5 Ways to Keep Your Small Business Team Motivated

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As a small business owner, you want to hire employees who are agile and adaptable as circumstances change. The smaller your business, the more critical this becomes. You need a team of people who can live without a clear job description and who won’t get stressed by the constant flow of events typical in a small, fast-growing company.

There is a downside to hiring these kinds of employees, however. Agility goes hand in hand with ambition, and your agile, ambitious team members will want to be pushed to grow through constant challenges. They’ll want a clear sense of how their careers might evolve. In a small business, that path can be hard to visualize.

I started out in my own career working for a major hotel chain. The standard career path in the industry was to move from management trainee to assistant front office manager to front office manager to hotel manager to general manager, corporate. By working hard and doing well, I was destined to follow this same path, as thousands had before me. However, in a small company, there may only be a half dozen full-time people on the team. It’s easy for employees to get the idea that someone will have to quit or die before they can move up.

As a business owner, you don’t want either of those things to happen. How, then, do you keep ambitious people motivated on a small team? Here are five tips:

1. Let Your Team Help Define What the Company Becomes

Having a small team does not mean that people can only advance so far. Give people the freedom to pursue new challenges and opportunities, even if they are outside the core business. If new directions emerge from these pursuits, create new positions and roles to go with them.

2. Help People Get Excited About Uncertainty

It is typical for entrepreneurs not to know what the company’s next big thing will be. This can be frustrating to team members who want a clear sense of what their next career steps will be. Tell employees honestly that you don’t know exactly what’s next, but that this is what makes the job exciting.

Part of the fun of entrepreneurship is that you never know what’s around the corner, but you do know you’ll seize good opportunities when you see them. Getting your team to buy into this vision is the key to motivation. In fact, your employees have to believe the next great idea may be their own!

3. Invest Both Money and Time in Your Team

Many companies are reluctant to devote resources to developing their teams, but your team is your biggest asset. How can employees support your company if you don’t support them?

There is no shortage of opportunities for investing in your people: continuing education programs, local seminars, inspirational conferences, and so on. If travel is involved, ask employees to develop a list of expected takeaways from the event to justify the investment. Broadening one’s range of both knowledge and network contacts can only be helpful to both the employee and the company.

4. Give Employees New Challenges and the Permission to Fail

Some people on your team may not yet have built up the confidence needed to bring new ideas to the table. Others might be so caught up in the day-to-day they can’t step back and look at the big picture. As a leader, it is critical for you to come up with new challenges for these employees. Will those challenges contribute directly to people’s quarterly bonuses? More often than not, the answer will be no. However, if enough new ideas work and are properly celebrated, your team will buy in.

I have had more misses than hits in my career, and I have the scars to prove it. You must help your team believe that misses are okay and that hits are career-changing. Baseball players who get base hits one out of three times — a career batting average of .333 — get into the Hall of Fame. The means they failed two out of three times.

5. Force People Out of Their Comfort Zones

In getting my own team to buy in on new challenges, I’ve found it extremely helpful to give them tasks they don’t think they can handle but I know they can. In other words, force your people of  out of their comfort zones. When they succeed, have a big celebration to inspire confidence. Don’t hesitate to remind them — both when they succeed and when presenting the next challenge — that they didn’t think they could do it, but you knew they could.

The greatest feelings in business come not from financial success nor from recognition, but from seeing people I have developed succeed in their careers and accomplish things they did not realize they were capable of. Hopefully you will also get to experience this joy yourself.

Jeff O’Hara, is president of PRA New Orleans and author ofHave Fun, Fight Back and Keep the Party Going: Lessons from a New Orleans Entrepreneur’s Journey to the Inc. 5000 (Greenleaf, 2018).

By Jeff O'Hara