Employee Motivation Tips: How to Hire for Motivation

Scott Leese

Jim Collins and his research team spent years studying the attributes that separated good companies from great companies, encapsulated in his book Good To Great. Though there are many qualities that the great companies shared in common, the first one – get the right people on the bus – was a surprise to Collins. 

Collins wrote that the leaders of great companies “did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, ‘Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.’”  

This couldn’t be more true. For true employee motivation you need to start with motivated people. The question then becomes how do you find the right people to get on the bus and how do you make sure they’re motivated to deliver their best work? Here is the formula that I use. 


The first thing that I do is ask someone to explain their life story. I want to know their background. I want to know what their childhood was like: the sports and activities they were involved in, how much trouble they got in, what classes they liked, and why. 

James Altucher advises people to find a way to make money doing what they loved as a kid. My friend, Max Altschuler, was always building with Legos as a kid and now he spends his time building companies. I was obsessed with sports and a die-hard competitor (and still am). Now I build teams and compete every single day in the world of selling. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

This may seem unnecessary but let’s remember a simple fact: I’m not hiring an employee, I’m hiring a person. As the leader, it’s my job to put the right people in the right places to succeed and I can’t do that until I know the team personally. 

Testing For Persistence

The next thing I want to know is how someone deals with adversity. Mike Tyson famously said that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. It’s not about the punch: I should have permanent black eyes based on how many times life has smacked me across the face. What’s important is how you respond to that adversity.

During the interview process, dig into examples that candidates have in their lives that illustrate their persistence in pursuing goals, and ability to get back up after being knocked down. Did the candidate finish a TuffMudder or UltraMarathon? If so, you can take it to the bank. They are pretty good at pushing through failure and hardship. Has the candidate discussed how they were the first person in their family to attend college, and worked two jobs while finishing classes to pay for it? Now that is somebody who persisted in the face of obstacles.  

Kevin Gaither, SVP Sales at Zip Recruiter told me recently on my podcast that after he asks someone to tell a story about how they lost a deal, he asks “Then what?” You lost a deal, so what? Did you sulk for the rest of the day or did you use it to fuel the rest of your day? 

I got my start in sales in the transactional sales world and we weren’t hunting million-dollar deals that take a year to formulate. I was winning and losing deals every day. So you need to be able to handle repeated losses, take a deep breath, and get back to grinding without your confidence waning. You can learn a lot about someone based on how they react to failure. 

Motivation & Hunger

The best way to understand someone’s motivation is to ask them. Point blank: how are you motivated? They’ll come back with a number of answers: money, recognition, power, growth. Those are all fine, but I want to get to a deeper level. If someone is motivated by money, why is that? Do they have student loans they’re paying off? Do they have a house or engagement ring they’re saving up for? Have they always dreamed of owning a Chanel purse? I want specifics and I want to look in their eyes to see how hungry they are to accomplish that.

Here’s a story about hunger that I wrote about in my book Addicted To The Process. In 2008, I gave a job interview to a guy I’ll call John. At the time, he was in his mid-thirties and had already hit rock bottom. He’d had a substance abuse problem, and he’d been locked up in jail for almost a year. 

In my interview with John, I could tell that he was ready to change his life. He wanted a new way forward but wasn’t sure how to get there. We brought him into the company as an entry-level salesperson and John rose through the ranks to a top individual producer and later grew into sales management. John’s a friend of mine now and we’ve worked together at three different companies. John is now a SVP of Sales at a prominent SaaS company and makes mid six figures, while giving folks opportunities to change their lives the way he did. Legend.

Sometimes leaders spend too much time focusing on past accomplishments and failures and not enough time on learning about what is driving this person. Most people would have passed on John: that would have been the easy decision. But I’m glad that I took the chance on someone I knew was hungry. 

Where are they?

The days are gone of searching sites like Monster, Craigslist, CareerBuilder etc. for talent when hiring for sales. In fact, I have spent zero dollars on recruiting and finding sales talent in the last 5 years. How?

  1. Grow your network. 
  2. Add value. 
  3. Do what you said you would do.
  4. Then do some more. 
  5. Help people.

I spent tens of thousands of hours in the last few years building up my network and brand on LinkedIn. I am connected with people all across the country, and overseas. The talent pool I’m able to draw from is huge because of this. 

Once you have a sizable network, and are a known commodity, you begin to attract more of the right candidates to your roles and to your company. The ROI is massive. It’s not that hard to do. It does require your time, consistency and good storytelling. What part of being good at your job doesn’t though?

Wrapping Up

As a leader, your most important job is to hire the right people. It can be as much an art as it is a science. Although I have a gameplan going into an interview, sometimes you have a feeling in your gut about someone that you can’t ignore. You can see in the whites of their eyes whether they really want it – or if it’s all a gimmick. But don’t just trust that. Test it. Ask questions around it and confirm that your Spidey-sense was working properly.

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull wrote that “if you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.” That’s the type of team you’re hiring for. Not just people to make more calls, but people who can help lead the organization in a stronger direction and make a real impact. 

A good product, culture, funding: these are all great. But they fall short if you don’t have an outstanding team behind them. Hopefully, with the above strategy – and some good gut decisions – you’ll be on your way to hiring a group of A-players.

Scott Leese