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Volume 20 No. 41
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Keeping employees motivated: Communication, planning, commitment

How to motivate employees and staff is an important part of the curriculum we cover in the leadership course at Columbia. After an in-class discussion last year, I drafted the article based on my thoughts and suggestions from the class. I recommend the following to senior executives in the sports industry:

Share with your employees your vision and the vision of the organization. Give them a sense of ownership in the tactics and strategies the company will employ. At the same time, motivate by holding them accountable for their actions, by providing feedback and constructive criticism (and praise) so they can improve their performance. Employees welcome direct and personal attention from their superiors. If your company has an annual performance review procedure, embrace it.

Always use the pronoun “we” (rather than “I”) when talking about the strategy, plans, operations and performance of your unit, department, division or company. That demonstrates to your staff (and to outsiders) you believe in the value of the team and that success will be shared and enjoyed by the group.

Provide small benefits from time to time when appropriate or when requested by employees — a “work at home day,” an additional hour at lunch, snacks at meetings, the chance to earn additional compensation for extra work, free tickets, gift cards, complimentary services and promotional items given to the company, access to sports facilities for themselves and their families if available free or at low cost to the company.

Introduce subordinates to clients, take them to business meetings and include them in conference calls. These are very effective ways to motivate staff and incorporate them into the work ethic of your company.

Provide workshops and opportunities for employees to attend classes and meetings that enable them to upgrade their skills and work toward career goals.

Never overlook the importance of a “thank you” or “good job” expression of appreciation. Celebrate team and individual achievement with public praise and private support (notes, phone calls, face-to-face meetings). It’s so easy to do and so highly treasured by your staff. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” (Anonymous).

Set team targets and rewards for the various departments and units within your company. Create an environment where ideas are encouraged and shared. Welcome employee suggestions on how to improve the organization.

Sitting in on small-group meetings can show a manager’s interest in employees’ assignments.
Sit in on small-unit and department meetings from time to time to let them know your interest in their work assignments. Use the occasion to share your vision and plans for the future and the progress the company is making toward those goals.

Get to know your employees. Ask, “How are you doing?” (and mean it; you really do care). Spend time with them one on one, ask about their family, their background, their career goals and about any concerns they may have regarding the work place.

Keep the door to your office open whenever you can (a symbolic gesture that says a lot about your personality and willingness to listen and share), encourage staff to come and discuss matters, reply to employee and staff emails and phone calls, join brown-bag or in-office lunches, spend time at the water cooler. Be open, accessible and available, 24/7.

Let employees and staff know that if they bring a problem to your door, they must also be ready with thoughtful suggestions and ideas on how to solve the problem.

Don’t micromanage. Constantly looking over your employees’ shoulders tells them they are not trusted and they won’t take responsibility for their tasks. However, let them know that they will be judged by the quality and timeliness of their work and will be rewarded for their successes and held responsible for failure.

Support family involvement. Create a work space where families are invited to visit and learn about their family member’s job and the direction of the company. Companies that organize family outings, events and parties are more likely to keep their staff happy and will help educate their families about the time spent on the job.

Set up career guidance appointments. It is important for the organization to have a culture that promotes personal development and growth. Staff members need to feel that their skills are valued and they have the potential to grow.

Encourage your staff to hold a monthly meeting without the presence of senior management to discuss creative ideas and improvements for the unit. Each month, assign a different staff member to lead the meeting and to report to you on results. It is as important that your staff relate to each other as it is for them to relate to you. And it’s always appreciated if you supply coffee, soft drinks and snacks.

Don’t make decisions until you have to but then be decisive. Explain to your staff that an early or premature decision often fails to take into account new information and developments that could change or alter the final result. This means you keep a lot of balls in the air but having options and choices is the best way to run a company. Knowing when to make the final decision is the secret sauce.

Learn to be a good listener. It’s a more difficult skill than becoming a good speaker. Make good eye contact, smile, nod your head, lean towards the speaker (not away) and … learn.

Manage expectations. Yours, your staff and your superiors. Have the vision, but set deadlines and goals that are realistic and achievable because you and your unit most likely will be measured by whether you reach those targets, not by whether you achieve your vision. Employee morale can be hurt unnecessarily by failing to reach an unattainable goal.

Neal Pilson ( is president and founder of Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports.