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Motivating Employees for Over-the-top Performance

“Motivating Employees for Over-the-top Performance”

CEOs with thriving inner-city companies share their secrets.

At age 22, Jose Reategui left Peru with no money, but a wealth of business savvy. In America, he built a company by tapping the full potential of his work force. Today Hartford, Conn.-based Rego Realty Corp. has become the fastest-growing inner-city firm in the state, with 1,400% sales growth from 1995 to 1999.

It may sound corny, but we motivate our 40 employees by making them feel like one of our family.

There are practical things you can do to nurture a family spirit: We don’t worry about hierarchy, and I don’t put my title on my business card. I want to communicate to employees that I’m one of them.

I make myself available to listen to employees’ problems, both personal and professional. If they have a family issue, perhaps needing an emergency loan to get through a tough time, employees know that they can come to me and talk about it. Together we’ll figure out a solution, such as paying an advance against their salary.

You have to empathize with employees if they’re going to trust you and give a full effort. For example, I noticed that a once-reliable worker’s production was down, so I talked to him. He told me that he was going through a divorce and having trouble finding an apartment. Property management is part of our business, so I found him an apartment — and his production shot back up.

Some people won’t tell you what’s wrong unless you ask. You have to get involved in people’s lives. Show that you care, and you motivate them.

Turn everyone into a CEO

Roy Page, CEO of Third Degree Advertising and Communications Inc., Oklahoma City, makes business growth everyone’s business — one of the reasons his company has averaged 52% annual growth over the past five years.

Our success reflects the thoughts and input of our entire staff. All 15 employees know they can make a difference here.

For instance, one employee said we should embrace the interactive world and offer new media services. We liked what we heard, so we went ahead with it. We’ll do $200,000 in adjusted gross billings this year, thanks to that suggestion.

All of our employees could earn more money elsewhere, but they stay because we listen to them and expect them to have a positive impact on the company’s growth. No one has elected to leave since we opened in 1995.

We don’t beat ourselves up for mistakes, and that makes for a less-pressurized atmosphere. After we make a presentation to a client, we have what I call a "curbside review," where we assess how we did. We exchange instant feedback with an emphasis on what we can do better next time.

My employees know that part of their job is to tell me when I’m wrong, and they’re not afraid to speak up. Recently I was overloading them with too many small accounts. They came to me and said, "Let’s do one ‘big gorilla’ project, rather than 10 smaller projects." They were right, so I changed our focus.

Another way we motivate employees is by expecting them to understand the sales process and participate in it, even if their actual job doesn’t involve selling. I’ve given everyone a copy of "How to Become a Rainmaker" by Jeffrey Fox (Hyperion, 2000). It’s their responsibility to read and apply it. When employees learn to think like rainmakers, they see themselves as valuable contributors, not just folks who show up and collect a paycheck.

A party that brings people together

Jaime Bordenave‘s company, The Communities Group, specializes in the planning and development of urban communities. Bordenave has also built a close-knit community for the 35 employees at his Washington, D.C.-based firm, which has achieved a compound annual growth rate of 26% over the past five years.

We’re big on celebrations here. Throw lots of parties, and you refresh people and motivate them to do great work.

Aside from celebrating holidays and anniversaries, we have "social Fridays" — parties held in the late afternoon on most Fridays. About 12 to 15 employees show up, and they can bring friends. It lasts about an hour on our patio, and it is a way for people to unwind, swap stories and enjoy snacks while waiting for traffic to die down before they head home.

We started "social Fridays" in 1984 when we launched the company, and we’ve done it ever since. It only costs $50 or $60, and everyone has a great time.

Lessons from the sports world

In 1985 Daryl Henry launched Diversified Telecommunications Inc. (DTI), a Chicago-based information-technology firm, and he’s just as enthusiastic and driven today as he was back then. His spirited leadership pumps up employees.

I motivate employees by using sports analogies. I may say, "On a basketball team, you can be an all-star simply by being a scorer. But I really need you to be a playmaker, to distribute the ball to others so they can succeed."

I read a newspaper article about Larry Bird, who reflected on his rivalry with Magic Johnson. Bird said there were days when, after practicing for hours, he’d want to grab his gym bag and head to the shower. But then he’d wonder if Magic was working even harder. So Bird would take 10 more shots, giving that extra effort.

This kind of story is motivating to me — as well as to my employees.

I try to practice what I preach. You can’t teach Bird’s level of commitment, but you can set an example. Last night I stayed up until 1 a.m. e-mailing customers. I sent copies of the e-mail messages to my staff, partly to inform them about what was going on with customers and partly so they could see my effort. At 5 a.m. I again started firing off e-mail messages. My employees see how hard I’m working, and they’re motivated to rise to that level.

Rocking the boat

Tom Rausch motivates his 20 employees by giving them a voice. He and his wife founded Interactive Ink Inc. in 1995, and the Columbus, Ohio-based e-business consultancy has achieved a 39% compound annual growth rate over the past five years.

Listening to people is what gets them to give 110%. One way we accomplish this is through our "BoatRocker" committees. It’s our attempt to formally encourage people to rock the boat and make us better.

We have five or six teams of employees who meet quarterly. Each team has a focus, such as customer service or internal systems. Employees volunteer to serve on whatever committee they want.

When the teams meet, they come up with suggestions and act on them. In most cases, their ideas only cost a few hundred dollars. They have a limited budget to work with, so they implement ideas on their own.

For instance, our brand committee decided we needed to redo our conference room. So they researched costs, drafted a design and found the cheapest place to get carpeting, paint and other supplies. What could have cost us $4,000 or $5,000 ended up costing less than $1,000.

It’s motivating for people to know they can contribute beyond achieving the goals and metrics put in place for them. They bring more effort to the job because they know we’ll listen.

Collect everyone’s opinions

Davin Wedel uses a simple, but powerful, motivator: He seeks his 30 employees’ opinions on business decisions. As founder and president of Global Protection Corp., a Boston-based condom manufacturer, Wedel led his company to 33% annual growth in 2001 and $3.5 million in sales.

People give more effort if they feel that they’re part of something larger than themselves.

Just yesterday we were planning a new product, and I brought employees into my office to look at the layout of five different ideas. They love to give their opinions, and I get great ideas from them. Everyone from the production supervisor to our part-time file clerk participates.

Employees here know that their opinions matter and they can make a difference. That helps them connect their job to our overall vision and commitment to serve customers. For example, when people are packing boxes, they do their job with extra care to make the customer happy.

I can talk all day about high standards, but it’s really up to them to believe. They’re motivated to do their part to make us more successful.