Not So Lonely at the Top: 7 Places Executives Can Look for External Motivation

Motivation comes in two forms: internal and external — intrinsic and extrinsic, in technical parlance.

September 20, 2017
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Motivation comes in two forms: internal and external — intrinsic and extrinsic, in technical parlance.

Most workers are subject to both forms of motivation. They’re extrinsically motivated by deadlines, performance incentives, and the fear of losing out on a promotion (or losing their jobs altogether) if they don’t do their jobs.

Executives and business owners are externally accountable as well, but their calculus is a bit different. They have fewer day-to-day extrinsic motivators, and they tend to be more concrete: worries about quarterly numbers, qualifying for performance-based compensation, making good on goals set in consultation with the board.

Nevermind that a growing body of evidence suggests that intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation. The story certainly isn’t as simple as many would like it to be — that attempting to motivate senior employees externally is a total waste of time.

Senior employees, including C-level executives, need to look beyond themselves for inspiration — if only to bolster their own intrinsic motivation drives. These seven places work well for many.

1. “Peers-Plus”

Everyone has role models. When we’re young, we tend to look up to people who aren’t much older than us: senior siblings, upperclassmen, coaches’ assistants, older neighbor kids, and so on.

As we age into the workforce, we get used to working across generational lines, and gaps of a couple-three years don’t seem like such a big deal. But maybe they should. Younger executives in particular can learn a lot from “peers-plus” — family members, colleagues, and acquaintances just slightly ahead of them in the generational hierarchy.

Look, you still don’t have to do everything your big brother says. Maybe just listen to his advice, or take stock of his professional milestones, every once in a while.

2. Spiritual Guides

You don’t have to believe to draw inspiration and motivation from those who do. Do yourself a favor and download a spiritual podcast or sermon transcript to get yourself out of your cluttered, worldly headspace. Accepting that it’s okay not to have all the answers right now is a powerful thing — just as long as you never stop seeking them.

3. Subject Matter Experts

If you’re a competitive type, you’re probably a little intimidated by people who know more about your area of expertise than you do. That’s healthy, as long as you’re willing to learn from them. Use their example as fodder for your (necessary) campaign to get better at your job. Soon enough, maybe you’ll be sitting in their chairs.

4. Professional Mentors

If you’re sitting in the C-suite, or close to it, your professional mentor may well have departed your organization already. That’s fine. Having someone who’s intimately familiar with your duties and responsibilities just a call or text away is invaluable. It’s even better when they work two offices down from yours. When you need a pep talk, you know where to go.

5. Educational Mentors

Educational mentors, like your old business school professor or dissertation advisor, might not have day-to-day visibility into your life or even know all that much about what you do. The important thing is their perspective — they know a lot of people like you, and that puts them in a great position to dispense frank nuggets of advice and inspiration.

6. The Joneses

Someone’s gotta keep up with them.

Measuring oneself against one’s social peers is a messy, sometimes sordid business. Unless your friends and neighbors are also your competitors for the COO slot, be cautious about direct or even literal comparisons. They’re party to different opportunities, following different paths from A to B.

That said, their example is worth considering. It’s perfectly healthy, even natural, to be jealous of Sandra’s new title — and if that’s what it takes you to advocate a little louder for yourself, so be it.

7. Pop Culture Icons

…Really?

Sure, why not? Most people who qualify as “pop culture icons” are formidable workers — they’ve gotten where they are by gritting their teeth and turning in performance after performance until someone gave them their shot.

They also tend to be well-off. Really well-off. That’s something to aspire to as well. It might just be more convincing than the promise of an annual bonus or an extra-juicy options package.

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