29 Jun June 29, 2020 – Startup Manual Ryan Frederick and The Demotivated Employee Cathy Bush
You have to have an ego to want to be a founder and start a company
and think that you can provide a product of service that people are
going to want to value and pay for.
Ryan Frederick is a Founder and Product Person who had the privilege of being part of starting and growing several software and service companies. Ryan is a Principal at AWH, Director at Startup Grind (Columbus), Advisor at Rev1 Ventures, Advocate at i.c.stars, Principal at Stepside Co. LLC, and an all-around household name in the Columbus startup community. He helps companies build great software products and solve data challenges for competitive advantage as a Principal at the product and data consulting firm, AWH, where he leads an elite team of 70 product creators and data problem solvers. Due to his passion for solving people’s problems and sharing his knowledge and expertise in order to provide value to others, he launched a non-profit workforce development program to train under-employed adults on digital skills called i.c.stars. Ryan is also an active angel investor, mentors and advises entrepreneurs and startups, as well as corporate innovation leaders. He recently released a book on increasing the odds of success in creating products, being a Founder, and starting companies, called The Founder’s Manual: A Guidebook for Becoming a Successful.
Cathy Bush – Consulting Partner at The Leadership Doctors and Co-Author of The Demotivated Employee – Read interview highlights here
70% of people report that they are not engaged at work!
Cathy Bush is a Leadership Consultant, Author, Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, Professor, Speaker, and Consulting Partner at The Leadership Doctors. She has worked with leaders around the globe to create the organizational cultures people love to work for, and clients love to work with, in a wide array of industries, including manufacturing, transportation, publishing, healthcare, retail, and banking. Together with her colleague, Dr. Tara Peters, Cathy has co-authored the new book The Demotivated Employee: Helping Leaders Solve the Motivation Crisis That is Plaguing Business. The book helps readers find out what leadership behaviors they are engaging in that might demotivate their employees, and how to work within the constraints of organizational culture to help employees thrive.
Highlights from Ryan’s Interview
The title of the book is The Founder’s Manual: A Guidebook for Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur. I didn’t actually plan to write a book about being a founder, building products, and starting companies. But I started to dig into the concept of flow about 10 years ago. All I’ve ever done is start companies and be a part of building products. I started to relate the concept of flow, which is most commonly associated with an athlete being in the zone and being an unconscious high-performer in a game, and over time, it’s gravitated a little more into the professional space. So I started to think about flow, is it related to being a founder and starting companies? Then I thought that if you were to think about it in the terms of flow, then what are some of the principles and some of the attributes that you have to be aware of to be able to increase your odds of getting the stuff correct and hopefully making it a successful and fruitful journey?
So some of the principles cover everything from keeping your ego in check to running to the fire, which means as an entrepreneur, you’re a constant problem solver and that never ends. But most people are not wired to run to a fire, most people are wired to seek cover and to not run to where the problem exists. Then on the product side and on the startup side, one of the things I get a lot of pushback on is, especially early on with a product and company, I don’t think you should pay any attention to the competition because you don’t know what level of understanding they have around the problem, you don’t know what their capabilities of solving the problem are and the way customers value, you don’t know how much time they’ve spent with the customers, etc. Yet, I see so many founders and so many startups invest a tremendous amount of time and energy in competitive analysis, paying attention to what the competitors are doing versus paying attention to the problem they’re trying to solve and spending that time and energy becoming an expert on that problem, and then iterating with customer side. So there’s a sampling of some of the things I talked about in the book.
To dive in a little bit deeper into why competition is irrelevant, it’s because if they were solving the problem adequately, then you would’ve not found the problem. So just on the surface, we are trained I guess and we want to give competitors too much respect and too much credit. Then something else that’s tangential to paying too much attention to the competition is, I also see a lot of laziness around startups positioning and messaging of, we’re the X of Y. Typically, it gets referenced as the Uber of this, or the Airbnb of this, or the the Amazon of this or whatever. I also don’t like that because that’s laziness. If you can’t craft your own positioning and your own messaging, and you can’t do better than just saying we’re the X of Y, then I think you’ve just honed that part in and that’s laziness. For me, that becomes an indicator of the founder’s perspective around the business and their naivete or their maturity around starting a company and growing it.
