I regularly facilitate McKinsey & Company’s Bower Forums - a program in which typically five company leaders spend two days together sharing their professional aspirations, the challenges they face, and coaching each other.
I remember one discussion when a recently appointed CEO of a large healthcare firm shared his ambition to transform his organization into the most prestigious and profitable firm in the industry. His ambition was exciting and appealing to most in the room, and he conveyed it with energy, conviction, and passion. Asked about the challenges he was facing, he cited lack of engagement of his middle management and front-line staff.
The other CEOs listened, and jumped to provide advice, until one – a rather senior and accomplished CEO – asked: “Why? Why should your people get to work every morning to make the company more prestigious and more profitable?”
Everyone in the room looked at him and there was a moment of silence.
Then he continued: “You see, your management team may be excited by your ambition and energy, but most people in the organization may not. You are leading a healthcare organization, which employs mostly medically trained staff. Some of them probably chose that profession because they care for patients, and want to make other people’s lives better. Some others in your organization may see the company as a place where they can learn and develop. Some others may just want the safety of good and stable job. However, you are only speaking to those – and they are probably a minority – who want to work in a prestigious and highly profitable firm”.
This conversation is not atypical. Often company leaders fail to engage their people because they fail to understand what drives the people they lead.
They seldom ask the question “What anxieties or concerns may they have? What are their “inner motivators”? What do my people value?”. They often project their own ambitions and motivations onto others, and so often miss the mark.
Inspiring company leaders understand how to tap into diverse sources of meaning for all the people they lead, and can mobilize larger parts of the organization.
Some people want to make the world a better place. They are inspired when their leaders promise, for instance, to fight injustice, to help the ones in need, or to look after future generations or nature.
Some people are motivated by helping and serving others. They get inspired when they hear stories of helping patients live longer, or when someone says “thank you! You made a difference to me”. Some are motivated by working in a prestigious, respected, and successful organization, inspired by its achievements and successes, with which they seek to be associated.
Further, some wish to work in a caring and humane environment, and appreciate the sense of belonging to a team of colleagues.
Some care about themselves - the safety a job provides, or as a learning and growth opportunity. For others a job is just a job.
Inspiring company leaders understand how to tap into diverse sources of meaning for all the people they lead, and can mobilize larger parts of the organization. In doing so, they create energy, excitement, and commitment in people who then go beyond normal to deliver.
So how can company leaders learn about the motivations of the people they lead?
Fundamentally and simply: by taking an interest in them, by asking questions, by listening, by observing.
This doesn’t stop at the level of the 10-20 people they directly lead.
For inspirational leadership to be effective, the leader must be authentic and “walk the talk.”
They can go further into the organization to try to understand what motivates the middle managers, the front-line people, the employees in the back office, the ones in research and development, the ones in manufacturing, and so on.
Meeting people across the organization and using engagement surveys can provide helpful hints to understand what motivates employees.
But it is important that the interest in others is genuine. For inspirational leadership to be effective, the leader must be authentic and “walk the talk.” This means truly caring for those whose motivations you are addressing, and being prepared to do yourself what you are asking others to do.
About Claudio Feser
Claudio Feser is a Senior Partner in the Zurich office of McKinsey & Company. He is the leader of McKinsey Academy, a practice of the firm that focuses on helping organizations develop leaders. He is the author of the books Serial Innovators: Firms that Change the World and When Execution Isn’t Enough: Decoding Inspirational Leadership, both published by John Wiley & Sons in 2011 and 2016 respectively.