Money, Motivation and Mission

Posted: July 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

I’ve been reading Daniel Pinks book Drive. It’s an interesting read which looks closely at intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Namely the effect that pay has on our motivation and performance. I’d come clean and admit I haven’t finished it yet. I made the mistake of picking up Game of Thrones and 4.5 books later I’m almost back to it.

However motivation and money is seriously topical right now. I see blogs every day like “The real reason staff leave your business”. This is exacerbated by the general tightness in the IT industry. Finding good staff is hard and keeping them is becoming a serious topic of conversation around any management table. I look after a team of talented Java developers and I know they’re getting offers through Linkedin on a weekly basis.

So with all this heat on keeping good staff and plenty of academic debate about I thought I would throw in my own experience in how to motivate and keep good staff. It’s a broad subject but a good chunk of it can be wrapped up in one word, Mission.

What do I mean by mission? A mission is more than a company statement. It’s a bold and exciting goal which gives purpose and context to everything the company does.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in some companies that lived and breathed a compelling mission. I’ve also worked in companies on the other side of the scale. Anywhere from non-compelling missions to no mission at all. I’ve also seen companies merge and move across the scale. This has a very predictable effect on staff.

I joined a start-up in 2002. It didn’t pay particularly well and it was housed in a building scheduled for demolition. But it embodied everything I now know about mission.

I walked into the drab and depressing building for my first interview knowing nothing about the company, other than an ex-college now worked there. I sat down with the founder and listened to the story about how they had grown quickly to 16 people and had won some fantastic awards. He talked about the product and the calibre of people. He wove a story about their mission. He was clear that they would be the largest provider of BPM software in the country. They would own the space, then move their focus further abroad. It was exciting, sitting in this horrible office listening to this infectious and bold plan for world domination. I was instantly on board.

The place positively pumped. The people were all talented and they knew why they were there. There were no politics, no opportunities for promotion, no training and the pay was rubbish. I didn’t get a performance review while I was there and I didn’t notice. I was focused on building some killer software and implementing it in as many big companies as possible. I enjoyed working with talented people who knew the goal and had the autonomy they needed to contribute in different ways to achieve it.

The company was quickly purchased by a larger company and the obvious happened. Three layers of management left in the first 6 months. Staff spent time either looking at job ads or bribing our new management for more money. I went with the money approach and got myself a big pay raise and a promotion. Despite that I left within 3 months. The mission was gone and so was the excitement. The people quickly followed.

I’ve seen this pattern repeat itself. You need to pay people fairly but the best people aren’t motivated by money. They are motivated by the mission, the chance to do creative things and the chance to work with other talented people.

When a company has a strong compelling mission they’re happy and everyone runs in the same direction. In the absence of mission they flip into what I call the What’s in it for me mode. This is characterised by people worrying about their pay, staff jostling for opportunities like promotion, people talking about training and certification. It’s all about ‘me’ in this mode. Then of course the best people leave.

So what’s a good mission? It needs to be brave, bold, simple and almost achievable. A good example is to have the biggest selling piece of software in a sector or vertical. “To be number 1….” Is always a good start.

I worked for an IT company once with the mission to become a $80 million dollar (revenue) company. That was a bad mission and yet as lame as it was it still told the employees the goal. We understood what was required of us and people did their bit to make it happen. This mission didn’t really stick but it was better than nothing.

Having no mission is much worse. A company with no mission will fail to attract good staff. The good staff that do join will leave within their first two years. Worse than no mission however is one that doesn’t line up with constructive values. I worked in a startup for a while where it became clear that the mission of the company was to sell out to a large company quickly and make a lot of money for the founder. It not only failed to inspire but it drove some terrible behaviour. The exec team focused on telling a compelling story to rich listers and VCs. No one focused on the product, or the customer. No one cared. The mission drove the wrong behaviour. A better mission would have been to dominate a vertical, top $100 million revenue or something which put the company into a healthy position for sale.

I think companies need to separate their public mission statement or vision statement with the internal mission their staff are on. Many public mission statements end up with some aspiration phrase that would be impossible for people to get in behind. For example:

Microsoft: Microsoft’s mission is to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.

Sounds powerful and noble. But how would I play into that? How would I know when the company got there?

Skype’s mission is to be the fabric of real-time communication on the web. That is better, but still not measurable.

When a company has a mission for its staff they need to live and breathe it. They need to report on progress and give people the autonomy to push along towards the goal.

Occasionally I’ve seen companies give people a personal stake in the end result. Small companies often use options, but at the end of the day these aren’t necessary. I’ve burned late nights and early mornings alongside teams of great people getting paid half market rates.

So I do agree with the premise that money is not the way to motivate people. To me it’s about going on a mission with a talented bunch of people. I’ve felt the power of this plenty of times and I know the warning signs when a company lacks a vision and a mission. Next time you hear someone comparing pay to roles in other companies I bet you’re in a company without an exciting mission.


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