“You are only as good as your people. One of the most powerful ways to really move your business ahead is to upgrade your staff.”

No, this doesn’t just simply mean firing everyone and replacing them with higher-performing people. There are lots of other creative ways to upgrade your staff, but for starters you need to put some energy and effort into it. Here are some specific ways to upgrade your staff.

Who Is Doing What?

One of the easiest ways to upgrade your staff is to take a look at who is doing what. Are the most appropriate people doing the most appropriate work? Too often in a small company, growing in fits and starts and with few people initially, people end up doing tasks that they are not the best suited to perform. Before you hire a new person, even before you write a new job description, stop and take a hard look at who is doing what and consider redistributing responsibilities.

How Motivated Are They?

Are your employees as motivated as they can be in general? Most entrepreneurs take their employees’ motivation for granted, but they shouldn’t. There is no way you should expect to get great performances from employees if you aren’t giving some effort to motivating them. Sure, you can set up bonus programs, profit-sharing plans, and prizes for special performances. But that’s really the superficial stuff.

Employees want to know what the vision of the company is, where it is going, and where they fit in. They want to know how their contribution matters. And they want to know that their voice is heard. They want to know that you care about them. They want to have a solid idea of what is expected of them, what criteria their performance will be measured against. They want to get raises and bonuses where appropriate, not just because they want more money, but to also show that they are recognized.

Employees also want to feel that they belong, that they are part of a group, a community—a community that matters, and that they matter to the community. They may at times get into conflicts with you, their supervisor, or their coworkers, and they want to feel they are treated fairly. They want to know why you have workplace rules. They want to know what their future might be.

Addressing all of these motivational issues and more is a lot of work! When running a business, especially without a dedicated HR person, you can’t drop everything and focus on it. But it is the kind of work that has the potential to dramatically move your business ahead.

You may be thinking, “I have just one or two employees; why I should I focus on it?” Well, often it is tougher to keep just one or two employees happily motivated than it is twenty! They don’t have a lot of other coworkers to mingle with, there is less opportunity to build social ties in the office, there appears to be less opportunity for advancement, and a small office can simply feel claustrophobic. So even if you have one part-time employee, thinking some about employee motivation is something you should do.

Upgrade Your Hiring Practices

Upgrading the caliber of new employee hiring is one easy way to transition to a stronger workforce. Although I offer lots of advice on hiring elsewhere, it basically amounts to this: if you want to hire great people you need to give it great effort! You need to get a large pool of applicants to start with, you need to spend a lot of time and energy sorting through them, and you need an attractive package and a compelling vision to lure them.

Differentiate between Critical and Noncritical Positions

When it comes to upgrading your workforce, you can differentiate between critical and noncritical positions. You are probably not going to drive your company ahead by firing your cleaning person for lower-quality work. But if you replace a mediocre director of sales or director of engineering with a top-caliber candidate, then that could make a big difference indeed.

Some positions in most workplaces are just relatively boring and mundane. In such jobs, you can’t expect to always have people who are brilliant or super motivated. In fact, in such positions, you may be better off having people who are not necessarily rocket scientists or super ambitious but are still good people, because in these kinds of jobs those people might be more likely to stay there for a long time—and I’ll tell you turnover has a lot of hidden costs. The price of getting someone new up to speed in most any position is probably a lot more than meets the eye.

I think back to some of the good people I had working for me over the years in support positions, jobs like customer service or accounting. People who overwhelmingly took their work seriously but would sometimes make mistakes that perhaps a Harvard MBA would not, or who had a bad period at work perhaps because of a personal issue.

Especially if the person had been with us for a while, I might cringe when I heard what the mistake was, but I’d usually encourage their manager to retain the employee. Now and then I would also hear about something incredible they did that impressed me. Sometimes it was something they were able to do because of the knowledge and familiarity they had gained after staying with our business for a long time, or sometimes it was how they went above and beyond the call of duty trying to be loyal to a company who had been loyal to them.

A Crisis Can Really Bring Out Workplace Issues

If you’re like me, you probably don’t put a lot of energy into motivation and people management until you have a crisis! For example, around the year 2000, Internet businesses were popping up like crazy; college students would write business plans and get funded the next week. Especially around tech centers like Boston, where my publishing business was located, start-up Internet sites were super aggressively recruiting new employees. They particularly were looking for editors, marketing, and publicity people—just the people I needed to run my business! I felt like our company was under siege! I lost every single one of my half dozen senior book editors and at one point the only editor I had left was a freshly minted college grad with just two weeks of experience! I was reading and editing book manuscripts myself every chance I had.

Worse, the employees who remained were totally demotivated. Internet companies were offering to double their salaries if they left. It was a terrible time. It didn’t matter that most of those Internet start-ups failed within a couple of years and some employees came back looking for their old jobs. I had a huge morale problem and a huge hiring problem.

So all at once, in addition to trying to keep the business running, I had to give myself a crash course in motivating employees in a difficult environment and quickly recruit new high-performing workers. So my advice for you is, even if you don’t feel it’s a priority to upgrade or motivate your staff today, try to give it some effort before you get into a crisis.

The bottom line is, if you have any employees at all, you should find time to put together a plan for motivating them. If you really want to use your staff as a way to move your business ahead, then you should come up with a carefully thought-out human resources strategy and put some energy into it.

Takeaways You Can Use

  • Are you communicating your vision?
  • Make sure employees feel their work matters.
  • Look closely at upgrading critical positions.