Best Leaders Are Internally Motivated

There was a post on the Harvard Business Review blog site about a recent leadership study – Why You Lead Determines How Well You Lead.

According to the study, people with an internal motivation to lead are more effective than those with external motivations. More surprising, a person who has a mix of internal and external motivations, does very poorly.

“As one might predict, we found that those with internal, intrinsic motives performed better than those with external, instrumental rationales for their service — a common finding in studies of motivation. We were surprised to find, however, that those with both internal and external rationales proved to be worse investments as leaders than those with fewer, but predominantly internal, motivations. Adding external motives didn’t make leaders perform better — additional motivations reduced the selection to top leadership by more than 20%. Thus, external motivations, even atop strong internal motivations, were leadership poison.

Many believe that the best way to influence behavior is to incentivize it, and such external incentives certainly work with lab rats. In our study, however, adding external incentives clearly did not improve leader performance.”

and later

“If those we seek to develop as leaders adopt external justifications for leading well — such as an increase in shareholder value, better pay or perquisites, or increased profits — they are likely to be less successful as leaders in comparison to those who seek to lead for more internal, intrinsic reasons alone.”

If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you probably can see where my mind is going here. These results made me wonder if non-profit leaders might not make the most effective leaders since internal motivation for doing the job is all but given.

Now remember, effective leader doesn’t necessarily equate to successful. This is a “if you are so smart, why ain’t you rich” situation. Non-profit organizations are notoriously underfunded and lack the resources to achieve the success they aspire to. Not to mention many are pursuing work which others won’t because there is no profit to be made.

Likewise non-profit leaders may make really stupid choices because there was never any time to properly develop and cultivate them throughout their careers. (Not that this type of grooming has kept their for-profit colleagues from making stupendous mistakes either.)

Yes, I am flirting with suggesting that for-profit corporations pull something akin to the movie Trading Places consider looking for effective leaders in non-profit organizations (sans the whole bet thing).

Yes, this regrettably will take talent out of the field, but it would put them in a place with greater resources to provide their leadership skills with more impact. Without maximizing shareholder value as a central goal, the general business environment may shift for the better. Though that might be as big a fantasy as the movie.

Info You Can Use: Netflix HR Policies and the Arts

Apparently Netflix Powerpoint presentation on human resources has been getting a lot of views this last month. I remember being able to read the accompanying article on Harvard Business Review at one time, but it seems to be protected by a registration requirement now.

The Powerpoint presentation can be viewed however and has some interesting lessons about employee relations for non-profit arts organizations. I will state outright that probably the biggest hurdle for arts organizations will be paying top dollar for top talent since the arts are often limited in their earning ability. However, given that arts people are often motivated by psychic income rather than monetary income, some of Netflix basic philosophy may apply.

Or perhaps having highly talented people working for you and following their ideas about jettisoning process and procedure can help you identify income streams needed to provide appropriate remuneration.

There are 126 slides so I can’t really summarize the whole presentation, but I wanted to talk about a few that stuck out.

Slides 4-18 talk about the values of Netflix making it clear that their view is that the true values of any company aren’t what they say they value on paper, but what employee activities are actually rewarded. A company says they value integrity, but punish a whistleblower, then that is not a true company value.

This is something to think about when writing your organizational values and mission statement. It almost seems best to be like the college campus that only puts in sidewalks when they see where the students walk to get between buildings. It might be best to enumerate the values you do exhibit rather than the ones you aspire to–and then revise as you evince more constructive behavior.

The thing about Netflix HR policy that most companies might have a hard time implementing is in slide 22. “Adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” They want people who are performing at their best and give those who aren’t the boot, but in the nicest way possible.

In the article which is now behind a registration system, they talk about a woman who was a great producer, but as technological advances left her behind, she couldn’t conform so they sat her down. They make it sound like she was relived to be let go (and maybe the severance package is just that good).

It seems a little cold hearted, but it does show they are in earnest when they claim a commitment to only working with the top talent they can find. In the slides that follow, they talk more about that, saying they use the metric of who would they fight to keep if the person was being hired away. You keep those you would fight for and give severance to everyone else.

To be fair, they say the approach should go the other way (slide 27) and that every employee should periodically ask what their manager would do to keep them on if they gave their two weeks. Later in the slides, they say that interviewing with other firms while working for Netflix is not a sign of disloyalty, but a good way to discover your market value, just make sure you don’t reveal any corporate secrets. (slide 108)

In slide 38, they admit working for them is not for everyone. They focus on results, so you don’t get an A for effort.

