Success in a startup is not possible as a “one-man show.” An entrepreneur has to engage with team members, partners, investors, vendors, and customers. In my experience, the joy of positive engagement is sometimes the only pay you get in an early startup. Amazingly, many successful startups are built on this basis alone, with almost no money.
I will talk here primarily about building the internal team of a startup, but the same principles apply outside to your “extended team” and customers. I recommend the ten practical steps outlined by Bob Kelleher, in his classic book “Louder Than Words,” from his many years of experience in corporate environments. These are easily adaptable and equally relevant to the startup environment:
- Link high engagement to high performance. Don’t confuse engagement with satisfaction. The last thing you want is a team of satisfied but underperforming people. Kelleher defines engagement as “the unlocking of employee potential to drive high performance.” Set and reinforce high performance goals.
- Demonstrate engagement at the top. Leaders must demonstrate support for an engaged culture by personally living their company’s values. Then engage team members in tough decisions. In today’s recessionary times, leaders have large shadows – and team members are watching everything they do!
- Engage operational leaders first. Studies show that if one’s line manager is disengaged, his/her employees are four times more likely to be disengaged themselves. To stay engaged, I always practiced “management by walking around.” There is no better way to find out how engaged the rest of the team really is. It works at all levels.
- Focus on communication at all levels. If you neglect to articulate a clear vision of the future, expect only a minimum of energy to make it happen. Successful leaders provide robust communication, built on clarity, consistency, and repetition. It always amazed me as a leader how many repetitions were required before everyone heard the message.
- Individualize your engagement. Today’s leaders must tailor their communication approaches, rewards, and recognition programs to the unique motivational drivers of each employee. Communication must be tuned to the different generations, diverse groups, and each individual.
- Create a motivational culture. Long-term motivation comes from people motivating themselves, but you have to create the right culture. Leaders are more apt to get the discretionary extra effort of their team when they create a culture of empathy and concern about team members as real people!
- Facilitate and use feedback. For open and honest communication, your practices must include the means for that to happen. Entrepreneurs need to ask team members what they think, and then act on the feedback. The bases of feedback may be a suggestion box, social media, town hall meetings, or “open doors” all the way to the top.
- Reinforce and reward the right behaviors. Employees are incredibly motivated by achievement and recognition, more than money. Money can cause disengagement if team members perceive unfairness. On the other end of the performance spectrum, there must be consequences if you expect behavior to change.
- Track and communicate progress. Leaders need to reinforce progress real time and frequently, by telling their team members what is expected, how they’re performing, and where they fit in. These are key both for alignment of priorities and engagement.
- Hire and promote the right behaviors. Sometimes teams don’t have an engagement issue, so much as a hiring issue – hiring the wrong behaviors and traits to succeed in the startup culture. Also, promote only people who exemplify the behaviors that are most important to your success.
Always remember that your actions speak louder than your words or any written policies. Maximizing team engagement is the key to capturing that extra discretionary effort that separates winning startups from losing ones. This is a never ending responsibility that starts on day one. Are you living these steps today and every day?