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  • Writer's pictureDrew

Before The Exodus, Part 2: Foundation

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

Drive is a great framework for assessing employee motivation, but you'll find it's not enough. It may still seem hard to connect employees to the purpose of the organization. You might still have trust issues handing over large initiatives. You could get the highest marks on Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, but still see people quitting.


There are needs that go beyond what any one manager can affect. If doesn't matter if your team is working well, but revenue and/or the stock price are tanking. That kind of existential issue has to be resolved before you can really boost morale and motivation.

So here's another perspective on employees' needs and an inexhaustive list of what employees want at each tier.

Prioritization is bottoms up and the value of each item is relative to its position. If you want to paper over an existential question with perks, for example, it's gonna take A LOT of perks. Whereas the right goals can build trust in the exec team.

The stack also shows you how long you have to address each. You have a long time to make sure your perks package fits your employees. The clock starts ticking on resolving existential questions the second they surface.

Existential Questions

People who fear that their company won't be around much longer or that the exec team is going to tank their stock price are going to leave. Thus, existential questions underlie every initiative you take on with your team.


  • Revenue - have a few down quarters and people might start eyeing the exits. You can handle short term revenue dips with the right goals and trust in the exec team, but those have an expiration date if revenue doesn't recover.

  • Trust in the Exec Team - if an employee fundamentally trusts the exec team, through transparency and a track record of success, they can weather a lot of slings and arrows.

  • Enough Compensation - everyone wants more money, but some are barely scraping by and others make more than is reasonable. Somewhere between the two is enough. Enough compensation that employees have a comfortable lifestyle and money isn't an issue that saps their energy and attention.


Alignment is about strategy, behavior, and mutual reliance. Do our employees believe in what we're doing? Do they understand our culture and values? Do they do the right things when we're not around?

We've talked about the importance of these elements in Scaling Product Strategy, but here they are again. Alignment is critical both in execution and employee retention, win-win!

  • Mission - how you explain what you're doing. Early days, it's sufficient to work from a simple positioning statement.

  • Values - your guardrails of employee behavior. Values should be differentiated and obligatory, you hire and fire for them. Undifferentiated values don't signal anything to employees and don't set you apart as an employer.

  • Goals - your nearterm goals and the metrics you watch constantly are your best way to communicate priority to employees. OKRs are fine, often overbuilt, what you really need is a topline goal. You can layer in as many sub-goals and owners as is necessary to ensure every employee can find their work in the company's priorities.

  • Expectations - people need to understand what is expected from them and receive regular feedback about how they're doing (we'll discuss this in part 3). This is both for accountability and motivation (showing mastery).

  • Equity - the value of equity is that employees have skin in the game and get to participate in the company's success. It's a way of signifying the alliance between the employee and company.

More on developing each of these in Scaling Product Strategy.


After all of that, is the actual day-to-day work the employee engages in. Issues here tend to be slow, the person's not going to bail right away, but problems will fester.

  • Team Health - team health is measured in effectiveness and improved through training and psychological safety. Teams will have disagreements, but psychological safety ensures that conflict is productive. Mentorship is also critical to team health, both cross-training people in other domains as well as getting new employees integrated and effective quickly.

  • Process & Structure - one goal in developing processes is to balance the needed output of that process against the needs of the employees executing it. Employees need internal processes to be: clear, reasonable, and changeable. Changeability is autonomy, employees want to deliver, but they also want to improve how they deliver. A simple framework for developing processes.

  • Recognition - as we learned in part 1, people have an innate need to improve their skills. Promotions are a form of recognition as are quarterly awards for exemplifying company values. The worth of these things is in the symbol, but a little gift doesn't hurt.

  • Personal Interest - people want to work on things that are intellectually interesting for them. We can't guarantee this kind of work all the time, ever in some cases, but whenever possible, we should be looking for ways to assign work to those interested in it. If it's a big shiny thing, make sure everyone gets a turn.


I worked at a perks company, so it's hard for me to list this last 😂. When we tend to think about perks, we think "me too." Google does free food, now everyone does food. Top-down, this seems fine. Employees like free stuff, so they'll take free stuff.

But our goal isn't giving away free stuff, it's purpose and autonomy. Work up from our alignment examples: what do your perks tell your employees about your values and what you're trying to achieve? Do your perks tell your employees that you understand their needs?

  • Bonus Compensation - again, per Pink, I'm somewhat dubious on the concept of bonuses. That said, an unexpected bonus is a great thank you to someone who's gone above and beyond. Stock is even better, because you're rewarding sweat-equity with real equity.

  • Free Food - pretty common among even series A startups in SF. This is one of those perks that people feel entitled about the week after they get it. They're also probably wise to the fact that eating at the office boosts output, making this perk feel like it has ulterior motives. I still think there's value in providing food, but maybe think about your values and if there's something unique you can do. If you help local restaurants, subsidize people spending money at those restaurants, etc.

  • Flexible Time Off - in my experience, "unlimited" personal time off (PTO) ends with every managers' worst nightmare. The worst people abuse it and the best people work themselves to death. The best case scenario for totally flexible PTO is probably take-as-needed, where the employee puts in a request with some restrictions on how far in advance they need to request, based on the duration. I've also come to appreciate old school PTO policies that just have a more generous vacation allowance.

Is This Enough?

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

  1. Foundation (this post)

BUT it's also a lot. I don't expect companies to develop strategy with the sole intent of retaining employees, rather to illustrate how inattention cascades through the organization.


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

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