Executive coaches have a unique vantage point on what goes on inside companies - and the brains of the people leading them. Working with clients one-on-one as they navigate major conflicts gives us a deep understanding of their motivations.
As a coach who focuses on cross cultural management and global leadership, I see which motivations vary from country to country and which tend to be the same. Whether they're in Singapore or Kansas, I've found that knowledge workers share certain characteristics. As Daniel Pink pointed out in his brilliant 2009 book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," the traditional workplace carrots of pay and promotion only go so far.
Knowledge workers, whose jobs require independent thinking and critical analysis, need to flex those intellectual muscles and get recognition for doing so (as Pink argues, it comes down to autonomy, mastery and purpose).
Studies have shown that among knowledge workers the main reasons people leave jobs are lack of recognition, lack of involvement and poor management. Money is rarely the issue.
The strategies below have worked wonders for my clients:
1. Get creative about public recognition.
Years ago, I worked with a senior leader at a California company who wanted to motivate his management team but didn't have the budget to hand out raises. He noticed that people who came in his office always commented on a jar of rocks on his desk, which he'd picked up running on a nearby beach.
One day he had the brainstorm of giving them as gifts. When a member of his team did a great job on something, he'd write a thank-you note and include one of the beach rocks from his collection.
These unique and highly personal tokens began to take on an almost mythic status among his employees. If you got one of his rocks, you'd really done something special.
2. Allow flexible working hours.
When I walked into the office of Alibaba, the Chinese online retailer, I was struck by the colorful tents set up between desks. I learned that during busy periods, workers sleep in them.
At many American tech companies, it's not uncommon to hear of employees leaving the office at eight in the morning after working all night. Given the demands of corporate life in a competitive environment, give employees the opportunity to choose their hours - as long as they get their work done, of course.
3. Ask them to mentor, coach or teach.
Asking someone to mentor a new hire is a signal that he or she is a valued company ambassador capable of conveying the company's core culture and values. Asking one employee to coach another has to be done sensitively (it won't work so well if they're competitors, for example). But done right, it can prove as inspiring to the coach as the person getting coached.
At one company I worked with, a manager created lunchtime learning sessions, in which an employee with a particular expertise taught a workshop to his or her peers. These votes of confidence go a long way toward retaining smart, dedicated employees.
4. Add challenge and visibility.
For trained and highly skilled workers, being asked to do something more challenging is a special distinction. If you see an employee lagging, try upping the game with a harder task or a presentation in front of more influential people.
5. Offer face time with a key player.
Many workers wonder if the senior leadership notices their efforts, or whether they're simply cogs in the corporate machine. A breakfast or coffee with a CEO or some other key company player can reassure workers that their contributions are valued and recognized at the highest level.