You may think that there’s nothing wrong with saying we’re the X of Y because it encapsulates the whole idea into a five-word sentence, but where I see it getting bastardized too frequently though, is that business is not that; the business isn’t diehard on a cruise ship. You get the initial pitch, we’re the X of Y, and then when they start peeling back the layers, then you realize, you’re not the Uber of airlines, you’re not the diehard of cruise ships at all, for example. So the laziness comes in because they use that as an initial reference, but then behind the scenes, it’s actually not that at all. So my concern becomes when I see a company that is being that rudimentary with the initial pitch piece of it, that if they can back it up and they’re clearly being at positioning it and their product clearly is in alignment with that other product and company in a different space, then cool. What I’ve seen happen too often though is “We’re the diehard on a cruise ship”, and then you’re like, “Sweet! I’d like to dig that. Tell me more about it.” But then you realize that’s actually not it at all.
But instead, if you say it’s sort of like diehard on a cruise ship, not 100%, then that’s absolutely fine. Because they now have the context and they’re making the connection themselves, which I think is good and organic connectivity inside of a conversation and a pitch around a startup. One of the reasons I don’t like the X of Y is because storytelling for founders and startups is so important, yet it’s underappreciated. Most founders and startup teams don’t spend enough time crafting the story and perfecting the story and telling it effectively with some emotion. But I would obviously encourage people to be truthful about their story and to not make it up. Because this stuff is ridiculously hard and irrational fundamentally, so you don’t have to glorify it further. Storytelling is a piece of the puzzle that most founders don’t get and don’t do very well, but it’s pretty fundamental. The problem is the antagonist, and their product or their company or their team is the protagonist. So most founders and most startups don’t get the power of telling an effective story because storytelling is marketing, storytelling is sales, storytelling is getting investment, storytelling is getting partners, storytelling is getting customers. What I see happening is those that depend too much on X of Y, also then don’t focus on and they are not very good at the storytelling piece.
It also depends on whether it’s a story that gets propagated and continued by the company, or whether it’s just sort of folklore that makes for good articles in magazines and on the web and for interesting conversations. Because most of the stories of startups get distorted over time because it makes for better content and it makes for better stories. The reality is Facebook started out as HotorNot for a Harvard dorm room, most people now don’t know that. Even if they saw the movie, they don’t remember that piece. He and the team there could never have imagined that Facebook would become what it is today off of where it started.
Now, to dig into one of the other pieces, the next one is ego-in-check. I totally agree that you have to have an ego to be a founder and start a company and think that you can provide a product or service that people are going to want to value and pay for, there’s no doubt about that. It is an ego-driven venture to a degree, but I think the problem becomes when the ego gets out of control around it and you evolve to the point of thinking that you have the answers and you know what needs to be done. When you aren’t humble and you value what you know over what you can learn, then I think you’re in trouble. I had an experience like this. I had started a couple of companies, we had some good success. We started another one and we made every possible mistake you can make, and in six months we burned into the ground. We messed this one up so bad that we burned through $5 million in those six months because what we did in our infinite wisdom was, because this was a matchmaking sort of platform, so before we had either side of the matchmaking equation in place, we said, “You know what we need? We need to hire people in every major market so that when we do have people that we’re going to be matching to this process, that these local people can help to facilitate these matches and provide a real concierge high-level service.” So before we had anybody on the platform, we hired a bunch of people in markets across the country. Then when we realized these people don’t have anything to do because we don’t have anybody actually on the platform yet, by then it was too late and we realized we had screwed up in such a major way that there was no going back. We even sent them all the company swag because they had to go to events and carry the brand, which also was totally irrelevant at that point because no one knew who we were and no one cared. Again, we had nobody actually on the platform, so having a team of people around the country running around in logoed apparel meant absolutely nothing.
The last piece we have is run to the fire. Most people agree that the definition of an entrepreneur is problem solver, because that’s where it all begins. If you don’t solve a problem that people care about and value and will pay for, then you don’t really have anything and you certainly don’t have a business. But I think the thing that surprises people is that the problem solving never ends. So the problem shifts and they move over time, and we’re not really innately wired to run to problems and run to the fire as I put it, because we’re wired to seek safety and security, etc. But if you’re going to be a successful entrepreneur and a successful operator of a business, you have to overcome the desire to think that problems are going to take care of themselves; that the problems are going to go away, that you can delegate everything to everybody else, and your mentality to understand that you are going to be the chief problem solver in the company for some period of time. This is an important realization for most new entrepreneurs.
