I coach startup founders. Founders bleed motivation.  Founders by nature are determined, hard-driving, self-starting and tenacious. Employees, however, don't always share those qualities. So one question I get asked all the time by the CEOs I coach is "how do I motivate my employees?"

They are often surprised by what I say. My answer is simple. Don't.

Don't waste your time trying to motivate your employees. Instead, hire self-motivated employees. Then help them get their work done by removing obstacles when necessary and getting out of the way when you can.

The value of self-motivated employees.

Self-motivated employees contribute the most in your business. They are the sales people who will make the tenth call and finally get through to an elusive customer prospect. They are the coders who will be thinking about a challenge the team is working on over the weekend, try it out, and have the solution implemented by Monday morning. They are the project managers who will not just get a certain task done, they will take it on themselves to document how they figured out the best way to do it and share it with others.

All of this happens while you, the founder, are focused on closing the largest deal in company history, recruiting your first CRO, and raising your next round of funding. Employees who have internal drive will see what needs to be done and take it on themselves to do it. And you, the founder, don't have to use your precious time and energy to motivate them.

How to hire the right people.

Easy to say, but how do you hire self-motivated employees?

First you have to decide that it's a valuable trait and look for it in the interview process. So many companies I coach think about qualities like intelligence and try to assess prior experience. These are good things of course. But if you want to hire self-motivated people you have start looking for that specifically.

Next, think about the qualities that point to "self-motivated." In my mind those are "autonomous," "proactive," "driven" and "tenacious." You may have others. Then when you interview people, tune your questions to look for these elements.

Some of my favorites are:

  • "When you have a moment to breathe at work, what are the kinds of things you turn your attention to outside of your day-to-day job?"
  • "Tell me about a time that you thought you could improve a process to make a job easier?"
  • "What was a new idea that you proposed to your manager or a coworker?"

You want to hire the people who use their spare time wisely and think about how to take ownership of their work.

It's equally important, however, to watch their nonverbal communication. Do their eyes sparkle when they remember a proactive move they made? Does their tone get more excited when talking about going out of their way to fix an issue for a customer? You want people who are in love with the idea of going above and beyond.

Check their references for internal drive.

Often, reference checking can be a bit generic. People ask bland questions about "strengths and weaknesses." Instead, ask the references very specific questions that get at motivation.

You can ask similar questions to the ones you ask the employee herself. Test for specific ways this employee was self-motivated. Examples are:

"Did she initiate important projects? If yes did she see them all the way through?"

"When she had down time or things were just a little less busy, how did she use her time?"

Create a culture that maintains motivation.

Of course you should create a culture to keep everyone fired up while they are at work. The top ways that people stay engaged are not more money, ping pong or free snacks.

The people you want on your team are jazzed by seeing how their work fits into the overall mission of the company-- that helps them see meaning and purpose in their work.

People also get re-inspired when they can see the progress they are making. A startup can be grueling and there are so many emotional ups and downs. It's hard to maintain perspective and tough to keep your spirits up when it can feel like you're constantly pushing a rock uphill. People are encouraged by forward momentum, so when you help them see what specifically they've achieved it helps maintain motivation.

Hire self-motivated people, help them get their work done and celebrate successes. This is the best way to drive high growth in your company.