Invest in People and They Will Invest in You

This post headline (but personal and business value) really resonated with me today as I reflected on an experience we had eating at a great, new Thai restuarant we found.

We were finishing up our lunch and the sweet lady who took our order came over to give us our credit card receipts. When she saw one of us going to put a tip on it, she said (maybe paraphrased a bit, by the way):

Oh, don’t put a tip. They don’t give it to us. And I don’t want you to spend any more than you have to.

We were all kind of shocked. One of us commented after that that we WANTED to tip HER because she was really great to us before that comment but now didn’t know how to now.

With several of our team there, it really reminded me of a key value I like to instill in and through our team:

Invest in people … and they will invest in you

Then I thought back to a coffee meeting I had earlier that week with one of my great friends and mentors, Ray Griffin. We were talking about our roles in leadership in our respective organizations and the challenges that come with it. (Ray is in pastoral leadership at Quail Springs Baptist Church, where I serve.)

He shared this paraphrased quote to me he had found in something he was reading recently …

You can either light a fire underneath people or you can light a fire within them

We both agreed that lighting a fire WITHIN people was integral to our leadership values and practice.

Any boss can light a fire underneath people. It’s the fastest and easiest thing to do.

I can march in our office and demand things. I can threaten or coerce our team to do darn near anything I want. But ultimately we all know …. that ain’t getting us anywhere.

But …  lighting a fire within people is truly powerful. Ultimately it is the best strategy and one I’ve tried hard to cultivate within our team. But I’ll tell you … it takes a LOT of time. It isn’t an instant solution. It’s isn’t an easy one either.

It takes time to learn how different people are motivated. How they are encouraged, how they learn, how they grow.

Here’s what I’ve learned … (Disclaimer: I don’t do these things perfectly every time and have made plenty of mistakes along the way.)