There’s actually a chapter in the book called First Best and it speaks to the fact that at some point, you’re going to be the chief of everything. Again, most people don’t sign up for that and they don’t go into it aware of this. For example, they’re a developer and they’re starting a company, or they’re a marketing person, or they’ve stumbled on this problem because they’ve worked in this industry for 10 years, or they’re an accountant by training and craft. Then they decide, I’m going to solve this problem and start this company. But then accountants have to become salespeople, and engineers have to become marketers, etc. So that’s another thing that most people are unaware of going into the process, that it calls for them to have to be the first best at everything in the company. Then as the company grows, then you hire people at these disciplines that are exponentially better than you. But at the beginning, you’ve signed up to be a mile-wide and an inch-deep in every aspect of running a business.
To transition into the topic of what my firm does, we build products for clients across the spectrum of startups to enterprise companies. So I’m now a Principal at a firm called AWS and we build software products for clients and solve data problems for them. The firm’s been around for 25 years, I’m the new cat to the dance. My other two partners have been part of the firm for the entire 25 years. I joined nine years ago as a partner after coming out of another company and taking some time off and then looking for something new to do. I knew my one of my now partners and he said, why don’t you just come here? I said, well, that could be interesting. So we talked about it a couple weeks and nine years later, here we are.
We build really any piece of software running on any platform, but we’ve developed a little bit of a niche in that we tend to build software products for the greater good and for some social impact. So we have a client who’s building a product to help prevent suicide. We have another client that has built a healthcare platform for people with physical disabilities and impairments to be able to work out as closely easily as as someone who doesn’t have any physical impairments. We’ve built for a Community Foundation a software platform for them to manage the Community Foundation. That was actually not strategic, we’ve just ended up with lots of clients and building lots of software products for clients that are helping to impact lives and improve society. We’re proud of that because we could build products that help track boxes and connect transportation management systems to warehouse management systems; that stuff needs to happen, I’m not denigrating that. But it’s a little bit more fun and feels a little bit more rewarding to build products that actually help improve people’s lives and make their lives easier and better than getting a box from point A to point B efficiently.
The firm’s website is AWH.net, and then you can find out more about the book and me at RyanFrederick.biz. Those are probably the two best in a doorways into other stuff that that I have going on and we have going on as a firm.
There are a lot of conversations going on and they have been for a while, about employee engagement. There’s probably something like 70% of people who report that they are not engaged at work. So 7 out of 10 people that all of us are working with and hanging out around are not as happy or motivated as they should be. So we definitely need to care about this. Obviously, firing them all doesn’t really solve the problem and part of that is because maybe they aren’t the cause of demotivation. So The Demotivated Employee is a book that we wrote to help leaders see what’s causing this problem and to get out of our instinctive reaction to simply blame the lazy employee, but to have a bigger look and to say, what’s going on and what can we do about it? Everybody who’s a little concerned about that, we’re not looking to blame anybody. So really, Tara and I are not cynics, we’re simply saying that the first reaction when anybody notices somebody else not behaving the way we think they should or not being as motivated as we once saw them being, whenever we see that, we tend to think they’re flawed.
So the point of the book and the point of our effort is to get you to think about other things that could cause that, some of which might be you. It could be that there’s something that you’re doing. Again, we don’t believe you mean to, we doubt very much that any manager or leader or somebody who’s got people on the parole is waking up in the morning saying, how am I going to mess with people today? So it’s probably not really what’s going on for the most part, we’re not intentionally messing with people. But there are things we do as leaders that takes a motivated person and causes them to lose motive. That’s really where our interest is.
My business partner, Tara, and I have spent a lot of time as professors and as consultants talking to so many people who say, “Boy, I was motivated, and then this happened or that happened.” Every so often it’s like, “I just lost it, I don’t know what caused it.” So sometimes it is the person. For example, “I was super excited and I was going along doing my job, getting all sorts of positive praise/ Then somebody else who wasn’t working as hard as I was stole my idea and they got the promotion. So that was a big punch in the gut for me.” That type of thing going on, as we might label that, is organizational politics, that again, maybe wasn’t intended to punch you in the gut, but it feels that way and takes your motivation away. It could be as simple as “I just don’t think my boss sees me, they don’t appreciate me. She doesn’t like me. She never comes and ask my opinion about the work I’m doing, she makes a lot of assumptions.” It may simply be, “Boy, it doesn’t matter what I do, I feel invisible around here.” So that causes our motivation to begin to get a little bit chipped away every day, until eventually we look pretty demotivated.
