When I started my company, Journyx, 13 years ago, I had no idea what I was getting into. I am a programmer and technology geek by nature and I left my programming job to start my own company with nothing but an idea and a dream. Back then, I did not have the experience needed to effectively manage people. I had to learn these skills through trial and error, and I had to learn them fast in order to keep the company going. After all, human resources are a company's most valuable asset.
Over the years, I have done every job there is in the company. I’ve been the accountant, the software developer, the marketing and PR professional, the testing department, integration services, customer technical support and sales. I have lost sleep when we were close to missing payroll, watched as competitors copied our software bit for bit and lied about us to prospects, and then celebrated along with hard-working employees as we achieved success. Here are some of the things I learned along the way about managing and motivating employees to reach their highest potential.
Businesses today face fierce competition on all sides, regardless of industry. The only way to survive in such an environment is to be relentlessly creative. New products, services and ideas are the best way to outshine the competition and win market share.
In order to keep creativity alive in a company, you have to surround yourself with different types of people. Forget partnerships, listen to your customers, and hire high school kids, foreigners, people from other races and religions, and Martians, if you can find them. Different people bring different perspectives to the table, something you need not only to succeed, but merely to survive. The truth is that no matter how smart you are, you cannot be as innovative as you need to be if only surrounded by people just like you.
Here in Austin, Texas, we have the luxury of proximity to the University of Texas. From this well of intellect we continually draw for ideas and young energetic labor. It is a well that never runs dry. In the past, we have hired interns to work on both marketing and legal projects, depending on their area of study. Since Journyx is a technology company and UT has a computer science department, we also hire IT people and developers. Not only do they bring a fresh perspective during their internships, but if they are a good fit, they can remain with us upon graduation and become a long-term asset to the company. If not, they can at least get a letter of recommendation and some real-world experience to put on their resumes. It is a win-win situation.
When I hire employees, I want to make sure that their performance will be high quality. Ten years ago, I was looking for a Python programmer. Instead of going through a recruiter, I Google-searched and found a programmer who lived literally 2 miles from the office. I analyzed his code online and thought he would be a good fit for the company, so I called him and asked if he could come to the office for an interview—immediately. No need to dress up. My Google-searched programmer passed with flying colors by showing his passion for programming and his ability to take constructive criticism. He’s still with us today. His work in software got him a job, not a degree (in fact, he doesn’t have one).
We have several writers on staff and with these positions, we rely on a writing test to see if they can write in the style we are looking for. These tests prove to be more helpful than their writing samples from school. We also do a psychology test to see if a potential employee will fit in well in our environment.
Another key to effective resource management is to be flexible about allowing employees time off for extracurricular activities, such as college or graduate school classes. For example, we have an employee at Journyx who is currently working on her bachelor’s degree in social work, which has nothing to do with her work at Journyx, and we know that we will lose her upon graduation. Even so, we allow her to take off the time that she needs to accommodate classes, internships and other requirements. I look at it this way: she is important to me as a person, not just an employee, and I do not want to hold back her education even though her career choice has nothing to do with furthering the interests of Journyx. It’s vital to take a vested interest in not only your company and its profits, but also the people who make up that company.
Alternatively, what your employees do outside of work can be directly beneficial for the company. For example, my all-star Python programmer has started numerous little companies on the side, which have educated him in user interface. He uses this knowledge to improve projects at Journyx.
Your employees have lives outside of the office, and the more you recognize this and support them in the things that matter to them, the more loyal and productive they will be in return.
Build People Up
I learned a long time ago that I can only be a mentor when I know what I’m talking about, which is not everywhere. Having said that, I’m good at lots of things and when those things are relevant, I try to step in and help. I’ve found that when I roll my sleeves up and dig in alongside an employee who needs some help, they see that I care about them and in turn, that makes them care more about the company and the job they’re doing.
One way I help my employees find their hidden talents is by getting out of their way. I don’t micro manage. Instead, I notice rare skills and I enable them to take it to the next level. I find that when I stay out of the way and let my staff pursue their interests, they end up taking on more responsibility. Interns who started out in data entry begin using their writing skills to create original content; sales representatives turn into trainers and get involved in multiple projects; and programmers become team leads inspiring their staff with motivational daily meetings and creating a team atmosphere. When an employee has an idea of how to make the company better, let them run with it. The results may surprise you.
It’s important to let employees know when they are doing a good job, as well. I like the phrase, "catch people doing something right" because it expresses the best way to mentor. And as the author Napoleon Hill stated, “It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.” Encourage people to do more of what they're good at. Find their hidden talents. There’s no point in spending lots of time telling people where they've messed up.
Think Outside the Box
One of the most difficult tasks for a manager is to keep employees motivated, especially during tough times. It can be especially difficult to do this when money is tight and bonuses are not an option. A couple of years ago, I decided to do something creative and different in order to motivate our sales team. I bet them that they would not exceed their quota for Q1 by 33% and promised that if they did, I would dye my hair blue. Well, the sales team did not exceed their quota by 33%—they actually blew the doors off and beat their numbers by 45%. Since I lost the bet, I held up my end of the bargain and dyed my hair neon blue for a week .(My wife has since forbidden me to do this again, so I will have to come up with something else next time.) It’s also important to remember that you can’t take yourself too seriously.
I motivate my employees by focusing on the bigger picture of the company. People don’t really stay at a place of employment just for the money. There are many ways someone can earn an extra buck in their pocket: why should they stay at your company? If a worthy purpose is identified and acknowledged, employees are much more likely to stay with that company and feel happy about their work. People want to be recognized for the good that they do, not just in the company, but with the customers they serve. It’s not about satisfying an annoying shareholder, it’s about working for a greater cause. At Journyx, I introduce our message of spending time wisely in the first interview. I also bring it up in meetings when the conversation has fallen in a rut and use it to inspire my staff in large company meetings. I see a positive attitude change when the conversation turns from how to increase ROI to how can we help potential and future customers invest their time wisely and have productive, useful lives.
As you can see, there are many ways that managers today can keep employees happy and their performance high. All it takes is a little understanding and the willingness to try new things. The investment for such initiatives is low, but the return just might surprise you.