator, be courageous and get an honest and objective assessment of your capabilities. Then, fix any fatal flaws and put into practice the six steps of great motivators.