Every leader knows that if you want to grow your business, you’ve got to motivate your team. But if the number of inspirational posters printed each year is any indication, not every leader knows how. David DeRam has cracked that code.
He’s spent the past 25 years motivating employees as a leader in high-growth commercial software companies. As the founder and CEO of Greenlight Guru, he’s led his team to grow revenue by more than 350 percent per year since 2015. He even motivates in his spare time, volunteering as a coach for young, at-risk baseball and basketball players.
David is a master at encouraging employees, but he doesn’t let anyone off easy (himself included). By pushing his team, he empowers them to achieve more than they thought possible. He says other leaders can do the same, and he shares seven practical pieces of advice to help them motivate their teams:
Leading a team is like everything else: to succeed, you’ve got to start with the right materials. If you don’t have good employees on board, you’re defeated before you’ve begun. That’s why David says, “When you go to construct the team, nothing could be more important from an executional perspective than making sure that you have the right fit.”
He believes the most important quality in any new hire is grit. Other skills can be taught, but it’s hard to motivate an apathetic employee. “You want the people who are still scrappy, that have something to prove,” David explains. “Those are the people we look for because you don't have to motivate them.”
David says to hire candidates who have shown they can tough it out during difficult seasons, but he cautions that grit doesn’t look the same for everyone. Leaders should avoid the mistake of hiring replicas of themselves.
“It’s really important to hire all different communication styles,” he explains. “You have to put it together like Legos.”
Otherwise, brash leaders will wind up with too many powerful personalities, and gentle leaders will wind up with too many meek ones.
The Takeaway: Look for motivated employees, and don’t expect that they’ll all think exactly like you. Grit comes in a lot of different forms. They’re all important.
Internal motivation is a key starting block, but even the most ambitious employees wither without direction. So David says it’s important to cast a vision for your team: “People want to work hard, but they want to know that what they do is going to get them somewhere,” he says.
Storytelling is an invaluable tool here. “People like stories. People participate in stories,” David says. “We’re all like big kindergartners.” Simply dictating a vision to your team can feel authoritative, even demotivating.
If you help your team picture that vision coming true, they’ll take the mission to heart.
As an example, David recalls a season when he coached his baseball team to the Little League World Series. A reporter spoke with a player after they qualified, and the player responded: “We’re just here to win the whole thing.” David says, “The whole room just went boom. It just lit up, and people loved it.” Because that player painted a picture of success, he helped others get on board with his vision.
The Takeaway: People might follow half-heartedly if you simply give them instructions, but the best work comes when they buy into the mission. Use storytelling to help them picture success, and they’ll give it everything they’ve got.
Vision is only part of the equation. And far too many tech startups think it’s all they need. But knowing your destination is pointless if you don’t have a roadmap for getting there. David jokes, “If a bank heist went like we build software, we’d go running into the bank with guns out like, ‘All right, this is a robbery. Everybody on the floor!’ Then we'd be like, ‘Alright, what next?’”
Instead, David says leaders should spell out their game plan and make sure everyone is clear on it. “You can’t plan for everything, but you can put some pretty good rails in place,” he says. Once a team understands the playbook, he’s found they work tirelessly to accomplish what they set out to do.
On the other hand, if your team isn’t clear on the direction, they’ll find themselves at odds with each other. “A lot of times what you'll see is two factions: this group thinks we should go this way and that group thinks we should go that way,” says David. “I've experienced that, and it doesn't work. It's like a car with two wheels going the opposite direction.”
The Takeaway: Your team shouldn’t have to guess what your plan is. Fill them in on the strategy and the timeline, so each person can understand and fulfill his or her own role.
To get the best results from your team, you’ve got to give them a good working environment. That requires more than stocking the fridge with beer or offering unlimited PTO. Your company culture truly has to support them. “Culture drives results,” David says. “People work how they feel, so if people feel good they’re going to work well.”
He helps create this culture at Greenlight Guru by emphasizing teamwork and cooperation. “We have a core value of fanatical support,” David says. “It’s fanatical customer support, but also fanatical support of each other. That automatically gives us empathy towards each other, and it automatically makes us accountable to each other and to being a good teammate.”
