Why the CEO Can't Motivate You

Leaders Should Focus on Teaching Values, BB&T Chief Says

SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Leaders who search for ways to motivate their teams are focusing on the wrong thing, BB&T Chairman and CEO Kelly S. King said Sept. 26, 2017, at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "I can't motivate you," he said. "You can't motivate anyone else."

King said effective leaders focus instead on teaching beliefs, so people can govern themselves regardless of their motivation. At BB&T this means acceptance of 10 corporate values, which emphasize a growth mindset. "I teach beliefs," King said. "That's what I do."

He gave the example of two people motivated by hunger. Depending on their beliefs, one might go to the market and steal food, while the other might go to the same market and sweep floors to earn food. "Your beliefs control your behavior," he said, "not your motivation."

King, the featured guest at the Smith School's BB&T Colloquium on Capitalism, Ethics and Leadership, said leaders who see themselves as motivators often fall into the trap of pandering to low-performers. They multiply the bureaucracy within their organizations to police behavior, which drives away high performers who feel stifled. "If you don't teach beliefs, you have to have control mechanisms," he said.

King said people who reject BB&T beliefs fit better in other organizations. "We encourage them to go work for the competition or the government," he says.

Smith School professor Rajshree Agarwal, director of the school’s Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, moderated the discussion. The annual colloquium is supported by a $1.5 million gift from BB&T in 2010.

Other topics covered by King:

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About the Expert(s)

Rajshree Agarwal is the Rudolph P. Lamone Chair and Professor in Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland and director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets. Rajshree’s research interests focus on the implications of entrepreneurship and innovation for industry and firm evolution. Her recent projects examine the micro-foundations of macro phenomena, linking knowledge diffusion among firms, industries, and regions to the underlying mechanisms of employee entrepreneurship and mobility.

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