Moving ahead Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Motivating employees is easier said than done, says Steve O’Kane. And while it can be difficult, it’s an issue leaders strive to manage.

Over his career as an executive, the president of trucking company A. Duie Pyle Inc. says his greatest challenge has been empowering staff members. The key, he’s found, is a process that starts with gaining credibility and trust and is then maintained by recognizing employee achievements and, more important, by good communication.

“Employees, I think overall, just love communication,” O’Kane says. “They thirst for communication.”

For A. Duie Pyle, which posted 2007 revenue of $223 million, that has meant tailoring its communication process to the needs of its employees, the majority of whom are constantly crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada. So every six to eight weeks, the company puts out CDs that include information about what’s happening in the company and the industry to keep those on the road connected.

Smart Business spoke with O’Kane about the steps you can take to help motivate your employees.

Gain standing.
First off, you need credibility to be able to do it, and you gain credibility over the years with a little bit of a record of success. When you try things and they work and people around you see them, it helps you motivate them to do the things that the company requires for that success.

On the flip side of that is when you make mistakes — and I’ve made more than my share in my time — you have to own up to them. A, you have to fix them and do it quickly, and B, own up to them publicly and get it behind you and move on.

You have to correct it, and those that are around or involved in the implementation — that are part of the execution team of whatever mistake you made — then it’s important to revisit with them what was done incorrectly, how it was fixed, how you go forward from here, and you want to admit your role in the error.

If you do those things, you get credibility with the people you work with, and I think that puts you in a position where you can use standard techniques to keep them motivated.

Open the lines of communication to engage and inform employees.
If you really focus on the employees, keep them engaged, listen to their concerns and, when warranted, adjust a little bit, they stay motivated, they stay engaged.

Keys to employee communication are all consistent with the keys to all communication.

One, talk about what matters most to the employees. Whenever I interact with employees, in a formal or totally informal setting, I invite the employee to ask questions.

I would rather talk about what is on the employee’s mind than what is on my mind.

Now, there is likely an agenda or a motivation for the interaction, so I will deliver the desired message but try never to close without inviting questions.

Two is honesty. Employees appreciate direct answers. Even if the answer to a question or request is no, it is better to give them a direct response than to try to escape with a vague, ‘We’ll consider that,’ or, ‘Maybe,’ and have the issue fester.

If something employees want is simply not going to happen, better to meet the issue head on and try to end the discussion. Of course, when the answer is yes, you must make sure you follow through on what has now become a commitment.

Three, ‘why’ is often as important as the ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ When an answer has to be no, it is worth taking time to explain why a negative answer is necessary. Employees really do understand the business more than some leaders may realize.

Four, small groups work best. If I have a choice — and often there isn’t one — I prefer to talk to employees in small groups. Several informal discussions on a regular basis are often far more meaningful and controllable than one big meeting. Plus, the employees really appreciate the personal attention they feel from such meetings.

Five is results. At the end of the day, employees have a great sense as to whether or not leadership is making good decisions. They may not agree with every decision, but if they feel that leadership is moving the organization in a good direction for their future, then communication becomes an exchange of viewpoints and explanation of direction.

Without good strategy and leadership, the best communication possible will not be well received by the employee population. Good communication can reinforce a well-thought-out business plan, but without the good plan, even great communication will be viewed as ineffective and insincere.

Recognize and reward.
Essentially, everybody wants to do a good job, I believe. So when they feel that they’ve been given the tools to excel, when they’ve been given the environment where excellence is recognized and then when they’ve been recognized for an excellent performance, they are all motivated.

While it does sound simple, it really does work.

There’s a variety of ways depending on where in the organization they lie. There are some people that respond to praise. Try to do that. Nobody ever does enough of that.

Personally, I send cards to people’s homes. Just little thank-yous or recognitions for specific things where they’ve done well.

Then, on our management group, I think it’s important that there be a financial incentive, an income system that rewards excellence.

HOW TO REACH: A. Duie Pyle Inc., (800) 523-5020 or