  • I try to empower our team … each was hired and brings a set of core strengths to our team that I don’t have. We talk a lot about how we need each other. Each of us could be successful alone, but we can do so much more together. And because I see steep intrinsic value in each person on our team, I also want to maximize it for the good of all of us. That means putting them in roles and environments that play to their skills and strengths. It’s not easy to do that though. It takes times, study, listening and observing. Each person is VERY different. But with those things in mind, it’s my job to empower them to do all of that. To go beyond me and my ideas. I don’t want them waiting on me for ideas and initiative. I want them to take charge and DO IT. Now, they need boundaries to work within, but I want them implementing great ideas without me telling them to do it.
  • I try to listen to our team … through the past couple of months we have focused on building community with our customers at iThemes. But reading and studying and practicing some of these values has also clarified and helped me refocus on building community WITHIN our team too. A big part of what this means is that I ask them their advice and listen to them. Although I might not always agree or decide to follow their advice, I treat each person as an expert in their area. I bounce a LOT of ideas and thoughts off my team, even as Chris says, “I’m not a marketer,” even when it’s not their niche or forte. But I value different perspectives and opinions. I asked pretty much all of their input on our recent excursion to find new desks for our office. I weighed and valued each of their comments and made sure they knew I had heard them. I want them to feel like they influence what we do because they are an integral part of it!
  • I’ve found the value of getting away …. we spend the bulk of our lives together. We spend more time with each other than our spouses and families. So we HAVE to like each other. And we want to have fun with each other. We like to laugh in our office — at our own expenses or mine usually. Who wants to work in an environment of dislike, bitterness and loathing? I don’t. But I’ve realized that because day-to-day we’re extremely busy just doing the work of our business that we also need to get away and spend time talking with each other and getting to know one another better. This is why we’ve done two retreats so far. And each time, they’ve been invaluable to our business. The first time we rented a lake cabin and spent a couple of days mapping out some strategies. Our first blockbuster hit, FlexxTheme, was birthed there. The most recent time was for our iThemes WordPress Theme Bootcamp in Dallas. Because of inclement weather, we were forced to drive down a day earlier. We spent Wednesday through Sunday together. And when we got back, I asked the team what time they wanted to come in on Monday and they said, “The usual time. We have work to do.” They were SO pumped for having spent quality time together, talking about vision, ideas, learning and growing, getting to know our customers personally that they were ready to rock and roll! In fact, when we got back, they asked me when the next Bootcamp was going to be. Since then, I’m going to be sure and do something once a quarter and possibly experiment even with getting away every other Friday to do our “learn and grow” days together. Trust me …. great things come out of these retreats and you’ll be seeing the results of that energy unveiled soon.
  • I reward them in different and unique ways …. again, everybody is different. We’re all motivated in different ways. Money is always what people think of when rewards are mentioned. But it of course isn’t always monetary. Here’s one key way I try to reward our team … I affirm them and their work and skills publicly whenever I get the chance. That means in front of customers, our partners, on our live show, and probably most importantly when I met their families. Just yesterday, one of our team members was showing his dad our new office setup after work hours when I saw them there and made a point to go in and tell his dad how awesome he was doing at our company. When credited personally with our success, I try hard to share the limelight and credit, often saying, “I ain’t that good. It takes a talented team to do what we do here.”
  • It’s good to have external competition …. good competition, including, dare I say, “enemies,” is great for internal fires. I like to fan the flames of competition. Competition, in the form of a really good enemy, who is even BETTER than you, is great for stoking the fires. I point to examples and say, “Let that [some example] wash over you for a second and then use it as motivation to be and do better.” We all want to be the best. We all want our team to be and do the best because we are working FOR each other and our families who draw our welfare from this business. And a unified front against an established “enemy” with a unified goal draws us together, which goes to the next point …
  • We must have a unified vision and goal …. this is something my team has taught me to do as a leader. They need and want to be lead. They look to me to present a clear vision for the future and where we are heading. Having a unified vision and a unified goal helps all of us get on the same path and work hard for each other to achieve it.
  • Help each individual learn and grow and reach their maximum potential … even if it means they could be courted by another team or might demand more money eventually. I’ve told our team frequently that if they see a book, or event, or anything that would help them learn and grow, all they need to do is give me a practical reason for it and within reason, I’d do it for them. I want each individual on our team to grow every day. I want them to be better than they were yesterday. I’ve learned that investing in individuals, in their personal success, reaps extreme rewards for our team and business. Yes, I’m always leery that someone will take them from me after we’ve spent money investing in their personal success. But I don’t want someone to be here that doesn’t recognize the investment we make in them as well. And if they do jump for a “better” opportunity … I hope they will recognize the investment we made in them and appreciate even more the special and unique environment we endeavor to create. (If I’m being honest and transparents here, heck yes, I want them to miss it and long for it if they do leave.)
  • Mistakes are educational and bonding opportunities … all of us have made big mistakes in our business, including and especially me. Some mistakes have and can affect us business negatively. I always use them as opportunities to motivate them to be and do better. Mistakes have also rallied us together. Our server crashes in November BONDED us together as we all pitched in to restore things. When we makes mistakes, we acknowledge them … then we pick each other up and move on. Together.
  • Hire quality people who are passionate about their work …. at the end of the day, none of this works if you don’t have quality people on your team. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with some of the best, most passionate people. Some of whom were just quality individuals with potential. They have to learn and grow and develop into who they are today. But it goes without saying, that quality people, working together, FOR each other will produce more and better results …. every time.
  • Create a special team and environment that people long to be a part of …. my biggest thrill and affirmation is when others not on our team want to join it. Outside validation and recognition of what we have worked hard to create is one of the most satisfying parts of my job. If money and security were not a necessity, I would do this job for free JUST to do this one thing. I derive my personal worth from it. Selfishly, I want to create an environment that people LONG to join. I want this to be a special place. I want this to be a special community of people working together FOR each other. I want to invest in individuals so they will invest their lives in us. And as long as we do that … I’ll ALWAYS want to give my life and time cultivating it.

I firmly believe that doing all the above will help create a long-term, sustainable business that we all love and feel privileged to come to work to do every day … and that our customers support us with their pocketbook.

After two years of hard work (heartache, pain, tears, hard decisions), I’ve finally started to see the fruits of what we do. And most specifically seeing the fires within our team spread like wildfire through what we do.

Of course, like everything, we are a work in progress. We’re always refining what we do and how we interact. We’re all in the people business … and dealing with people is often messy. But I think of almost everything in our business as a test, an experiment. We don’t have 100 years of business behind us to help direct us. I’m glad we don’t because we’re creating a new culture together.

Every day, we are charting new ground … together.

But when I hear examples, like our sweet waitress, that reveal a fractured team anywhere, it makes me cringe.

Invest in people … and they will invest in you.

[Funny … but after writing this, I think most, if not all of this, could equally be applied to our customer community. That’s another post brewing.]

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