Advice for Entrepreneurs on Workforce Engagement

By Drew Bewick

Advice is particularly valuable for would-be entrepreneurs, innovators, business professionals, and future leaders when developing a business plan, attracting capital, or expanding services into new markets. One leadership challenge, however, which is often underestimated, involves improving workforce engagement and motivation, especially to sustain creativity, performance, and problem-solving capacity to think “outside-the-box.”

Engagement and motivation

Contrary to conventional wisdom, recent social science research, including research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (FRB) in 2005, suggests traditional incentives – such as goals set by managers or rewards in the form of monetary bonuses – actually dull employee creativity and problem-solving. They are not effective motivators alone for newer 21st century tasks often associated with knowledge work.

Dan Pink, whose 2009 Ted Global-London presentation about the “Puzzle of Motivation” is captured on YouTube, suggests a key driver of motivation for individuals engaged in knowledge work may be autonomy, mastery, and purpose, not goals and rewards. Social enterprises, organizations that borrow and adapt the logic of the private sector to address issues that have traditionally been beyond its scope, excel at achieving higher levels of workforce engagement and motivation through their duel missions. They can provide valuable insights about workforce engagement and motivation in the broader context of improving local business productivity and competitiveness. Allowing individuals to find personal meaning and purpose in the work they do, especially in tasks that require creativity, problem solving, and thinking, can be a winning strategy.

Successful local social enterprises

ACTion Alexandria, for example, is Alexandria’s online platform for community change. It connects neighbors and local organizations to share ideas, create action and make an impact. Launched in February 2011, ACTion Alexandria has already made a measurable impact on the community, in part because it enables volunteers and collaborators to find personal meaning in supporting their community. Highlights achieved in just 18 months:

•    $559,654 raised in community investment (counting playground grants and online fundraising)
•    2,542 community members = 1.82 percent participation rate by total population
•    3,920 items donated for Alexandria nonprofits (medicine, books, food, diapers, etc.)
•    437 actions taken on the site by Alexandria citizens to support local nonprofits
•    229 ideas submitted by citizens in idea challenges
•    6,393 votes cast during community idea challenges by approximately 2,000 people

Building-To-Teach is a program of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation with a mission to create a more competent and competitive American workforce by training instructors and engaging volunteers to help students learn and use math through hands-on building projects and exercises. Launched in March 2012, the growth of the Building-To-Teach (B2T) instructor training program in the first six months exceeded expectations:

Online Training
•    145 instructors involved in training
•    86 organizations participating
•    28 states, DC + Chile and Canada represented

In-Person Training
•    60 instructors trained
•    35 organizations participating
•    15 states represented
•    1,500 (est.) students served within 12 months

Empowered Women International, established in 2002 with offices in Alexandria and Rockville, provides a three-month intensive Entrepreneur Training for Success (ETS) course along with ongoing business coaching, networking and support services that have trained hundreds of disadvantaged women to launch new jobs and small businesses. EWI’s impact, made possible by the motivation and engagement of its volunteers, is noteworthy:

•    58% of graduates increased their production level after completing ETS
•    34% plan to hire additional employees next year
•    49% of graduates increased their personal incomes after completing ETS, on average between
•    90% of graduates volunteered with a local organization
•    83% donated money or goods to charitable organizations
•    Unemployment among EWI clients decreased by 34%

Underpinning the success of these local social enterprises doing good, are highly engaged and motivated workforces designed deliberately for the purpose of sustaining creativity and innovation to make a difference in people’s lives. In today’s knowledge economy, fueled by out-of-the-box thinking and innovation, a highly engaged and motivated workforce is becoming a necessary ingredient to improve business productivity and competitiveness. For those who seek to improve business performance and productivity, local social enterprises might have as much to teach us about the importance of motivation and engagement as doing good.

Drew Bewick is a Social Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the Center for Social Value Creation within the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He brings more than 20 years of experience involving the most challenging issues where technology and innovation intersect. As Managing Director of Tree House Ventures, LLC, Drew serves as an advisor to multiple companies and non-profit organizations assisting visionary innovators launch successful ventures by discovering opportunities and using entrepreneurial principles to organize, launch, and manage a successful venture to make an impact.  For more information on how to take your socially driven idea to reality, e-mail

[image credit: potential past: Flickr]

The posts on this page are contributed by students from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in conjunction with the newly launched Center for Social Value Creation. The center's mission is to develop leaders with a deep sense of individual responsibility and the knowledge to use business as a vehicle for social change. These posts are a way to continue the dialogue outside of the classroom and share the viewpoints of Smith students on the challenges and opportunities of triple bottom line thinking.

One response

  1. How refreshing to see that some American businesses still act on behalf of the spirit of community and self-governance. While some business leaders use our freedoms to grab for themselves, others understand that general well-being is the base for genuine and lasting wealth and power. Responsible citizenship ain’t easy, but it is the root stock of real democracy.

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