It’s not necessarily always an outside factor. Some people have a little bit more of a negative aspect, so they tend to be more skeptical. They tend to look at the world a little bit with more caution and a little bit of concern about everything, more of a neurotic personality style. If we were going to give them a personality assessment, we might see some of those tendencies that they’ve carried around for a really long time. So I can’t say that’s demotivation. In fact, you can be very motivated and just find yourself in a place where that kind of skepticism is useful and productive to the work that you do. But we may look at that person and say, “Certainly, they’re not as bubbly and engaging and positive energy as another person that we work with, that looks to be motivated.” Again, bubbly and engaging people can be demotivated and they just have really good coping mechanisms. So it’s not quite as simple as that. But there are things about us that will cause us to feel the effects of motivation and demotivation differently. So some people do have a more natural draw toward positive energy and they are more easily influenced to be motivated, it’s harder to get them demotivated. Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t get them demotivated, but some people are a little more resilient, I think.
So now let’s talk about the solution to those problems. Imagine yourself and the people that you know are talking about your workforce and you’re looking around and you’re saying, “All right, they’re not as productive as they once were.” We can measure that, we can have all sorts of evidence that tells us they’re not as productive. Or we could just pick out a single person and be like, “She used to be a shining star and she’s coming in late, we’re seeing little signs of her being crabby in the meetings or whatever it is.” So we’re picking up little bits and pieces. So the first thing what you do as a leader is don’t assume you’ve got this figured out, don’t write them off. Don’t be talking about what you’re noticing to other people instead of talking to the person directly.
So really the first thing is, let’s care about this enough to have a conversation with the person and see if we can get at what’s going on. So, “Hey, Sue, I see this was going on in the meeting that happened, what’s going on there” is a really positive way to take what might be slumping demotivation and turn that around quickly. All of a sudden, Sue feels noticed, she knows you care about her, she knows you want to help her solve the problem. You’re not talking about her to other people where she’s going to hear about that later or pick up the vibe, but you’re talking to her. You’re not figuring it out for her and trying to dangle pretty carrots and sticks because you think you’ve imagined what’s going on, which may or may not fit. So this is the thing that we often do when we study motivation, how do we pull out intrinsic incentives or extrinsic incentives, and to give people bonuses and other kinds of recognition or rewards? They may not be the thing that’s causing demotivation, so you may be barking up the wrong tree with those solutions.
But if you talk to them directly as a first step, the second step is to recognize them, they may not either, just to recognize that it could come from multiple sources. So in our book, we talk about five sources of demotivation. It could be stress. So it could be something going on outside of work, but they just can’t shake it; a divorce or a sick loved one or trying to figure out what this new COVID work-from-home life looks like and dealing with the kids at home at the same time. Whatever it is, that stress could be the cause of me losing motivation. It could be that I’m having conflict with somebody at work and I need some help sorting through that. It could be any number of things associated with the culture of the organization, but I’m not a very rule-sy person and all I have to do is constantly fight with people who tell me I’m not following the rules. So that’s a culture problem. Again, recognizing our multiple kinds of sources is a great idea, and then as a leader, solving the problem together. “What do you need from me? How can I help you? What are the specific situations that will get your motivation better?”
The thing that I think is important is for us to recognize is that motivation is an internal state, it belongs to every individual and we all handle it differently, but it’s also a dynamic state. So if you think about your first day on a new job, how excited you were. You entered the job and most of those things were so cool, some of them were maybe scary, but you had all that motivation driving you. Well, that may have ended somewhere in the course of the first day when you went, “Oh, my gosh! I never realized I was going to have to do that.” Or “Do you mean this is my desk, I’m not sure I like this?” So it could be temporarily that your motivation gets a little bit impact, or it could be a gradual deterioration of your motivation over time. So when we begin then to start noticing that a person’s motivation has started to slump and start addressing that, it’s not going to be like flipping a switch. You got to look for evidence of progress in the right direction and continuous conversation with that person about their motivation, and what else is working or what else they need over time. So when you’re thinking about how long should I give it, I think you’re implying the other alternatiove is just to fire them. But obviously, it doesn’t take very long to begin to understand that firing people; letting people walk out your door, letting your highly-talented people say I’ve had enough of this and walk out the door, all of those things cost you a lot of money as well. So again, when you’re weighing out the effort it takes to help somebody solve the problem of their motivation against the effort it takes and the cost of their departure, and then your replacement and training process for somebody else, I think it’s worth the investment of time.
Now, this may sound similar to motivating a spouse or a child, but of course, business relationships are relationships too. Motivation is often about how I feel as a member of a team or how I feel in terms of the relationship I have with a co-worker or with my boss, so it’s a great correlation. I actually would say that the challenge is not to think that you motivate people, because they have their own motivation. It’s actually about reading people. It’s about not just by yourself, but talking to them and understanding them so that you can figure out what motivates them. So motivation is theirs, not yours; you don’t control their motivation. But if you understand what motivates them and then you begin to understand what’s getting in their way of motivation, then you can work towards repairing that, very much like any other relationship you would have if you had a conversation and then made an action plan about how can I help you with this, or what do I need to do in that kind of situation?
