Do you want employees who are happy to come to work, engaged with your company, and motivated about their jobs? Then you have to understand them and focus on their needs. That wisdom comes from Jay Simons, president of Atlassian, which makes collaboration software for teams. 

Simons learned his approach to management via an unconventional career path that included years as an itinerant hotel-bar piano player in Southeast Asia. Returning to the United States, he went into sales at a software company and soon found himself managing an overseas sales office. He joined Atlassian to head sales and marketing, and was promoted to president three years later. 

Here's what he's learned along the way about motivating and inspiring the people who work for you:

1. Take the time to understand them.

Don't assume you know about employees because of what they do or their experience. "When I was in Rangoon playing piano, I learned Burma has a very good education system, but the problem at the time was there was no opportunity to practice what you had learned," Simons says. "So bartending and other restaurant jobs in the hotel where I worked were some of the best jobs in the country." Some of the people doing those jobs had degrees in physics or biology, he recalls. "The best place they could get a job to provide for their families was in an international hotel making drinks behind a bar."

Simons learned a valuable lesson from this experience. "We all come from all sorts of situations and backgrounds that have influences on our lives. Each of us has different things to give."

2. Give them opportunities to try new roles--even if they don't have obvious qualifications.

"I'm a big believer in giving people chances because I was the beneficiary of that," he explains. "People gave me opportunities to do things I hadn't done before." There was no reason for Simons' first U.S. employer, Plumtree Software (now part of Oracle), to assume he had sales ability, given his background. But the company took a chance, and he was so good at the job he soon had expanded the customer base outside the United States.

3. Find out where your employees want to go--and help them get there.

One of the most inspiring things for all employees is to have the boss ask about their aspirations and then help them fulfill those dreams. This could mean sending employees for special training, letting them move into unexpected roles, giving them flexible time or time off so they can pursue a specific passion, or even introducing them to contacts outside your company who can offer their dream job in a few years if you can't. 

It also means helping employees with suggestions and encouragement, and letting them know when they're on the right track to reach their stated goals and when they need to make a change. "They want to know if they're going in the right direction," Simons says. "Giving that feedback is super important."

4. Give people chances to pursue their passions.

In a variant of Google's famous 20 percent time, Atlassian gives employees one day a quarter to assemble a team and pursue a project of their choice. The event is called ShipIt, because each team has just 24 hours to complete each project, start to finish. 

"The only requirement is that you stand up and show people what you worked on at the end," Simons says. "We had one team where people were frustrated by the fact that all the chairs in our conference room were fixed height, so their ShipIt project was to fix them all so that they were adjustable."

5. Embrace failure.

You're encouraging people to spread their wings, so every now and then one of them will fly into a wall. And that's a good thing, Simons says. "Failure is just a feedback mechanism. It's almost as good as succeeding," he explains. "I'm the beneficiary of people giving me a chance to fail. It's my responsibility to create an environment where failure is OK."

It isn't always easy, he says. "Often, it takes a lot of encouragement," he notes, "because by nature people are conservative. You always are going to select things where you have a higher possibility of succeeding. So we say mistakes are awesome--so long as they aren't fatal. It means we're trying and taking risks. That's where true rewards come from."