You’re Employees Aren’t Like You

birds in mirror

October 9, 2016: This week’s essay takes a look at the personnel issues of trying to scale a company. A young entrepreneur inspired this; he wonders why his employees are not always eager to take on more responsibility. He’s trying to scale to meet customer demand, and he’s running into a common problem I have experienced many times.

It is not unusual for an employee who is performing well per a current job description to be rather content at that level. You are the hard-charging entrepreneur who is thinking big and working excessively to accomplish your mission. But, you may well have on your team a number of people who share your vision and are reliable and loyal but didn’t sign up for the rocket ride. They may be reluctant to expand their job responsibilities, to manage more junior people, or to do anything much aside from their routine. While you’re awash in customer demands and ever intensifying pressure to satisfy them, your employee may just be performing a job within limits and be far more attuned to other life interests.

There can be many reasons for this, especially in a town like Austin. Your workforce is likely to be very young and always to be in demand. They have easy options if you give them challenges they don’t want. And, they live in a town where distraction was invented, whether it’s outdoors activities or nighttime live music. It’s a very high-energy city, but that energy is spread across all facets of life choices. One is less likely to find the killer instinct that dominates the Valley workforces centered on being the smartest person in the room.

Many things can be going on in your employees’ lives that are far more important to them than the job. They may be finding a mate, starting a family, training for triathlons, pursuing more education, or involved in charitable or professional organizations. There’s a relevant meetup of some sort nearly every waking hour, and no one has an excuse for down time in this environment. You’re competing for time and mindshare with literally thousands of alternatives every week.

Keep in mind that money can be a de-motivator but rarely a motivator. That’s an old saw that still holds true. If you give options and a big raise, you won’t change the basic effort of someone whose priorities are not 100% work focused. You want to keep your best employees paid on par with the market to avoid the pain of turnover, but you won’t change their fundamental job satisfaction with a few more bucks headed their way.

Also realize that as you grow, say from 10 to 20 employees, you run into “span of control” issues and need to layer up with some junior management levels. Many people do not like managing others, period. Or, they’re just not good at it. It’s not what they bargained for. They want to do their own job well and not share the burdens of others. If that wasn’t part of the picture you painted when you brought them in, they may feel unqualified. You can’t assume your platoon leaders will be found among your first 10 employees.

There’s also a question of confidence. You are probably a pretty bold leader, and you are not risk averse. Your employees, on the other hand, may just be ingrained to work for someone and collect a regular W2 paycheck. It’s what their parents and grandparents did and how they enjoyed satisfying lives while never missing a PTA meeting. There are no entrepreneurial genes in their family trees. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; all mindsets are needed for our startups to function and for them to scale, but it’s dangerous to overload employees beyond their confidence levels. And, yes I mean confidence and not competence.

What then are some practical ways to deal with this dilemma? Here are a few suggestions:

Assume that your next 10 hires will make or break your company’s potential. Perhaps your first 10 are performing well at the jobs for which they were hired, so, even if they have hit their ceilings, you don’t want to punish them, replace them, or lose their important skills that have gotten you this far. If your managers are to come from the next 10, put that at the top of your hiring criteria and pay very close attention to the cultural fit. There will be some dicey times as the new folks learn to appreciate and complement the pioneers, and vice versa. For those that are interacting with customers, pay especially close attention to the transition.

Also key on your hiring criteria is a calculation of leadership potential. This is hard to measure, and not the same as management, but one good hire who is really fired up can infect the entire team with enthusiasm. I’m not saying that will offset all the innate limitations described above, but it might draw out an extra 10% of effort at crunch time when it really makes a difference. You see this a lot in sports. At this time of year we repeatedly get to see how on the field individual leadership in football translates into better team play.

This is a good juncture to think carefully about how you allocate tasks in your company and what types of employees best match up with them. If you’re next 10 hires are brought on to do more of the same as the first 10, you are probably overlooking a better way to organize for the work at hand. Our tech startups aren’t assembly lines; they require creativity and interpersonal skills along with technical proficiency. The time you apply to defining the jobs for your growth spurt will be time very well spent. You’ve likely pivoted a few times along the way and repurposed some of your original hires accordingly. Now you have a chance to make sure that your new crop is fully aligned with the current pivot. You may discover that your top ten hiring criteria are quite different than what has previously been your norm.

And, most important, always keep in mind that if the persons you hired were as motivated as you, they’d be doing their own startups and not sitting in your cubes.

<Image of 4 weeks old baby budgerigar siblings, 2 of wich are albinos, held in front of a mirror, photo by St. Nerol, in Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons>