My latest book, From Start-Up to Grown-Up, is based on my two decades of coaching startups such as Venmo, Etsy, DraftKings, and The Wirecutter. I share practical advice on the key areas you need to grow from a founder to a CEO. In the excerpt below I talk about how positive reinforcement can take your team from good to great:
There are many ways to motivate people, but I often see founders ignoring a tool that is easy, free, and requires no special equipment. It drives me crazy so I am excited to address it here.
It's simply using praise to motivate people and build social capital--the loyalty you need so that people will follow you through walls even when things get tough.
I know this is counterintuitive for you. No one tells a founder/CEO on her hard days that she's doing a great job. In fact, in some ways you can only become a founder if you have an overdeveloped sense of internal motivation. Think about it--isn't it so much easier to go work for IBM than start your own company?
As the CEO, you take the brunt of your team's defensiveness, their worries, their insecurities, their annoyances. Founders have to deal with that all the time, so it's not as if your head snaps up and you say to yourself, "Oh I need to praise people." But you do and you should.
In fact, all those gripes and doubts your employees generously share with you are actually more about them than about you. Your people are looking for markers from you. "Am I doing this right?" "Is this what you want?" They won't say these things out loud, so you have to think consciously about giving praise and then tell them. You might think, "Oh, this is great," when you someone hands you the spreadsheet that you asked for, but if those words don't come out of your mouth, nothing is gained and something may be lost. That employee may walk away worrying that the spreadsheet wasn't right somehow, but he doesn't know how and he wastes the next hour looking at it again trying to figure out what he should have done differently.
Or even worse, praising with faint damns. Say your employee unveils the new website to you, and you think it's pretty good but you have a question about the cover photo. If you start out, "How did that photo get up there?" no matter what you say after that, believe me, you've lost. Instead say, "Great job! I love it! I'm so impressed! Can I ask you just one question?"
As the CEO, you don't always see the hidden cost of lack of praise. But as the coach, I do. One of my clients, Lindsey, is building a skin care empire. Her packaging designer, Wilson, is brilliant and also high strung. I happened to stop by Wilson's office one day, and he was in a bit of a funk. He had heard from the COO that Lindsey didn't like his new design. He got a little heated defending it to me. Then he added, as if in a non sequitur, "I think I'm doing a good job. I mean, I know I'm not perfect, but I think I'm doing a good job. I mean, I'm sure she would tell me if I wasn't."
I could see he wasn't sure, and that was actually confusing to me because Lindsey loves Wilson and thinks he's a creative genius. I couldn't hold myself back. "Wilson, let me stop you right there. Lindsey thinks you're a genius at what you do. I hope she's telling you that."
Wilson actually got weepy. "Thank you, thank you for saying that. It's really meaningful."
This is not a one-off. The tears might be extreme, but the sentiment is normal. That's why you have to stop and remind yourself to verbalize positive things even when they seem obvious or ordinary. And you certainly should overemphasize things that are really good.
Your people get worn down from the grind of a startup. There are ups and downs and always something more to do, so it's hard to see progress. When they only hear criticism or problems coming from you, they get a lopsided view--they feel like they're failing even when they're doing well. That uncertainty costs you because it embeds itself into their heads as self-doubt and that makes them a little less safe, a little less energetic, and, as a result, a little less likely to offer a revolutionary idea.
Another super important part of your job is to show your team the progress they and the company are making. You should help them bite off milestones and then celebrate their wins so they can get a feeling of success. They'll be more steadfast in the face of obstacles and keep up better morale in the face of the difficult work you have to do. And they won't feel like they're failing.
Sometimes CEOs will say, "If I'm not talking to you, you're not a problem." That's not helpful. People actually need positive input so they can measure success for themselves and can also stay motivated for the difficult journey ahead. Like Wilson, many people have said to me, "I guess I'm OK because she doesn't come and talk to me." But they don't actually know.
The work is in you. You need to understand your employees and to recognize that they are not in your head. And they do look up to you and to you for cues.
This too may be counterintuitive, but praise is an effective tool even with employees who aren't doing a great job. There's a story I love in Michael Lewis's Moneyball about a ballplayer named Scott Hatteberg. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, had just traded his first baseman, and he needed someone to replace him. Beane wanted a great hitter, and that's why he chose Hatteberg, who had never played first base in his entire life.
It was left to the infield coach Ron Washington to turn Hatteberg into a first baseman. It did not look good. "The guy stinks," he said to the entire management team. (He actually used more colorful language.) But to his face, Washington was 100 percent encouraging. "That was a great catch! You're amazing, look at you. Fielding machine!" After a while, Washington's encouragement made Hatteberg believe in himself and turned him from completely unskilled into a pretty good first baseman.
We think we have to constantly correct people and get them to see the error of their ways. However--surprise!--you actually can get more out of someone when you praise them for what is working. That builds their confidence and makes them feel appreciated. Which in turn makes them feel more motivated.
If you're running a small company, you probably can't start out with the best, most experienced executives. You will get talented people who are raw and need molding, guidance, and support. It can be frustrating, which is why you need to know how to manage your triggers so that you can manage your people well. They're like a candle: Easy to snuff out early, but if you protect them and support them, they can burn into a good flame.
CEOs worry that if they praise their employees too much they will get big heads. Or that if they praise their employees when they do things that are wrong, they will keep repeating their mistakes. Of course you have to steer them in the right direction, but nothing good ever came from making your people feel stupid or like failures. Blame and shame are not helpful learning tools.
When you're unhappy with a team member's work, help them solve the problem. Don't attack the employee. Contextualize the situation. "OK, we missed our sales target. We're going to have good months and bad months. You tried some new things, and that's good." Bring her into the solution: "Was our target number too high? What's the number we can actually accomplish?" Look for the facts: "We need to quickly do some research and some experiments to find out what's working and what's not."
Frame it as a learning journey, which it actually is. If your employee gets defensive, check to see that they feel safe. You can say, "I just want to emphasize that I think you're great and that I know you are trying hard. Let's figure out together how to crack this code." If, over time, your employee shows over and over again that she can't hit her goals, then of course you have to make some changes. But remember that the clearer you make the goals and the more you make your employees feel safe and have a record of building their confidence with praise, the quicker and easier you'll be able to resolve what's getting in their way or figure out if you have to part ways.
Positive attention is more than overt praise. There are lots of ways of delivering that encouragement: celebration and personal attention, appreciation of how much they've achieved, marking a milestone. Positive attention is also commiseration, a personal acknowledgement, even just sincerely saying, "How are you doing?" It's anything you say or do with an employee that recognizes their humanity and makes them feel seen and successful.