The Secret To Attracting The “A Team”… It’s Not What You Think!

How would you manage a budget of $80 BILLION with a dedicated goal of creating cutting edge technologies?

Conventional wisdom:  It’s easy.  “Show them the money,” attracting the best and the brightest, motivate them with generous stock options, deluxe office space, and stand back to reap the rewards of their awesome innovations.

The conundrum facing Steve VanRoekel, CIO, U.S. (government, that is – which happens to be the largest spender in the world on technology) and Todd Park, CTO, U.S., is they had none of the traditional perks, no stock options, only modest salaries and barely functional office space.  Yet, charged with the goal of instigating the creation of ground-breaking and game changing technologies, they were able to accomplish the feat of attracting and retaining the best and the brightest talent in a highly competitive marketplace.

As guests in our UCLA MBA Graduate class on digital technologies, our students asked how they could possibly accomplish this?

“Motivate by the mission,” was Todd’s response.

He shared that the best entrepreneurs he met in the private sector were not motivated by the stock options, but by the fact that they couldn’t stand the idea of the world not having whatever they were working on.  Driven by the mission to serve their country is what incentivized them, not the money.

This got me thinking…

For thousands of years, our species has searched for meaning to become part of something bigger than just themselves. Today’s psychological researchers and brain scientists assert that beliefs are so embedded into our human biology that we are wired to make sense of things.  When people discover this meaning, whether it’s your organization’s vision and mission, your product’s promise, a political cause, religious belief, it becomes a rallying cry and they give their best performance.  The “soft stuff” really counts.

In my experience in the entertainment and sports enterprises, where pay days are huge, invariably this is not the sole motivation for those at the top to take on a role or compete in an event.  Consider my film, Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman which focused on the relationship between two brothers, one of whom was autistic, Hoffman, the other one indifferent to his brother’s challenge, Cruise. This project went through five years of rough and tumble development.

What kept them involved?

It wasn’t just the money.  It was the meaning of the mission which was to impact the way audiences related to the physically and mentally challenged. And they succeeded. While Rain Man won four major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in letters that poured into our offices, moviegoers told us that the film had inspired them to be more compassionate, supportive, and proactive in dealing with the people in their own lives who had autism, Alzheimer’s disease, or other illnesses.

And major, major sports stars are no different.  Take professional basketball – why is competition so cut throat among the legends of the sport to compete in the Olympics?  Not for the money.  There is none. It’s for the meaning of playing and winning for your country.

Many companies have mission statements where the meaning is meaningless and employees are uninspired.  Top talent will give you more than their time – they’ll give their blood, sweat and tears, fueled by a mission that matters.