IVP: How do you keep employees motivated when times are tough?
Mickos: Keeping employees focused, energized and motivated is a task for the entire leadership team, but in my experience, it only resonates if the CEO leads with authenticity and consistency.
Being authentic means you don’t sugarcoat the bad news and you admit your own shortcomings. These days, any leader could ask ChatGPT to write a wonderful staff email that highlights the company’s mission statement and your bold plans for the future. AI can produce a beautifully written piece of BS that looks great on the surface, but has no depth, no drama, no truth. People don’t work for businesses, they work for humans, which is why employees see right through inauthentic leadership.
Every action a CEO takes should also be repetitive and consistent. If you choose to communicate with your employees, you must keep doing it. If you choose honesty, you must stay honest. If you choose to be tough, you have to stay tough and if you choose to be soft, you have to stay soft. I often think of a CEO as a chief reminding officer because you have to repeat things more often than you probably want to. As CEO, you may know a fact or figure like the back of your hand, but the rest of the organization might not, so the repetition may be for your team’s benefit more than your own.
CEOs should also build and nurture multiple ways to communicate with employees. At HackerOne, we do "donut sessions," which are quick conversations on Zoom between two randomly selected employees. We also do regular Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions and have Slack channels for both business purposes and less business-oriented topics. By having multiple, quick, two-way channels for communication, we make sure every employee is engaged and in high spirits.
Lastly, a big part of being authentic is to make sure you’re not just talking the talk but walking the walk. For instance, during the second year of COVID, we instituted Wellness Wednesdays at HackerOne, where employees were encouraged to sign off at 2pm to spend time with their families, relax or take care of various chores at home. In the fall of 2022, when energy prices were soaring, we instituted a special supplement to employees’ pay to help offset their increasing gas and energy bills. Given that most of our employees work from home, we felt the company had to help employees fight energy inflation.
We also have a lot of young workers who had never experienced a recession, so around that time, I wrote my monthly CEO email to our employees, but instead of discussing the company’s goals and performance, I shared my tips for managing personal finances when times are tough, based on my experience living through recessions in the past. These actions were a huge motivational boost for our employees because it demonstrated an acknowledgment of their hard work and a tangible concern for their well-being.