As a business matures, so will its entrepreneur

  • By James McCusker Business 101
  • Tuesday, August 13, 2013 2:17pm

Every startup that survives and grows will change. It is in the nature of things. The task of the entrepreneur is to hold the business together and provide the energy and direction to guide the organization through these changes. A significant part of that task involves motivating others and molding them into a team.

In the startup stage of a business, the most important motivating force comes directly from the entrepreneur. He or she has to communicate the energy and excitement of the new enterprise — sharing the dream, in other words — and, most importantly, how each person involved is critical to its success.

The entrepreneur normally is hand-picking each new worker in this stage, and should make telling the story of the company’s origins and goals, and seeing the candidate’s response, part of every pre-employment interview.

In most circumstances, motivation problems are not a significant issue in the startup stage. The enterprise will lose some people, though, and if that is not dealt with properly it can create a problem that did not previously exist.

People will leave the team and the business for a variety of reasons, very often because of changes in their circumstances. It is important for the entrepreneur to be supportive of the worker’s decision, and make every effort to have them leave recognizing that it was special to have been a part of the team. That belief will color the atmospherics of their departure, minimize any morale or demotivating effects of their quitting and will help to build the firm’s reputation as a great place to work.

More growth for the enterprise will mean that the star player adopts the role of team captain. The primary motivational tools remain example, energy and enthusiasm. What changes is that tactical and strategic decisions begin to take more time. More care must be taken to ensure that decisions are understood and always directed at success.

As the business grows, the job of the entrepreneur-team captain becomes more of a player manager — still there on an everyday basis and prepared to jump in to get a job done, but does so less and less often. The primary motivational force still comes from personal energy, commitment and example, but the route of this force changes somewhat.

It is very important at this stage to recognize that the team will not totally welcome this change. With a combination of nostalgia for the old days and unconscious resistance to change, members of the team will be unhappy — some more than others.

What is important at this stage is to remember what brought this team together and made it successful thus far: being part of an exciting new enterprise. The player-manager should bring the team in on what his or her job is all about now. It is useful to start with your most trusted workers, with the expectation that their improved understanding will work its way throughout the team.

This is also the time to develop some good communications habits. One is to ensure that people are aware of important changes and decisions. Meetings with your team, however you schedule them, should be treated as a sacred duty. Don’t be late and don’t skip them. This shows a relationship-poisoning disrespect that is extremely difficult to repair.

In the latter stages of growth, as the entrepreneur shifts from player-manager to manager-CEO, a more concentrated effort has to be made to keep everyone focused on the goals and motivated to achieve them.

The most successful way to do this is to reduce the distance between CEO and team members and here attitude is crucial. If you are not good at remembering names, become so, whatever it takes. A number of prominent CEOs with public reputations for being “difficult” maintained great team spirit and motivation in their businesses by remembering people’s names and what was important to them — children, anniversaries, birthdays, a relative’s health, etc.

You should also participate in as many employment interviews and exit interviews as you can possibly fit into your schedule. Your presence will mean a lot to the candidates and to your own organization, and you can learn a lot about your business, too.

Taking a genuine interest in your workers cannot be successfully faked. If you don’t have it, or if you lost it on the business survival battlefields, hire someone who does, and make sure that the entire team knows that he or she enjoys your full confidence.

In motivating workers in today’s difficult environment, your best friend is empathy: what would motivate you if you worked for the business? Think about it, then make sure that it happens. It’s as easy, and as difficult, as that.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on motivation as a business grows.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached at

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