De Novo Exclusive: “What Really Motivates People?” by IL Lt Gov’s Chief of Staff Charles Watkins

May 17, 2021

When it comes to motivation, law firm leaders often think in terms of carrots and sticks. But Charles WatkinsChief of Staff for Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, knows from his long career in public service and politics that it takes more than just rewards and penalties to bring out the very best in people. Charles writes about how he motivates his team in an article for De Novo. Here’s a preview:

Over the years, I have been fortunate to lead teams within government, in higher education and nonprofits, and groups of volunteers advocating for a policy or campaigning for a candidate. Those experiences have given me a front-row seat to what mobilizes individuals to deliver their best work and sustain that commitment over the long haul. To some extent, things like compensation, benefits, job title and work environment incentivize the kind of behavior leaders are hoping to see. But nothing compares to the power of a shared mission, with common values and goals when it comes to motivating a team.

Understanding and believing in the purpose of their work, accomplishing it with integrity, and sharing a vision of what counts as success can bring together people of all walks of life and varying perspectives, just as an orchestra brings together disparate instruments. Each one makes a unique contribution to the sound, but they are all playing the same song.

Experienced leaders know that these healthy, productive cultures don’t spring up spontaneously; instead, organizations where everyone seems to be in harmony are the result of careful planning and many intentional decisions at every level. Is this a lot of work? Yes. But nothing will make a bigger impact on the ultimate success of your project, case, initiative or campaign. Here are three things leaders can do to make it happen:

Bottom Up: All Team Members Participate in Creating the Culture

People are more motivated when they understand how the role that they play directly impacts the organization’s ability to achieve its goals, so leaders must be purposeful about highlighting the importance of each contribution and how interdependent the team really is.

Leaders then build support from the bottom up by engaging all team members in the process of making the culture explicit and intentional:

  • Articulate the purpose of your organization’s work and the beliefs that will guide decision-making
  • Identify a set of concrete goals that are aligned with that mission and those values
  • Establish the metrics you will use to determine success and share them across the organization

Not only does this bottom-up process increase motivation, but it also guards against a “founder syndrome” problem, where the vision for the organization is embodied in a single person who may or may not always be in a position of leadership. When everyone embraces and participates in the ongoing creation of your culture, they will all feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to carry it forward.

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