Jason Kulpa is the founder and CEO of technology-based marketing company Underground Elephant. Since the company’s launch in 2008, it has become a leader in technology-based marketing and is one of the fastest-growing advertising agencies in San Diego. Kulpa was named the Most Admired CEO in 2010 by the San Diego Business Journal and is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization.

Business owners have little challenge with motivating themselves to go the extra mile, but how can they get others to mirror that work ethic? This can often be a painful point for entrepreneurs because they see success related to time and energy spent on projects, when in reality there is often a disconnect between employees and ownership of the company they work at.

Often, employees do only the required amount of work rather than take the extra steps needed when growing an enterprise. Think of how powerful the company would be if you were able to clone the same drive and passion you have for making your company successful. This could be possible if you began creating a mentality that your employees were CEOs in their own right.

Throughout my journey as a startup CEO, I’ve found that empowering my employees to feel, act, and most importantly, work like CEOs has been a key factor in the success of the business, time and time again. The environment here is conducive to innovation, and employees embrace an owner’s view from all aspects. By taking ownership of creative, challenging projects, each person is able to develop into a business-savvy professional, to think outside the box and to make experience-driven, intelligent decisions.

A culture that encourages ownership also fosters a sense of employee investment; therefore our employees take pride in their work and value the footprint that they are able to leave on the company. I’ve managed to do this by creating a few key initiatives, and most importantly, by digging in and sticking to those initiatives. For example:

  • Creating a competitive environment that mirrors the increasingly aggressive market landscape. Competition is an intrinsic and powerful motivator, therefore creating a work environment where employees can quantify and compare individual benchmarks will channel competitive spirit and increase performance. For example: high-stake “hack-a-thons” where developers who devise the most innovative new feature or product solution are rewarded with a hefty cash bonus.
  • Empowering and rewarding creativity. Innovation is key to a business’ success and is an important quality to reinforce and reward as it motivates employees to take ownership of their ideas. At Underground Elephant, we’ve been known to reward the achievement of exceeding challenging performance benchmarks with the occasional new car — a lasting reminder of a job well done.
  • Making work fun — A LOT of fun. The better the work environment, the more time employees will want to spend there. At Underground Elephant we have an in-office foosball table, a pool table (with regular tournaments), and at the holidays we bring in a cash machine — just a few examples of how we make work fun.

Many executives wonder who else can do the job better than they can.

I think there is a lot of truth to this. Put employees in your shoes, saddle them with a taste of your responsibility and reward them at the level of which you’d expect to be rewarded. This in turn creates a recipe for incredible overall success for the business.

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9 responses to “Why creating competition can help motivate employees”

  1. Totally about with you on how disconnection between staff and owners has hindered business growth. It is an area I help my clients on too. Great ideas you suggested. I would say: let employees feel the heat and excitement of business competition and that WOW sensation of winning worked brilliantly.

  2. James Strock says:

    Terrific post. An organizational culture that is focused on excellence needs to ensure that everyone is valued and has room for growth toward their calling. That is not a recipe for softness or lack of accountability. Rather, as you suggest, it requires a kind of 'tough love.'

  3. This echoes what Dan Pink writes about in his book, Drive: empowering employees with a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Unfortunately, while many pay lip service to the concept Jason writes about ("empowering employees to feel, act and…work like CEOs) the typical "command-and-control" culture of many organizations gets in the way.

    There are glimmers of hope, however. And we're not left being inspired only by initiatives in high tech companies like Jason's. I wrote recently about Beryl, a call center company for the healthcare industry, where the CEO invited 24 employees across all functions of the business to write a book with him.

    He prepared the Introduction, they worked in teams to contribute chapters…read about the effects of this simple, business- and morale-boosting initiative here: http://bit.ly/rBR4vd. A brilliant example of what Dan Pink (and Jason) talk about — in action!

  4. So true – employees at all levels want to enjoy their day while working hard and smart but it’s tough to do if the boss is not engaged or gives “ownership” and is not engaged or supportive. If an employee thinks about ways to avoid going to work every day what is the issue?

  5. Teddy says:

    Competition does breed success. Getting up and doing the same old thing for a paycheck is not the most motivating factor for people. We all like recognition and competition helps promote recognition.

    At most companies the only time you hear your name called is when you screwed up or getting fired. Hearing your name called and receiving some type of reward helps motivate all employees

  6. Killjoy says:

    Can anyone point to a public company that has this kind of "fun" model? (Don't say Google b/c that's a myth). Spending VC money is fun, but shareholders won't put up with it.

  7. marc zazeela says:

    Great ideas, Jason. I also think it boils down to respect. If you treat others like you would have them treat you, it can work wonders. After all, a company is only as good as the folks who work there.


  8. jacobTynes says:

    Empowering employees is the key to driving a dynamic culture.