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  • Writer's pictureDrew

Before The Exodus, Retaining Employees Part 1: Drive

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

In Drive, Dan Pink shatters the myth that compensation drives the kind of thoughtful behavior employers increasingly need. This video is quick and delightful, so I won’t go too deep on the book.

Pink says that motivation comes from three things:

  • Autonomy — Our desire to be self directed.

  • Mastery — The urge to get better skills.

  • Purpose — The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.

This is a great framework to think about what our employees need from their work.


Our desire to be self directed.

Startups should be in the top quartile of autonomy. Employees may never meet decisionmakers at large companies, others struggle through committees that prevent code changes. As managers at a startup, our goal is often just to keep reminding people of how much control they have.

I think of autonomy in terms of both what the employee is able to do and the ability to impact how they do it. Violations of autonomy tend to be manager or peer over-reach, stemming from a lack of trust or unclear ownership.


The thing that stands between most managers and autonomy is trust. We want to hand over more of our work, but worry our teams can’t handle it. We want employees to prove they’re ready for more responsibility without having to invest ourselves.

We’ll talk about this more in part 2, but the way to get over trust issues is to work on strategic foundational elements such as mission, vision, goals, and expectations. A lot of managers don’t enjoy this work and want to skip it, but shared context is critical to getting over your trust issues.


“Product doesn’t listen to me.” “Design is too precious.” “Engineering just wants to build everything from scratch.” “CS keeps overpromising.” “Sales doesn’t even know what the product does.”

- every employee of every tech company ever.

Also important to fostering autonomy is defining ownership. Enthusiasm and the desire to do the right thing can cause great employees to overreach and stifle their coworkers' creativity. It's important to note that, while the ultimate goal of all teams is the success of the company, their responsibilities and thus biases will differ.

I tend to define my teams in terms of simple questions they are trying to answer:

These questions guide ownership and accountability.

Providing Outlets

If done well, your planning process and execution leave a lot of room for input from across the company. Above and beyond that, you should provide outlets for unbounded creativity. Hackathons are a great example, giving the team "free" time to:

  • Show off some new technology or way of work

  • Show Product what we should be building

  • Make people laugh or build something crazy in a short period of time.

Nothing will ship, hackathon code isn't production code, but some ideas will. Others will bounce around the company for years.


It never seems like enough for some employees. Like they won’t be happy until they’re the CEO. Given the opportunity, these folks can direct you to real problems or new perspectives. Given the opportunity, they may want to own fixing the issue and feel empowered by it.


The urge to get better skills.

Humans have an innate need to better themselves and want that fulfillment at work. There are a few critical components to helping employees progress and feel recognized for that progression.

Clear Expectations

Employees can't be held accountable or feel progress if you haven't communicated what's expected. In the best case, there's a written description of what we need from every role in the company. This will be published to the organization, so everyone knows exactly what to expect from each other. We must also work to understand the expectations of our employees. What are their goals in six months? A year? How best can we align those goals to the needs of the company?

In The Alliance, Reid Hoffman suggests a model of employee relationships based on a partnership between the company and the employee. This “alliance” lasts as long as it is mutually beneficial, with pre-determined evaluation points.

Each “tour of duty” has goals for both the company and the employee. At the end of each tour, you reset, based on company needs and the employee’s career goals.

In one example, Hoffman describes an employee who’d done everything he’d wanted at LinkedIn. The employee's final tour was interviewing for his next job, with Reid's blessing, and hiring his replacement.

Dual-track Leveling

Management is too often the only way to show progress in your career. The problem is that management is a completely different job, which requires new skills and won't suit everyone. It sucks to work for someone who doesn’t really want to do it.

Whenever possible, I recommend dual track leveling. Dual track systems provide a promotion path for individual contributors that's separate from the promotion path for managers. If an employee can keep showing progression and mastery in their chosen field, they won't feel forced into management.

360 reviews

Once you have clear expectations, you need a way to check in with your team to let them know how they’re doing. You should always do this in 1-on-1s, but the 360 provides a broader perspective of their work and how to progress.


Every employee should have an external mentor. Ideally, this is someone whose career they admire or has dealt with similar issues. I have mentors in Engineering leadership, Marketing, Finance, and Operations. Managers should be examples, finding our own mentors and sharing what we learn, facilitating, encouraging, and providing time for mentorship for our reports.


The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Purpose can be hard with some businesses. Execs, facing growth metrics, may fall into the trap of thinking of company goals as revenue targets.

On one hand, you need to be constantly communicating foundational company strategy (which we discuss in part 2). On the other, you should find ways to bring your employees closer to the people they are helping.

Your users or customers are a great reminder of why you do what you do. In consumer, enthusiasm is infectious. In b2b, it's an amazing feeling to see how you're helping another business grow. Bring that to your people.

Bring Users In

On a regular basis, bring in users and customers to talk to the company. What are we doing for you? How can we do that better? Employees will never forget their words.

Customer Advisory Board (CAB)

In enterprise, as soon as it's feasible, put together a group of your larger and most strategically aligned customers. They will be a sounding board, from the customer perspective, on large decisions. Create lots of opportunities for your teams to present and talk directly to them.

Is This Enough?

Not nearly! This is part of a four part series:

BUT it's also a lot. With a lot of practice, I've implemented all of the above in a few months. My first attempts were measured in years. Take it slow, make sure the team responds well to each piece.


If you're looking for help improving/implementing systems like this, get in touch here or email

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