Where things get interesting is around slide 43. This is where they talk about why they are so focused on only keeping the most talented people. They note how companies often start curtailing freedom as they get bigger and more complex. Companies will add processes, but Netflix says that is only a short term solution because they lose their ability to be flexible (slide 51-61) in the face of change.

The solution is to increase the level of talent in your organization faster than complexity, that way you have self-disciplined, creative people working for you who don’t require tons of processes to keep them reined in.

This is the part I felt was most applicable to the arts. The conversation these days focuses on how inflexible arts organizations are at responding to the changing operating environment. Yet we have some of the most talented, creative people working for us. Small arts groups are nimble, but as they grow and become established, they generally seem to become less flexible. The size and desire for job stability by the employees has frequently been identified as prime culprits.

But according to Netflix you can have growth, organizational flexibility and job stability, so perhaps it is the processes that are to blame.

The next slide was the one that intrigued me most:

not so creative


That last line implying it is better to be flexible enough to recover from a problem rather than having rules to prevent them really caught me off guard. And in the slides that follow (63-71) they give examples of good and bad processes and discuss how their famous “take whatever vacation time you want” policy came into being. (Slide 67 is essentially the thesis)

But the idea that it is better for creative environments to take errors in stride and move past them echoes the oft expressed idea that artists and arts organizations shouldn’t fear making mistakes and taking risks because it is integral to self-development.

There are some interesting slides on employee relations, providing context rather than attempting to control (81-87). I don’t want to get into summarizing that because I wanted to tackle their compensation policy.

Their philosophy is that the compensation for each person is individual and they should be paying top market price for that person. And that they shouldn’t wait until an annual review to award an increase in compensation if they realize they are not paying top dollar, they should do so immediately.

Compensation is not dependent on Netflix success.  (96-104) They are against giving raises based on job title (what are all other marketing directors getting? Not all people with that title are of the same quality), or giving across the board percentage raises, or practicing internal parity (everyone in the department/seniority get paid the same).

For Netflix, monetary compensation is everything. I imagine that is because they are hiring people who are both very talented and motivated by the idea monetary compensation is everything.

For arts organizations, it is probably possible with some thought to find non-monetary rewards that motivate employees along the same philosophical lines utilized by Netflix. Perhaps flex time, access to facilities and supplies to exercise their creativity, use of organization owned housing for out of town guests at Christmas, etc.

Given the idea that compensation level is personal to each individual, the opportunities provided to each person may be different. An administrator and a receptionist may end up making the same salary because the administrator values being able to use the ceramic studio to create works they can sell over being paid more.

If you subscribe to their philosophy that A level results for B level effort gains you greater responsibility and compensation that will allow you to grow within the company, then a receptionist who has made great contributions could be promoted to the marketing department.

But then you potentially run into the area that takes the most courage–letting go of a mediocre producer in the marketing department. If there are a couple of stars in the marketing department who have the potential of heading up a new endeavor that will earn more revenue, that’s great, shuffle them off to better things. But you might as easily need to let someone go to get the best talent into marketing.

Netflix philosophy assumes everyone working for them is motivated to advance. I don’t recall if they covered this in the slides or the article, but I suspect if someone declined to be promoted, they might be viewed as too timid for the company’s ambitions and content to invest B effort to generate A work.

This may be just as true for an employee of an arts organization, but much more difficult to discern because the person could value the work/life balance afforded by their position so they can spend time with family or artistic pursuits. You might never find someone who can produce as well as they can working 25 hours a week and they may stick with you for the next 10 years. It can be tougher to discern in the arts and tougher to find the resolve to cut mediocre people loose.

But I suppose allowing for employee work-life balance is why Netflix has the very liberal “no-vacation policy” vacation policy. They probably understand that those needs are just as individual as compensation.

Caring, Rather Than Money, Makes The World Go Round

There was a Slate article today covering research on motivating employees that seemed well-aligned with the non-profit work environment. The research essentially verifies the importance of providing recognition and a sense of meaning to employees.

Researchers found that small gifts, rather than money, motivated people to work harder. They told one group of workers they would receive 7 euros more in pay than they had been promised when they were recruited. Another group was given a gift wrapped water bottle worth 7 euros and the control group was given no bonus. The cash bonus didn’t inspire any improvement, but those receiving the bottle were 25% more productive than those in the other two groups. The article notes that this increase in productivity more than paid for the 7 euro expenditure.

