3 IT Lessons From Entrepreneurs

Think startup culture exists in some alternate reality where normal business rules don't apply? Far from it. In fact, CIOs can learn a lot from entrepreneurs

If you watch Shark Tank, you might be thinking, “Pitching frozen gumbo bricks just doesn't relate to securing wireless routers and deflecting denial of service attacks.” But trust me, you can pick up some valuable tips from entrepreneurs -- the successful ones, anyway. There are also some cautionary tales, seeing as 40% of startups are bankrupt in three years, according to Harvard Business School’s Shikhar Ghosh. But that’s for another column. Today let's stay positive and focus on one practical, actionable concept: motivating the people who work for you.

What’s that? You don’t even like managing people, let alone actively working to motivate them? They don't listen. They don’t get to the objective you want them to reach. They’re always behind schedule. 

Stop right here. That's Managing People 101. Motivating people is a whole different area of concentration. That brings us to lesson No. 1:

Entrepreneurs know it’s not about money
If you haven’t read Frederick Herzberg's business-oriented research on what motivates people, let me summarize. Herzberg tells us that while salary is absolutely necessary in the motivation equation and must be there at a minimum level, it isn't the only, or the most important, thing.

All that squishy, esoteric, psychological stuff? It applies to network engineers. These factors, handled wrong, breed dissatisfaction: company policies and administration, technical and personal supervision, work conditions, salary, and relationships with peers. Motivators, on the other hand, are less concrete, but it’s here you find opportunities to get people fired up: achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, promotions, and growth. Now we’re talking! This is something we can sink our teeth into. The takeaway, and something entrepreneurs know, is that the No. 1 “motivator” is achievement -- to work hard on a challenging project, get it done successfully, and feel good about yourself.


Make sure your people are covered on the areas that can breed dissatisfaction and have nonmenial tasks that they can tackle and win. Then, overall motivation should stay high.

Read Herzberg. Keep a list of the key factors in the graphic, above (16 of them, to be exact). Run through the list once a month with your team, and make sure you address each factor with each person. I did it in our software company. I know it works because our team was the most productive in its industry niche. And I like having a matrix for techies because it dispenses with emotion.

You might need the support of human resources, or maybe you can just do it. If you’re struggling to implement even a monthly sit-down, maybe we do need to address Managing People 101.

Lesson 2: Entrepreneurs know how to communicate
You can’t motivate people or even manage them very well if you don’t communicate clearly. Weak communication wastes inordinate amounts of time. Do you often have to repeat yourself? Ask for one thing and get another? Wouldn’t it be better to just get it right the first time?

Entrepreneurs tend to be good communicators. Here’s a tip: When talking to a person to whom you just gave important instructions, say “Tell me what you just heard.” And you do it, too. Say, “Make sure I heard this correctly.” Then get agreement on the message. Write it down if feasible, but more importantly, look at their eyes. You will be able to tell if they understood.

 “Repeating it back” comes from a memory phenomenon explained in “Brain Rules” by John Medina. If you listen to an instruction set only once and don't repeat it, your short-term memory will most likely lose or reconstruct the instructions differently.

Actually, when in learning/training mode, Medina suggests repeating key concepts to be remembered two minutes and 10 minutes after the discussion to firmly lock them into memory. There is way more to this topic, but try the tip first. As your second-grade teacher Sister Agnes always preached, “repetition, repetition.”

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Worse than not communicating clearly is not communicating at all. Here is an unequivocal rule: People hate not knowing. And its sub-rule: When people don’t know, they make stuff up. A communication vacuum is how rumors get out of hand. Always give your people as much information as you possibly can, within the bounds of propriety. If you think that takes too much time, remind yourself how long it takes to correct misinformation. Don’t guess about what matters. I know I was surprised the first time I asked my team what information they felt was lacking.

Lesson 2: Entrepreneurs love their customers
I know that sounds mushy, but I swear to you, successful entrepreneurs love their customers. They respect them. They listen to them willingly and constantly. They cherish them. They know customers want to feel that the entrepreneur has heard them and understands them and will solve their problem and cares, deeply, about the pain their problem causes.

And then the entrepreneur extracts money in exchange for products and services. We know who’s paying the bills, but we make sure the customer is happy to write that check.

What does that have to do with motivating your people? As a CIO, it’s about tying the first two lessons together. It’s your job to love the dreaded “business types,” including those annoying salespeople. You know the drill. They always want more services — NOW — and don't understand how difficult and costly they are to implement. But you need those people. They’re the ones who get your people those non-menial tasks that can fire them up. They're the ones who feed you that critical information your people are dying to know.

If relations have been strained, suck it up and start fresh. Lay out a simple process to gather needs from the business. Make it friendly, not onerous. Ask for a less-than-one-page description of what they need and why (don't dictate the format; they speak a different language than you do). This is not a BRD (business requirements document) or an FRD (functional requirements document). It’s a jumping off point.

Then, have a no-more-than-30-minute meeting and ask them to explain what they wrote. Don't do this by email or, worse, some internal form. Do stick to the time limit. It forces the dreamers to focus. Once you digest what they said, you can do a more formal requirements doc. But hear them out.

Plus, you could learn their business domain better. Successful entrepreneurs do this cross-pollination all the time. Get to know that sales guy. You may find that you have a lot in common. No more “us vs. them.” Offer to run some short information sessions on what IT is working on and facing as problems.

Remember, people hate not knowing.

Oh, and if you’re tired of all the hype and attention given to entrepreneurs, feel good that you can improve your lot in life by learning from them -- and about the fact that, within five years, half of them will be out of business and coming to you for a job.

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