7 Keys to lighting a fire under your employees or associates

Jeff (not his real name but this is a true story) is one of the best in the business. He works for a big box store selling appliances and has been there for ten years. We were having lunch when he told me how unhappy he is at his job and that he is seriously considering leaving. One recent incident he found especially problematic.

It was a Friday, the end of the corporate accounting week. Jeff had sold in excess of $35,000 worth of appliances already that week, an outstanding demonstration of skill as a salesman made more significant considering the general economy and the serious competition from other appliance outlets.

The phone at his desk rang. It was the store manager. “We’re a little short in our overall sales budget for the week,” he began. “I see you have some estimates in your action file, why not give them a call and see if you can’t bring those sales in before we close tonight.”

That was it – a challenge to do more. What annoyed Jeff is that the boss did not say one word about the $35000 week Jeff had already had. Not one thank you, not an “Atta boy”, not even a simple acknowledgement of Jeff’s success.

“It doesn’t matter how well you have done,” Jess complained, “they always want more…and more…and more. There are lessons for leaders in this simple incident.

  •  Far too often managers forget that it is people who produce numbers, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND. Leaders do themselves great harm when they forget this. This is neither an isolated event nor an unusual attitude.
  • We manage people first, numbers later. Unless you as a leader or manager work in a completely isolated environment running only robots or automated machines, your first level of responsibility is to people. Your boss may hammer on you for numbers but even he is dependent upon you, a person, to make those numbers a reality. So are you. Never, ever forget that.
  • Reward those who produce, invest in those who have potential but need development, ignore those who consume. I address this much more in an upcoming book – How To Light A Fire Under Almost Anyone Without Getting Burned – but it needs to be said here. In one of our businesses we hired a supervisor who left a similar business to join our team. He has proven to be an outstanding hire and is exceptionally well-suited to the job. His former boss showed up and offered to double his wages if he would return. He responded that “It is not just money.” Then he told us, “In three years at the other job I only remember being told thank you one time. One time! You all (speaking of us as his present employers) have shown your appreciation many more times every day than they ever did in the whole time I was there.” FYI, we pay him less than they did in actual money. Acknowledgement of an employee’s or an associate’s skill goes a very, very long way. And it costs you nothing.
  • The spark of motivation is personal, relatively small, and required often, but it is what powers the engine of success. Under the hood of your car sits the power source. It is a complex machine and many parts and process must work in sync. For the sake of this topic let’s focus on just the spark plugs. They are small, cost almost nothing, and are absolutely vital. If they are not fired up at the right time, the engine sputters. Do yourself a favor. Find out what drives the people who work for you and make sure you keep it fired up. Your engagement with your associates must be personal. For God’s sake, do not send a general email when you should send a personal one. Better yet, don’t send an email at all. Get up out of your chair, walk out of your office, leave you normal range and go over to that person, look right at them, and tell them yourself.
  • Don’t just quote facts and figures. Knowing how short the numbers are against the week’s goals never pushed anyone’s button. Knowing how much you notice how well that person has done works wonders. It is the spark that fires the plug that energizes the engine that moves the gears that drive the wheels that get the car to its destination.
  • Celebrate each and every win. Be careful about the “Did you do this too’s?” How easy it is to kill the enthusiasm. It goes like this. One of your salesmen sells a whole house appliance package and the first words out of your mouth are, “Why didn’t you sell the extended warranties too?” There is no way to walk that back. You’ve said it, it has conveyed the message that you disapprove and that the salesman should have done better.  This is ineffective leadership at its worst. You have just turned a win into a loss. If you must, find some other way to talk about up-sales some other time.
  • It is entirely possible to be efficient while eroding effectiveness. A focused approach to sales and numbers may demonstrate your grasp of charts and quotas, but in the end, those who are the most productive will slow their efforts, reduce their productivity, and find a way out. Effective leaders are committed to releasing energy and ability within the people they lead. Managers tend to look at processes and statistics first and foremost.

What about you? What ways have you found to fire the spark? What have you seen or even experienced yourself that neutralizes motivation and productivity?

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