Motivation – Please handle with care!

by | Sep 1, 2021

Back in the early 80’s, I worked in an advertising agency that employed around eighty people. The company’s steady record of growth over twenty-five years meant it was regularly included on the shortlist by clients looking to change agency and it was seen as a ‘safe place to work.’ In other words, in an industry notorious for volatility, my colleagues and I worked there secure in the knowledge that our jobs were pretty well redundancy-proof.

Secure, safe, no worries. What could possibly go wrong?

The CEO was one of those calm, reassuring, cheerful guys, always ready to stop by for a chat, he was interested in our work but rarely critical or interfering. We all felt trusted by a man who was, in turn, respected and genuinely liked.

Then one day, a regular, relatively panic-free kind of day, the CEO arrived on our floor, walked past us and out of the other door without even saying Hello. He was clearly engrossed in the paper in his hand.

Within no time, word had gone around the entire building that some kind of disaster had struck, we were going bust, our largest client had fired us, the end was nigh. I was asked to go and see the CEO.

As it turned out, there was no crisis, all was well; the chairman asked him for a copy of a memo he had mislaid, and he had decided to deliver it himself. He was rereading it, nothing more. (Believe it or not, long, long ago, there really did exist a world without emails.)

Now, what can we learn from this perfectly true anecdote?

Lesson 1: In a high-pressure environment – ad agencies are a classic example, long hours, unrealistic deadlines – even the most outwardly secure people’s level of motivation is fragile and needs constant care and attention. Job security and motivation are not the same thing.

Lesson 2: You are being watched. Your people take many of their cues from you, their leader. Your mood and, more importantly, your mood swings can have a dramatic effect on their motivation, on their level of attention and thus on their productivity. Yes, I know this all sounds crazy but it’s a fact. You are just going to have to live with it.

Lesson 3: It’s Motivation, with a capital M, that lies at the heart of your future business success. This is how it works: it starts with you, you infect your team and they, in turn, infect your customers. And when it is working, your customers keep on coming back for more.

Lesson 4: It goes without saying that the opposite is true. A demotivating leader, at every level, has a disproportionately negative effect on the team, which in turn transmits itself, loud and clear, to your customers. Think about it – how often do you go back to the same store, even when their prices are a bit higher because the people there make you enjoy the experience.

In a future blog, I will invite you to explore the power of passion in business.

Motivation – a user’s guide

What do we mean by motivation? Motivation is not one-size-fits-all, an off-the-shelf product. You can’t buy motivation online. And it is most certainly not a same-day delivery product.

Because motivation is purely what we often call ‘right-brain’. It’s a feeling that is personal to each of us.

There is nothing ‘left-brain’ i.e. logical, about it. Motivation is emotional, hard to tie down and it is most vulnerable among more right-brain people, the creatives, the innovators.

And, because we are dealing with human beings here, perverse, complex, infuriating human beings, we find that different people are motivated in different ways.

Let us start with you, dear leader. What motivates you? What gets you going, what floats your boat? What makes you, genuinely, look forward to tomorrow’s unpredictable challenges at the end of a hard, frustrating day?

  • Is it the money you earn? Your package, that tantalising end-of-year bonus, share options, the nice car, that nicer suit?
  • Is it the annual profit target that will keep your backers, your bank on board?
  • Is it the need to prove yourself out there in the market after years of dancing to someone else’s tune?
  • Or is it the knowledge that you are helping to build something rather special? A product, a service, a technological advance, a breakthrough even? A team.
  • Is that by offering your customers something that really does meet their expectations, and on occasion exceeds them, and keeps them coming back for more?

Because that is the exact same variety of emotional responses you will discover in your staff.

  • Yes, some of them will be there for the money, for the challenge of beating the others to the bonus, the next promotion. They like the old ‘carrot-and-stick’ style of leadership. They will work their backs off to meet targets, deliver on time or earlier. But will the customers love them? Maybe not, as they often appear a bit hard sell, pushy. And if a competitor makes them a better offer, they will be off. They are loyal to themselves, not to you or the company.
  • The people who will really drive your business forward are there because they feel a sense of purpose, they feel trusted and respected by a leader or leaders whose prime motivation, whose vision, whose behaviour they find motivating. This is often expressed as work having meaning, a word yesterday’s leaders would hardly recognise.

Whatever motivates you, the leader, will have a direct effect on the culture of your team. If you are seen to be only in it for the money, you can be sure your people will do everything they can to earn themselves a pay rise, promotion, a bigger office, a smarter desk.

At the expense of dedication to quality, of customer service, of team spirit, of the firm’s reputation. That slope can be very slippery.

A couple of stories, often told, still so true today

Back in 1969, all the buzz in the aviation world was about the forthcoming commercial launch of Boeing’s revolutionary new aircraft, the 747, the first jumbo jet.

A US tv channel reporter had spent the day filming a progress report at Boeing’s Everett factory in the state of Washington, at that time the world’s largest building by volume.

He spotted an elderly man wearing white overalls coming on shift, carrying a broom and heading for the stairs up to the control room.

The reporter had a couple of minutes to spare so he hailed the old man.

“Excuse me, could I ask you a couple of questions?”

The man stopped and turned round. “What do you want to know?”

“How long have you been doing this job?”

“Since the end of the war, 1945.”

“But you are just a cleaner. Why don’t you look for a better job?”

“Because, sir, I’m helping to build the greatest aircraft the world has ever seen,” came the answer.


That man didn’t come into work just to feed his family, or to make sure the control room was spotless. He came in because he felt part of something that mattered. And, despite his lowly status, he felt just as accepted by the rest of the team as the most skilled engineers.

On its website, Boeing states that its Vision Statement, or its Purpose if you prefer, is:

“designed to inspire and focus all employees on a shared future and to reaffirm that, together, we can meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

Which kind of says it all. First and foremost, they think about their own people. And they make sure their people are reminded of it at least three times a month. Not rammed down their throat – it just pops into their field of vision now and then.

As the brilliant Simon Sinek explains in his TED talk How great leaders inspire action,  Apple’s raison d’être, it’s Why, is the key to its success. Not its technology, nor its products, not its marketing, its Why. Apple’s Why what made us go out prepared to buy a phone, or a tv set or a watch from a computer company.

Apple’s Why is this:

(We are dedicated to) ‘bringing the best user experience to our customers through innovative hardware, software, and services’.

No mention of computers there, or phones or watches, or tv’s, just a promise to take what the others do and do it better – no, better than better, the best.

That motivated us – even though we know that every laptop, every phone, every tablet, every tv screen, every smartwatch does the same things – we also know that only Apple seeks to challenge the status quo in terms of the ‘user (your) experience’.

How motivating is that? No wonder Apple remains the choice of professionals, not only for their products’ excellent performance but for a thing called user experience.

As a result, Apple has come to mean something a little bit special. Why do most of us refer to our ‘phone’, while Apple users invariably call it their ‘iPhone’? They have been motivated, that’s why.

So here is your challenge

Try this out, or even better to ask a stranger to try it out, on your employees.

Ask them why they work for you and hear what they say.

See how many of them talk about your vision for the company?

How focused are your company’s vision, mission, and values on your employees?

How true are you, as their leader, to the vision, mission, and values? How often do you talk about it, reinforce it?

Go forth and motivate.

Simon is former CEO of the largest ad agency west of London, leadership mentor to directors at several multinational companies, leadership & change management course director at business schools in the UK and France. Author of three page-turner thrillers.