Here’s the situation: We’ve got an important position to fill and are prepared to pay handsomely for the right person. We find someone with great credentials, solid experience in the sector, and references with the right pedigree. The interview goes well, and when asked why they’re leaving their current position, the response is something along the vein of: “Well, it’s not really about the money; things have significantly changed in the company since I came on board, and I just don’t think the culture’s a good fit for me anymore.”
I bet that’s not what they told their soon-to-be-former employer – if they told them anything at all. More likely, it sounded like: “I really like it here, and everyone’s great to work with, but things have significantly changed for me since I came on board and right now I really need the extra money for fill in the blank here.
Both are probably lies.
Anyway, we successfully lure our prospective hire onboard with a nice raise and a generous signing bonus. What we don’t realize (yet) is that we’ve just bought ourselves a mercenary.
It’s funny. When we think about mercenaries, visions of French Foreign Legion or ex-special ops soldiers fighting in far-away jungles or mountains or deserts fill our heads. Truth be known, they’re much more common and closer to home than we might imagine… maybe right outside our office door. A quick check with Merriam-Webster and we read that a mercenary is simply someone who works merely for wages. Unfortunately, that broad definition fits many – if not most – of today’s workers.
But if it’s so common, can it really be that big of a problem? No bigger problem than a workforce who only gives the minimum effort required to keep a job – no loyalty, no initiative, no innovation, no process improvement… you get the idea. And THAT’s a leadership problem.
And with a little introspection, we might find we’re a little closer to the leadership problem than we are to the leadership solution.
I can hear the jeers now: “What are we supposed to be, volunteers??” Legendary football coach Chuck Noll had the best answer I’ve ever heard: “The mercenaries will always beat the draftees, but the volunteers will crush them both.”
And no, I don’t expect anyone to work for no pay. Real life’s not like that, and we all have mixed motives when it comes to rolling out of bed and getting dressed for work. Food on the table, roof over the head, kids to put through school, golf to play; the list is almost endless. We all want to feel valued for doing a good job, and sometimes that value looks a lot like a paycheck. I certainly have taken jobs I considered to be bridges between my last job and my next.
The leadership challenge in this is how to take someone who comes to work because they need the job to someone who comes because they want to. Same person but different motivation for showing up every day. After all, who said that the motives we start with have to be the same motives we end up with?
Two of the jobs I thought would be short-lived turned out to be just the opposite. The first was in high school at a BBQ restaurant (I couldn’t help myself – all the free barbeque I could eat), and I worked there for five years until I joined the Air Force. The second was in the Pentagon after my military retirement, and while I only committed to a six-month term, I ended up staying another five years. In both cases, the motives I walked in the door with changed to motives that kept me there even when the working conditions sucked.
Why the change? What was the secret sauce? Simple: Leadership.
That’s right, plain old leadership. Sometimes theirs, sometimes mine, sometimes a combination of both (yes, demonstrating for your team the ability to follow IS leadership). Good leadership empowered me to work to my strengths, try on new roles and responsibilities, and see the enterprise from a vantage point that changed my need to into a want to. In short, my job turned from something I did for a paycheck into a role I played in something bigger than myself.
Where does that good leadership start? Within us, of course.
We have to ask ourselves where we fall along the scale of mercenary to volunteer. If we’re the kind of leader who comes to work as if it’s a place to be and not something we do, it’s pretty hard to convince our team that their efforts are an important part of something larger. If we’re closer to the mercenary end of the scale, somewhere along the line we’ve got to shift our thinking from a need to to a want to. Only then can we help others make that shift too.
Or not. Some people you just can’t reach.
Next, we have to listen – listen for understanding, not just to pretend we care – and figure out where someone’s coming from. Understand what their strengths and weaknesses are and help them develop (maybe their talents are better suited for a different department). When we take on that leadership role, they know we care about them and not just their output.
Make them feel valued by offering them different roles and responsibilities. No, that doesn’t mean reward their good work with more work. Good leaders let their people know when they’re on the right path and offer them opportunities to grow. It’s not punishment, and they should get an input – a chance to say yes or no – to make sure it doesn’t feel like punishment.
As they grow, we have to help them see their role as critical to the success of the company. When they can see their efforts from the perspective of the customer/consumer/patient, their subordinates and peers, and the senior leadership, they can truly understand the value they bring beyond their paycheck. If we don’t help them see and feel that value, they’re still just there for a paycheck.
It’s hard work, and it has to be intentional on our part. But that’s what it takes to develop good leaders. And great leaders know that developing future leaders is a more fulfilling measure of success than how high they climb on the corporate ladder or how much stuff they can buy with their paycheck.
So where do we fall? Do we need to go to work or do we want to be a good leader? Are we a mercenary or are we a willing participant in an enterprise larger than ourselves?
It’s up to you, leaders.