When I was a young Marine officer, I observed that otherwise ordinary people could perform amazing feats. All they needed was training, tools, a clear goal and motivation. My job was to make the most of those four things.
Leaders in the business world are trying to do the same thing. But increasingly, I see them falling short, often because they’re not clear enough about the objective or not committed enough to achieving it. Yet others miss the mark because they have disconnected from their teams personally and emotionally, and that is what I want to focus on now.
Leadership is a messy business, in the sense that all meaningful human relationships are messy. Rewarding relationships last; the rest fail. So part of a leader’s primary responsibility is to ensure that there is a rewarding relationship between his or her subordinates and their work. The more rewarding the subordinate finds the relationship, the more latitude the leader has in sculpting and directing the team.
The problem I see increasingly in Silicon Valley — though it is by no means confined to this area — is that too many leaders are behaving as if the only meaningful rewards are financial, whether cash or stock options. In fact, the most effective motivational tools don’t cost the company anything, except a talented leader’s salary. They include incentives such recognition, praise, inclusion, important assignments, respect, status and the satisfaction of having produced impressive results.
The business press talks a lot about “customer care,” but the best leaders focus maniacally on “team care” because it is the team that will ultimately care for the customer. And the team will care about its responsibilities to the degree they perceive the leader is personally engaged with the team, its work and its members.
If you reflect in a calm, quiet moment on your working relationship with each of your subordinates, one by one, name by name, you’ll know in your heart whether you are leading them or just playing at it. If you’re not engaged with each of them and their work or not doing it as well as you could be, then changing the compensation scheme shouldn’t be your first move to improve performance.
Instead, change your behavior. It requires no budget increase or sign-off from above, and it will allow you to change the behaviors of your team more effectively and more sustainably than any other management concept, cash included. That’s because, no matter what tomorrow may bring, your team will be prepared to weather storms and seize opportunities, and you’ll be prepared to lead the way.
I understand that creating and deploying these nonfinancial incentives takes a lot more time, energy, thought, humility, humanity and maintenance than simply goosing the compensation plan. But there is simply no substitute for this harder work, which is frankly the essence of the leader’s job. Trying to sidestep it with cash is to abdicate a leader’s core responsibility.
Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.