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Companies change, not business fundamentals

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By James McCusker
Business 101
Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
  • James McCusker

    James McCusker

The battle of Agincourt was fought in northern France nearly 600 years ago, but is still studied by military historians and a few of the more discerning business schools.
Its importance in military history stems from its lessons in deployment of forces as well as the organizational structure and culture that affects strategy, tactics and the use of intelligence. Its importance in business comes from its lessons in the value of motivation as well as the way it is achieved.
Agincourt, which is not far from Calais and the English Channel, was where the French intended to block the small army of Henry V from returning to England and instead destroy it.
The French forces were fresh and outnumbered the English by more than four to one, a huge advantage in the days when hand-to-hand combat still dominated the battlefield. The English troops were tired from an all-night march, soaking wet from torrential rains overnight, shivering in the late October cold and hungry, for they had run out of food. All in all, they were pretty dispirited.
Then things changed. Henry began to speak.
Motivating others is one of those things that is simple without being easy. Underneath its simplicity it is as complex as anything involving human behavior. Fortunately, there are some fundamentals, and if we get those right the odds begin to shift in our favor.
Nowhere are those fundamentals more vividly illustrated than in the stark reality of Agincourt and in the mother of all motivational addresses, the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” Even though its Elizabethan style is unfamiliar to modern ears, it is almost impossible to hear this speech without being moved. And embedded in the text are the three fundamentals of any motivational talk, whether standing in front of an audience of several thousand or talking one-to-one over coffee.
Taking them in the order in which they appear in the St. Crispin’s Day speech, they are:
You have what it takes to do the job: The sorry state of morale in Henry’s troops had infected the officers as well. His generals begin whining and wishing for more help, but Henry says if they are destined to win, “the fewer men, the greater share of honor.” He believed, he knew that they could win, and his confidence is contagious; so much so that the chief whiner eventually says to Henry that he wishes just the two of them, alone, were there to do the job.
The job is worth doing: Instead of emphasizing the tight fix they are in, Henry speaks of the battle’s importance, of the glory and honor that will be theirs after they win. He says that they will be remembered every St. Crispin’s Day, and that others will envy them … “And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”
We’re all in this together: Henry breaks down the barriers between king and noblemen, nobility and commoner, with a few short lines. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Henry also bonds the group together and reinforces their confidence by ordering that “he which hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart … We would not die in that man’s company.”
These fundamentals worked for Henry V in the muddy fields of Agincourt — the English won despite the odds. They worked for legendary coach Vince Lombardi on the frozen football fields of Green Bay, Wis. And there is no doubt that they will work for you, too. Most times the gap between potential and performance in a business organization is due to motivation. There is more to effective motivation than these fundamentals, of course, but there is no better way to begin.
Usually, business startups do not encounter motivational issues, but as a company grows things change. As a CEO’s responsibilities grow, the problems he or she works on become more abstract and complex in nature. Both of these characteristics are communications killers. Keep it simple, anecdotal if possible, and focus on how each individual plays an important part in the success of the business.
Forget money as a motivating force because it isn’t a good one. Monetary incentives, in particular, frequently encourage the wrong kind of behavior, sometimes even the opposite of what you intended. Make your compensation decisions based on fairness, competitiveness and productivity and you won’t be disappointed.
The desire to be part of a vibrant, successful enterprise is a stronger motivational force. And stronger still is the desire to be needed and to be recognized as contributing to the team’s success. Make sure that you appreciate and recognize the effort that people are making and the old management rule — praise in public, criticize in private — still works.
No one on the team will ever have the vision, the total picture of the company, as it is and as it can be, that you have. A major part of your job is to share that vision in ways that are meaningful to everyone on the team.
Above all, don’t ever say anything that you don’t believe or that you know to be untrue. In politics, people can recover from that but in real life it doesn’t work that way.
Lastly, remember the fundamentals of motivation: What we’re doing is important; we know we can do it; we’re all in this together and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached at
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