At the end of the day, David says culture matters because everyone is human. And all humans have emotional needs. They need to feel supported, and they feed off each other’s energy. As a result, he’s found that “the way that people feel in the office radically changes the results.”
The Takeaway: Everybody needs encouragement. If you build a supportive culture, you’ll help employees stay passionate about the work—even in difficult seasons.
A good work environment doesn’t mean peace at all costs.
On the contrary, a truly supportive culture will encourage constructive criticism. David explains that team members need the freedom to speak candidly because each person has his or her own blind spots. “The things that you don't see about yourself are the most dangerous parts,” he warns.
“Healthy conflict is, I think, critical and really hard,” David goes on. “I’ve got to be able to say to you: ‘Are you ready for some feedback?’ If someone says that, you can pretty much be sure that the next 15 minutes are going to be interesting.”
For this sort of dialogue to exist, David says employees have to feel secure enough to admit when they’re wrong. “It starts with trust,” he explains. “If you don't have trust, you can’t even get started.”
You can empower your team to receive criticism graciously by modeling these behaviors yourself.
If you’re respectful when you offer feedback and grateful when it’s offered to you, you’ll build an atmosphere of trust.
The Takeaway: Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, if issues are addressed respectfully and constructively, it makes your team stronger.
In a culture with both fanatical support and healthy conflict, everyone can push each other to achieve more. David emphasizes that teams shouldn’t settle for small goals. He says that there are three types: regular goals are ones you can easily meet, while stretch goals feel just out of reach but attainable. Beyond both of those are supernova goals—the ones you think you’ll never meet no matter how hard you try.
“I always want the supernova goals,” he says emphatically. He explains why with an example. Let’s say you set a goal of $280 million and reach only $260 million. You’ve failed, but you’re better off than if you set a comfortable goal of $220 million and exceed it by hitting $240 million. If all of your goals are easy to achieve, you’ll never push yourself to reach your true potential.
“I know what people are capable of,” David says. “It’s always more than they think that they're capable of. I have a Darth Vader reputation—really driving people.” He balances this tough guy motivation with plenty of praise and affirmation. When his team meets a supernova goal, he throws a supernova celebration.
The Takeaway: If you set small goals, you’ll make small progress. But if you challenge yourself and your team, you’ll help them exceed their own expectations.
In business, as in life, our expectations can be self-fulfilling prophecies. So David says it’s important to put doubt out of your mind.
Your team shouldn’t just hope they can win. Your team should believe they absolutely will—and refuse to quit until they do.
Without this resolve, it’s easy to compromise. “I don't like it when people sugarcoat it. ‘Well, we came close to our goal,’” David says. “No, you lost. You failed. You didn't do what you said you were going to do.” He returns to the heist analogy, adding that no bank robber would celebrate a partial success: “Oh, you know, we almost got away...we should get credit for that.’”
He teaches the same relentlessness to his children. “I leave messages for my sons. They're seven,” he explains. “One that’s up there now is: ‘The most important thing,’ … and then the next one is just: ‘Never quit.’” He wants them to grow up with a sense of determination. Because if you believe you will win, he says, you will.
The Takeaway: Whether you anticipate a victory or a loss, your prediction can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Encourage your team to expect success, and they’ll be more likely to achieve it.
As you motivate your team to success, it’s tempting to think of winning in terms of revenue. But David believes this is a narrow definition. “It depends what you’re trying to do,” he says. “However you define winning, that’s what success is.” A true win will advance your company’s core purpose, not just its bottom line.
For example, Greenlight Guru helps medical device manufacturers comply with regulations, but their purpose extends beyond that. David’s team isn’t just checking the box on quality assurance; they’re making high-quality medical devices better for the end consumer. David says, “What we’re trying to do here is improve the quality of life. When we’re improving the quality of life, we’re winning.”
A true win will advance your company’s core purpose, not just its bottom line.
A motivational leader doesn’t win just for the sake of winning. He gives his team a reason to win. And that makes all the difference.
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