Continuous Improvement -- Talking The Talk

Dec. 21, 2004
Motivational lessons from the professionals.

I've always been a sucker for motivational speakers. Part storytellers, part pop psychologists and modern philosophers, the best ones mostly offer hope and tips for fixing everything that's wrong in our companies and our messed up lives. Whether the topic is heat treating or hydraulics, meeting and conference planners seem compelled to put these folks on the stage. After a morning cooped up in technical presentations or business meetings, we need something to get our hearts beating again. It generally works.

Like all entertainers, these professionals have a knack for engaging the audience. "I think I could have run a factory, and I think you could have coached Notre Dame," said Lou Holtz, national champion college football coach, at an IndustryWeek conference several years ago. "What an awesome responsibility it is for you to have to help motivate people to reach success. I can't think of a more demanding job, one that utilizes every talent and ability you have. You have to be a father, a mother. You have to be a counselor. You have to be an educator. You have to be a psychologist. You have to be a teacher. Every talent that an individual could possibly use comes into your job the same as it does in coaching."

Delivering such talks is a special skill that all of us attempt to emulate as we try to express our values, give people a sense of purpose or just make them feel better. While we may not be able to inspire our children, players or subordinates as well as world-class motivators such as Holtz, we can learn some lessons from them.

Keep it simple.

Complexity kills clarity and understanding. When listening to professional motivators, I used to take notes, scrawling down quotes that I hoped to refer to later. Reading them over days or even a few hours later, the words themselves were no longer that powerful, but they were fundamentally true. What you say doesn't have to be earth shattering, but deliver it with conviction. It never hurts to reinforce what people already know.

Nothing motivates like success.

Much of the power of good public speakers comes from experience. When Holtz spoke for IndustryWeek, he mostly recalled how his players and other people have inspired him. These are the stories that he uses to motivate others. The same is true in everyday life. Whether it's at quarterly meetings singling out individual and team accomplishments, or on-the-spot recognition -- the familiar catching people doing something right -- celebrating success inspires others.

It's the message, not the medium.

Speaking before a group is often cited as one of people's top fears, ahead of spiders, death and flying in airplanes. Professional speakers channel that anxiety, using it to psych themselves up. Maybe you're more comfortable with the one-on-one pep talk, sending a regular e-mail to employees or using the "forward to all" function of voicemail. The point isn't to copy someone else's approach, but to be consistent and sincere.

Trust people's intelligence.

When your employees are talented and resourceful, motivating them isn't the challenge, it's not de-motivating them. Nothing turns people off quicker than a patronizing message. Professional speakers may possess a folksy charm, but unlike many comedians, they appeal to the highest common denominator, not the lowest. If you appeal to a highest level of intelligence, you'll get the highest level of performance. There are books full of research on motivational theory, and what managers can do to optimize employees' performance. The work environment, advancement opportunities, recognition, compensation plan and benefits, all contribute to an organization's total motivational package. Still, it's relatively simple. As a presenter at yet another conference that I recently attended observed, "It's amazing what people will do for pizza." It's equally amazing what they'll do when leaders present a consistent and simple message and deliver it from the heart.

David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.

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