Ambition & motivation: two from the zoo

Ambition & Motivation

You have an ambitious company objective. You want to motivate people to achieve it. We know from Herzberg and other academics that there are five big motivators:

  • Challenge: an objective that challenges people’s thinking,
  • Purpose: a daily set of meaningful tasks,
  • Recognition: having somebody that recognizes and acknowledges the good work,
  • Reward: fair compensation for the job, and
  • Advancement: growth with new know-how.

And yet many executives struggle to build these five motivators into the initiatives they lead.


If you struggle too, try learning from a zoo.


Managing zookeepers is, on paper, a difficult job filled with low rewards, little advancement and some less than challenging tasks. Cleaning waste from animal enclosures is not my idea of an interesting or challenging task. The opportunities for zookeepers to move up the hierarchy are limited. The pay in most countries is half the average – it’s at minimum pay level.


With such obvious disadvantages, what motivates zookeepers? Zookeepers are a well-educated bunch as 80% of them have a university degree. They do the job because they choose to. Looking after animals is a big challenge. It’s bigger than the low pay, low recognition, and lack of opportunities for promotion.



Frame the real challenge

The real challenge for zookeepers isn’t cleaning cages. It’s unfair to limit the job description to this one task. The real challenge is caring for and looking after the animals.


This month, I’ve interviewed 33 engineers. None of them have jobs I’d want. All of them impressed me with their passion for the projects they are working on. It was great to see. They talked about their engineering projects with such energy and positivity. It was impossible not to be curious about the products they are developing.


The zookeepers and engineers have one thing in common: they choose how to frame the challenge they have. And the best frame it in a positive, meaningful way.


The desire people have to take on a big challenge comes down to how you, the executive, frame the challenge. That’s the real challenge to communicate to managers and employees.



Relationships matter for a powerful purpose

Zookeepers have positive, strong relationships with the animals they care for. Those relationships go to the core of what it is to be a zookeeper. Zookeepers preserve animals’ lives. In a few cases, their actions preserve species that are in danger of extinction. That gives the job a powerful purpose.


You don’t have to convince every last person to get behind you and your initiative before you start. I see global managers launch site visits, detailed communication campaigns, micro-sites, and blogs. These exist to satisfy the executive team’s ego and low self-esteem. The campaigns have far less impact on employees than a powerful purpose, simply communicated in dialogs.


A better, more efficient approach is to get positive people to join you and take action. These people will share ideas. They tend to give honest, constructive feedback. They are magnets for others who soon want to join the positive cause.


Ambitious objectives are rarely reached by building cult. You don’t need everyone’s approval. Zookeepers don’t. Start with the idea that you may not get everyone’s approval. Social approval is not everything; clear results are – as zookeepers know. Instead, build relationships that serve people’s positive purpose.



Zookeepers show us that the basis of great, engaging ambitions are twofold. First, frame the business challenge is a meaningful way. Secondly, seek out and choose enough positive relationships to enable you to take action. Do this with your ambitious objectives and you will certainly get ahead faster.





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