Oftentimes it happens that you get drawn into the middle of a dispute between two co-workers, but the most important part is learning how to communicate directly. By the way, I have two sons, so we were often in that situation when we were parenting them, and it’s similar as a boss of two co-workers. So they might separately come to you complaining about the other one or wanting you to fix the other one. But what can you do when the motivation is a problem between two people? Again, as a leader, the key to helping people fix their motivation problem is starting with showing that you care about that. Many people who are expressing why they are not engaged at work and why they are demotivated are literally saying, “Because nobody cares. Nobody sees me. Nobody’s interested.” So starting by saying, “Okay, Tara and Cathy, I noticed you guys were having some friction in the meeting, what’s going on?” Just that act begins a really important process. But most importantly, teaching them to have a communication with each other. “It’s okay to have conflict, how do we do that productively? Let’s make some agreements.” So you as the leader can’t just disappear from that. In fact, this is one of our five sources of employee demotivation. What do we need when we’re having conflict with another person or we’re not working well with somebody else? Well, we need the leader to help us through that; to have a meaningful interaction, to cause us to be honest with each other, to ask for what we need, to make some agreements with one another to improve that.
Then the fifth source of demotivation we refer to as leadership styles, but it’s really about the relationship between the employee and their leaders. So it’s the notion that we’ve all heard, which is that people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. So it’s about, does your boss ask for feedback? Do they listen actively? Are they interested in your perspective when they’re making key decisions? Do they take time to adjust their behavior to the thing you need or do they teach or lead everybody the exact same way?
Let me just recap all of the five sources now. So stress is the first one. We have stress in the workplace, stress impacts the most highly-motivated people, because at some point enough is enough. Conflict with other people at work. We say conflict between coworkers, but it could be any kind of conflict. It could be that you have the kind of job where customers are yelling at you all the time, that’s going to partially be stress and partially conflict. The organizational culture. Mostly, it’s about whether or not the culture fits me. For example, when you think about a place like Google, everybody thinks, “Oh, my gosh! I’d love that wonderful, playful environment where everything’s open and creative.” Well, some people wouldn’t love that. They’d be like, can anybody give me an agenda or a schedule? So there are some people that wouldn’t find that a good fit and that would be demotivating. Then the fourth one is what we call individual differences. So what is it about an individual that makes them more or less prone to being demotivated? Is it within my personality? Am I just a little bit more skeptical than the next person, and therefore, I’m going to have a more fragile motivational state because things can come along that really mess with me at work? Certainly, the things in the outside world could impact several of these categories; they could impact stress, they could impact my individual differences as well. So when you think about it that way, it’s sort of simple shorthand for us to look at a demotivated person and say, “Well, that dude is a dud! That’s a lazy slacker.” We just want to discard them, rather than going, “Let me see if I can figure out what’s going on that caused this.” So that’s really why we wrote the book.
So a lot of times people show up motivated, they pick up signals; sometimes they pick up the wrong signal, but they pick up signals. If nobody’s noticing that that is impacting them, if we don’t start going, “All right, we haven’t seen that guy come out of his office in a while, he stopped coming to the XYZ meetings.” This is the common thing that happens because we’re all super busy. So if we’re not noticing what’s changing for them, then that’s reinforcing those wrong signals that they picked. For example, he thinks you hate him, he starts probably showing some little signs of disengagement, but nobody comes to his rescue and says, “Hey, what’s up? How can I help you?” So that creates a misunderstanding. You’re not fully to blame for it, he also gets to take some blame. But what can we do to prevent that? A very valued employee that we start seeing, looking like they might be getting ready to leave or feeling less motivated, that’s when we have to do something. Again, to the data, 70% of people walking around are disengaged at some point in their job. That’s a lot of folks. So just walking past that like, “Suck it up, Buttercup! I hope you come back more motivated tomorrow”, that’s not a very effective way to deal with that and that leads us to lose a lot of people we don’t want to lose.
So the book is called The Demotivated Employee: Helping Leaders Solve the Motivation Crisis That Is Plaguing Business. Of course, you can get it on Amazon and there are other major booksellers online, as well as in a store, if that’s where you buy your book. So if you want to find a copy, come to our website, TheLeadershipDoctors.com, and we’d be happy to sign a copy and send it to you.