(my emphasis)

It’s not that the workers particularly loved their bottles—in fact, in a separate experiment in which catalogers were offered the choice between a bottle versus 7 euros, 80 percent took the cash (and still worked a lot harder). Rather, it was the thought that counted, and simply handing out a few more euros hardly takes much thought. Even offering the option of a gift showed that the employer cared.

An intriguing final version of the experiment underscored the importance, in the eyes of the employees, of the thought and effort bosses put into their gifts. This time, the cash was delivered as a 5-euro note folded into an origami shirt and a 2-euro coin with a smiley face painted on it. The origami money-gift generated the highest increase in productivity of all…

The study isn’t without its limitations. It’s hard to imagine that the average Wall Street trader would work harder for a pink Cadillac than a six-figure bonus. The motivational effects of cash surely become more important when the stakes get higher, and gifts probably work best when tailored to the particular set of employees. That’s how you really show you care.

And that, more than gifts versus cash, is really the study’s takeaway. Many employees toiling away in stores, factories, and cubicles are desperate for a sense of meaning in their work lives. Even the smallest gesture of kindness that shows they’re part of an organization that actually cares can give them purpose—and that leads to motivation.

It is widely recognized that people who work in non-profits do so because they valued the purpose and meaning they find in their work. Invoking the obvious disclaimer that it shouldn’t be a substitute for paying people a living wage, a boss providing some validation that what motivates that employee is valued and recognized can keep that person energized.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that the gifts that exhibited the most effort on the bosses’ part elicited the strongest effort on the employees’ part. For all the technology that may separate us, the work environment is still a communal experience and each person wants to know that the others are expending effort and thought on their behalf.

In many respects, this goes back to the post I made last week about the early warning signs that things are amiss with your company. When the board, upper management and lower echelons are each convinced the others are invested and working hard to keep the organization viable, that knowledge permeates that whole organization without anyone giving voice to that fact.

And the absence of that unity will begin to manifest itself in some intangible way as well.

What If They Don’t Want To Be An Executive Director?

On the Harvard Business Review blog site, Anne Kreamer asks “What If You Don’t Want to Be a Manager?” (h/t Daniel Pink) where she talks a little about the alienation one might feel moving from being a producer of material to a manager. While she talks about an experience in a corporate environment, it was easy to see the same situation cropping up in the arts when someone moves from creating content to producing revenue reports and reviewing labor laws.

One of the options Kreamer suggests, other than leaving the company and striking out on your own, revolves around changing the existing work environment. It was her last two sentences that resonated with me (thus my emphasis).

This is something more companies need to address. To remain globally competitive, organizations need to devise innovative ways to encourage and reward creativity. The unorthodox titles embraced by start-ups — directors of fun, ministers of information — can seem ridiculous, but the emphasis on improvising new ways of doing business is important. Furthermore, research conducted by Office Team found that 76% of employees did not want their boss’s job. If employees are no longer responding to the old carrots, it’s time for companies to establish new means of rewarding talent.

This reminded me of the Daring to Lead and Ready to Lead reports I had written on in the past that reported young arts leaders were chomping at the bit to gain greater responsibility in their arts organization, but didn’t necessarily want to assume an executive role.

It got me to thinking that while there is a lot of discussion about exploring new business models for arts organizations like the B Corporation and L3C, maybe there needs to be a corresponding discussion about changing arts job descriptions so that people actually want to assume the roles.

Two issues that seem to rise to the top for executive directors is work-life balance and that the position seems 75% about fundraising and increasing. It may be time to institutionalize the idea that marketing and development aren’t the sole province of those departments by spreading the responsibility around in job descriptions.

I have read a lot of criticism of Michael Kaiser’s ideas, but I have never seen anyone say he is wrong when he advocates for paying attention to the interests of potential donors and connecting them with your corresponding needs rather than viewing them as the source of a lot of money to answer the need you have prioritized.

With the proper training and expectations declared at the outset, marketing, education and artistic staff could take a more proactive role in identifying, engaging and meeting with donors than they do at present. Hopefully freeing the executive director to balance their personal and professional lives, improve their job satisfaction, connect back with the parts of the organization that excite them, and perhaps encourage others to crave their position.

The same can obviously be done with marketing where development, education and artistic, etc. are more active in expressing and advancing the organizational message.

I think people are already cognizant of this interdependent need based on a Twitter exchange between Adam Thurman, Howard Sherman and others this past September.


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