To win others’ participation — heart, mind, and soul — we IT leaders need to ensure they understand the personal benefits of what we are asking them to do.

I’ve spent 35 years as an IT leader in the corporate world. I’ve also had the privilege of serving as an executive coach to more than 400 IT leaders across the world. And one question I hear from the people I work with time and again is “Larry, how do I motivate people?”

IT leaders recognize that the ability to motivate others — their teams, their peers, their clients, their partners — is essential to their success, particularly in this era of ongoing technology-driven transformation. But many still struggle. From my vantage point as a lifelong IT professional, the reason is clear. One of the key success factors in motivating others is shifting the focus from the “hows” of what needs to happen to the “whys”. But that’s not the way IT folks are wired.

If I talk to an IT project manager, they can always whip out an eight-page Gantt chart detailing all kinds of tasks, deliverables, dates, dependencies, and milestones. If there’s one thing, we in IT know it’s how to get things done. But when I ask them why anyone will care about their initiative, I get far less in the way of explanation. Sure, we’d all like to think that people will be motivated to do what’s right for the organization. But a belief in altruism is hardly a motivation strategy.

While I detest technology acronyms, there’s one acronym I am a huge fan of: WIIFT (“What’s in it for them?). If you want to influence others to do something, you need to make clear what they stand to gain from the effort. While the reasons for our transformation initiatives are abundantly clear to us, asking others to run the marathon of digital change is a huge emotional ask. The journey demands many sacrifices of time, effort and comfort. To win others’ participation — heart, mind, and soul — we IT leaders need to ensure they understand the personal benefits of what we are asking them to do.

A Shift in Approach

For, IT leaders, the days of our value being tied to our personal technical acumen are in the past. Our companies are investing millions of dollars into IT with expectation that IT can rally large groups of people with diverse agendas around a common goal.

Many IT leaders make the mistake of trying to motivate people by getting them excited about IT’s agenda. But no matter how influential or effective IT leaders are at articulating their own plans, that approach has a 50/50 shot at best of getting other people excited about doing what needs to be done.

On the other hand, if I can get you to understand how by doing the things that I’m asking you do, you can actually accomplish more of your own personal agenda, the probability of getting your support goes up dramatically. How will you benefit from what I’m asking of you? What’s in it for you?

I’ve seen people who initially opposed my ideas suddenly get on board once they realized how they could benefit from taking the approach I was suggesting. We’ve probably all had experiences in which someone who never had the time to participate in a project suddenly find space in their calendar once they realized the visibility and positive results it will create for them. When we want to motivate others, the best thing we can do is to connect those dots.

The Power of the Personal Value Proposition

For 15 years, I served as CIO for a mid-sized not-for-profit organization. From my office I could have thrown a rock and hit ITT Industries, PepsiCo, Avon, and Starwood Hotels just to name a few of the Fortune 500 companies that could have paid my people 30 to 40% more. Yet, I only lost two people I wanted to retain during my tenure. One was a Software Developer who ran our cloud strategy who did such a great job that AWS offered him a role doubling his salary. The other was a systems administrator who commuted four hours a day for eight years and found a job ten minutes from home. I was happy for them both. The rest of my team stayed.

Clearly, it wasn’t a big paycheck or a brand name on the building that kept people engaged in the work we were doing. It was connecting the work to what really mattered to them.

I refer to this motivation approach as creating “personal value propositions”. My job as a leader is to ensure that my team members understand how working here benefits them — not just professionally, but personally.

I had a key leader whose youngest child was entering her junior year of high school and planning to head to the west coast for college with plans to attend med school after that. He knew that once she left, he’d no longer be a part of her day-to-day life so those last two years at home were precious to him. Every Wednesday afternoon he would knock on my office door to say “Larry, I’m going to my daughter’s soccer match!” I’d say, “I hope she scores a goal!”

Another one of my leaders had a child with autism (which hits a chord with me as my youngest daughter has autism). Every Friday he set up shop to work from home — and this was back in the days when remote work was “frowned upon”. This allowed him to take his son to physical and speech therapy sessions.

In each case, I knew these things mattered to them — not as IT leaders, but as people. Giving them a little flexibility let them know that I had their backs. And when people know you have their backs, they have yours! I once received a comment on my 360-degree feedback report facilitated by The Hay Group: “Larry’s people would kick down the gates of hell for him.” It was one of the greatest compliments I ever received in my professional life; it confirmed that my people knew I cared about them.

In all these scenarios, my focus was on the “why”. Why should you care about this project? Why should you work as a part of my team? Why will you benefit personally and professionally from the things we are trying to accomplish? My experience confirms that when people have a clear and meaningful “why”, they will figure out the “how”.

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