How a Founder’s Mentality Encourages Employee Recognition

How a Founder’s Mentality Encourages Employee Recognition

Thinking like a founder is different than thinking like an employee. Whether they want to or not, a founder has some part of their identity wrapped up in the company. They feel praise and blame of the company more acutely; it’s on their minds all the time, even when they’d rather it not be. And they feel a spirited commitment to improving the product and growing the company—in ways that can fire up an entire team.

But that sort of commitment doesn’t have to be limited to just the person who was there at the creation. It’s a feeling that can be transmitted and encouraged throughout an organization. All employees can learn to feel a degree of urgency and creativity about the company and its future—with a real desire to do more, build more, and create more company success.

Cultivating a team that embraces this “founder’s mentality” means:

  • Fostering an organization of flexible, creative “owners”
  • Executing with great attention to detail
  • “Connecting the dots” across the organization
  • Wanting to build something lasting
  • Not being afraid to get our hands dirty in the process

An organization like that can do remarkable things, and it can make employees feel empowered in a way that goes well beyond conventional metrics of success like compensation or titles.

How can we encourage that level of care and concern for employees who weren’t there from the first days of an entrepreneurial endeavor? One simple way: Recognize achievements more frequently and more vocally with meaningful employee recognition.

Why employee recognition matters

Employee recognition matters because your employees matter. It sounds simple, but in a fast-moving and fast-growing organization, it’s tough to let wins go unnoticed once the next crisis starts. Managers and leaders who take time to recognize achievements can enable employees to feel like they own their successes—and own the company’s success by extension.

It doesn’t have to take annual reviews to make sure that an employee that hits a game-winning shot is recognized. With a successful product release or a bug fix or a deal closed, make sure the person who notched a win knows it—and knows that they’re as much a founder of the company as anyone else.

This is also the easiest thing to push to the wayside in the midst of the day-to-day intensity and rapid response that is part of a fast-growing organization. We focus on inbox zero; we forget to champion our colleagues and coworkers. And yet, it’s the single best way to make sure that people feel like they aren’t just putting in the hours but have an ownership stake in the company, its products, and its success.

How employee recognition translates to a “founder’s mentality”

Founders feel agency over success and failure—and that feeling can be communicated to others. If people feel a profound role in a company’s triumphs, they’re more likely to want to keep winning, continue noticing areas for improvement, and steering the company—as opposed to waiting for instructions.

There’s a lot of talk about “flat” teams, but the best teams don’t say they’re “flat”—they become that way culturally because the people who make up the team feel invested in the company. They feel willing to own problems and decisions and to speak up regardless of rank or hierarchy. When people at every level feel this way, they are more willing to take risks, push the limit, try new projects, and not wait to get things done.

Recognizing and spotlighting those moments can help to build this kind of culture, and one way is to make sure that successes are praised and done so with enthusiasm. This also sets a tone: Every single person in the company shares in its recognition. Every team member contributes to the whole. That’s how a “founder’s mentality” becomes part of the company’s air.

How to give good employee recognition

Good employee recognition is specific and timely. Don’t wait to make someone feel recognized for something great they accomplished. In other words: Send a short note instead of waiting to edit a long one. As in product development, employee recognition can happen in sprints. Move fast and praise quickly.

In some ways, the format matters less than the intention: If employees know that their successes are tied to the team’s future, they will begin to think like founders. Be explicit: It’s okay to use the phrase “founder’s mentality” and to make it a part of a good company culture.

This doesn’t take much. Some ideas to start recognizing employees for their wins could be:

  • An email from the CEO directly to someone who made a contribution
  • A monthly program to recognize people who notched a win or advanced a product
  • All-company recognition for a team or a small group that pushed something against all odds
  • Giving someone who contributed in a big way a platform—an internal AMA, or a chance to get media

In these communications, it’s critical to tie the individual or group’s effort and achievements to broader company goals and mission. That way, those on the receiving end know that they aren’t just toiling away and incrementally helping—their effort is intimately bound up with the future of the company.

Recognition within an organization compounds—the more a company highlights its ace players, the more people feel comfortable offering up recognition. Think about it: too many of us have worked at places where moments of appreciation and employee recognition were few and far between. But many of us can also remember back to a specific moment when someone recognized our hard work—and how long the halo effect of that moment lasted.

Remember: founders fail too—so recognize failure!

In a famous story about the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos found a unique way to recognize employees’ focus on customers:

Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos started the Just Do It Award back in the mid-2000s. Any Amazonians who tried to fix a customer-related problem on their own, did it without asking permission from their managers, and offered a reasonable explanation for the effort after the fact—whether it ended in success or failure—got an old Nike sneaker as a badge of honor, something employees loved to hang at their workspace. (from Jim Stengel’s Unleashing the Innovators)

Two things are useful from this story:

  1. Recognition can be unique (e.g., an old shoe). Feel free to break with the norm on how you recognize employees
  2. Amazon was open to recognizing people who took a risk and failed—because learning from and moving beyond failure was a part of Amazon’s success.

Founders fail. They fail all the time. And employees need to feel empowered and even recognized for big risks that don’t work out in addition to big wins that do. Part of being a Conscious Company means accepting that failure is necessary for success; that’s why our operating value of Be 20% Wrong, Chase 10x is important. Because if you’re never wrong, you’re doing it wrong.

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