Human Resources | July 2011 | By Karon Warren

CEOs Miss What Motivates their Team

Making sure every member of the C-suite has the same motivational drive can put a company on a clearer road to success.

Eric Ersher, CEO of Zoup!, uses management philosophies to guide his leaderhsip.
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According to a new survey by ExecuNet Inc., a professional network for C-level executives, non-CEO C-suite members cite work-life balance, their work location, and relationships with coworkers and subordinates as motivation for their jobs.

CEOs, however, seem to believe that cash compensation, liking the actual work they do, and trust with the company’s owner are motivating factors. This apparent disconnect in how CEOs and C-level executives approach their jobs, some insiders say, could have a big impact on overall business operations.

“If this disconnect exists, there will be a fracturing of the team,” says Michael T. Denisoff, founder and CEO of Denisoff Consulting Group in Redondo Beach, California.

“Either the rest of the team will follow suit and descend to the lowest denominator of work effort, or, most likely, resentment will build up. This resentment will tend to manifest itself in unhealthy alliances, backbiting, and a great deal of negative energy that could be positive energy used to improve the business. Once a CEO loses his or her team, their level of influence and control diminishes.”

The quick-serve industry is not immune to this type of disconnect. Eric Ersher, founder and managing partner of Zoup!, which has 32 locations in eight states, says he has seen it among his industry peers.

“I have seen organizations that pay lip service to creating a culture, and the CEO does not walk the walk,” he says.

Amit Kleinberger, CEO of Encino, California–based frozen yogurt concept Menchie’s, also says he has seen disconnect among quick-serve executives. But from the beginning, he says, he worked hard to keep employees at every level of his own company operating on the same page.

“I initiate meetings every week for two hours with the management team to discuss the state of affairs at every level,” Kleinberger says. “I get their buy-in on everything I do. My management style is, ‘Here’s what needs to get done. What’s your buy-in?’ When someone feels a part of it, they will give you all of it.”

Ersher says keeping everyone in the C-suite on the same page boils down to the culture of the brand. “We are very clear about what the brand stands for,” he says, noting the company has 14 “Zoup!isms,” operating philosophies used to create clarity regarding expectations and to empower employees to make the right decisions. “I believe our culture is very strong, and when there is someone not similarly aligned, it’s noticeable.”

In fact, effective communication between CEOs and other C-level executives could go a long way with regard to both motivation and preventing possible disconnects, Denisoff says.

“By their very nature, executives want to please the CEO and will tend to hang onto every word they say,” he says. “Sometimes a CEO may be just thinking out loud, and the executive will take it as a directive only to find out after a good deal of time and effort on the project that it was just a passing thought. That is why it is said that a CEO’s whisper is heard as a roar. CEOs need to be very clear on the purpose of their communications. It is very demotivating if an executive is constantly guessing at what the CEO wants.”

One way to give all C-level executives common motivational ground is allowing them to take ownership in the business.

“If you make your C-suite executives feel that you may be the pilot but they are the copilot, they will stay with you. If you make them feel like a passenger, they will act like a passenger.”

“People support what they help build,” Denisoff says. “Ensuring that the executive team is fully involved in shaping the organization now and in the future is critical. If it is only the work of the CEO, whether right or wrong, they will feel disengaged because they are just implementing a strategy. Executives are in their position to help craft the strategy of the organization. A good CEO will be comfortable with letting his or her staff shine and deliver great results.”

“If you make them feel that you may be the pilot but they are the copilot, stewardess, etc., they will stay with you,” Kleinberger says. “If you make them feel like a passenger, they will act like a passenger. Even the passengers need to take ownership in the ride. They have to feel they are part of the journey.”

Kleinberger says he does this by implementing his secret recipe. The first ingredient, he says, is the weekly meeting he holds with the management team. The second is mentoring and educating his staff.

“I found if I mentor the management team to grow the staff they supervise, plus my meeting with them, I have found that disconnect at Menchie’s headquarters is reduced,” Kleinberger says. “I do the best I can to serve them just like they serve me.”

Another effective technique for avoiding disconnect is keeping the focus on the company’s goals, Ersher says. “For us, it’s critical to be working toward a common vision and a greater good and focus on the what, not the who,” he says. “No ego, no emotions; it’s not about personality or politics.”

However, even by incorporating methods such as these, there are instances where disconnect can creep in if left unchecked. “It doesn’t mean everything is perfect,” Kleinberger says. “You and I both know perfect doesn’t exist. But it’s about empowering people to do more.”

Perhaps the most important thing to know about disconnect within a C-suite, experts say, is to identify it and address it as quickly as possible, so the company can rectify the situation with minimal disruption.

“We’ve encountered [disconnect] with some very fine people who were not aligned with our culture,” Ersher says. He says that because they handled it quickly, both parties were able to move on.

Denisoff says that if CEOs pay close attention to any kind of disconnect within their C-suite, it can become a thing of the past at quick-serve operations.

“The rest of the company takes its lead from the executives,” he says. “Each member of the executive team models behavior, either knowingly or unknowingly, that the rest of their employees will imitate and emulate. If the executive works hard, the rest of the employees will tend to follow the example.”