Work

How to attract and keep motivated employees

October 21, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Even if you can't pay top dollar, how you hire and the strategies you use to retain people can make a major difference.

By Verne Harnish

<> on July 5, 2013 in Alexandria, Virginia.

FORTUNE -- New Gallup research shows that only 13% of workers worldwide are actively engaged in their jobs, meaning they're psychologically committed to doing their best and likely to make a strong contribution.

It's easy to write off statistics like this and say that employees just don't want to work, but as an employer, you shouldn't let yourself off the hook so easily.

How you hire, the way you select a mix of talent on your team, and the strategies you use to retain people can make a major difference in whether you find yourself leading a bunch of people who've mentally checked out -- or a group that feeds off each other's energy as they help the company reach its goals. Here are three strategies you can use to build an engaged team.

Crank up your marketing engine

At a growing company, your marketing team shouldn't focus only on attracting customers. You need to get onto the radar screen of your ideal, target employees, too. Otherwise, you won't attract enough candidates to interview for your positions -- and leave yourself prey to the common growth-company trap of hiring anyone who's breathing, out of sheer desperation to get the work done. If you're not getting at least 20 applicants for each position, you're doing something wrong.

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The key is to sell your vision and to stop worrying if you can't pay top dollar. I learned this lesson years ago when I was starting the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs and needed to hire my first office manager. We could only afford to pay $18,000 for the position. The tiny ad I placed in a local Wichita paper said, "College student looking to change the world in global entrepreneurship organization: Are you tired of working for a big company? Do you want to get reenergized and back on campus?" I received 120 responses from amazing people, from Omaha to Dallas. I ended up hiring a pro who had been the executive assistant to the CEO of a large telecom company and had been earning $60,000 before that.

Another entrepreneur I know held a regular after-work happy hour for techies that eventually became the place to go and be seen in her city -- where she faced plenty of competition for talent. That event became her talent pipeline when she needed to fill a position.

Don't hire clones

Time after time when I visit companies, I see a bunch of employees who dress, sound, and think the same way as the CEO. As entrepreneurs, the last thing we should do is try to recruit a bunch of mini-me's. Your team should be more like the motley crew in a heist movie -- experts who excel in different areas and bring unique perspectives, not a bunch of interchangeable generalists. It will create a more exciting environment for everyone on your team.

It's hard to avoid the tendency to gravitate to people who are like us when we hire, so I recommend using a scorecard system to keep things honest. Interview and rate candidates based not just on the responsibilities you need them to fill, but also the outcomes you need them to achieve, such as bringing in $1 million in sales in 2014. For a quick overview of how to use this approach, I recommend the concise book Who by Geoff Smart, co-creator of the Topgrading hiring system.

Create an environment where great people thrive

Instead of worrying about how to motivate your most talented employees, focus on keeping the stupid stuff out of their way. Ask them at your daily or weekly meetings what roadblocks they're hitting and clear them, so they get their most important work done. Leaders should focus on stomping out inefficient processes and bad management practices if they want to keep talented employees engaged.

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It's foolish to hire a mediocre performer for any position in your company. CEOs tend to put more effort into hiring the right CFO or sales leader than finding the best receptionist, but that's a mistake. If the person who answers your phones doesn't take down customers' numbers accurately or fails to treat them with care, dealing with the problems will drain the energy of the rest of your team. No fast-growing company can afford that.

Verne Harnish is the CEO of Gazelles Inc., an executive education firm.

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