[Podcast] Motivating Your Team with a Common Purpose – Interview with Fred Kofman Part 1

Afterburner Team Written by:
Afterburner Team

Duration 41:14

Doing the best for the team doesn’t always mean doing the best for yourself.  In part one of his interview, Fred Kofman, Vice President of Executive Development at LinkedIn, discusses why it’s important to connect your team to a higher purpose to achieve company goals.

Leadership, Culture, and Common Purpose

Thor: Well, I certainly agree that the compensation wouldn’t be the motivating factor for me. What a fascinating subject, first of all, and something that’s really interesting to me from a personal perspective, because I’ve seen moments, you’re certainly going to see glimpses of both things happening in tandem, where you have personal accountability and still alignment towards the greater good. It’s difficult to sustain. But when I was a fighter pilot, I would definitely argue that we had that in fighter squadrons, where we were competing with one another. We knew that it was only a few of us that can move on to the next good assignment, and yet, we would share best practices, share our lessons learned, share everything we could for the good of the entire team because we were committed to one goal as a unit. And I don’t know if that’s because our lives are on the line, or because the culture was so phenomenal, and we hired and assessed each other for that culture constantly, and reinforced that, but it’s an interesting phenomenon. Particularly, hearing you say, “I’ve studied it in many places and have a hard time finding it.” I have been exposed to it in the past, it’s hard to sustain it, but I’ve certainly seen it.

Fred Kofman: The only way to manage this is through leadership, culture, and a common purpose. The way I call it is non-material incentives. The reason why a team would work together, both with the individual accountability and cooperation, is because every individual wants the culture in the unit and the discipline that will encourage people to do that and will censor them for not doing that. Then the observation is not from the boss, but it’s a cultural norm that everybody enforces and upholds. That is exactly the best way to manage. Now because you have a noble purpose, because you feel committed to the mission, because you’re fighting for something that’s very meaningful to all of you, you actually manage that problem well. In business, most leaders don’t have thought carefully about how to inspire the people in the organization to have the same commitment, to the mission that you are describing. That’s exactly what I wrote the book about. It’s how do you create the kind of organization where individual accountability and cooperation will work in tandem?

Thor: So you’re saying leadership, culture, and what was the third thing? The third element that’s necessary to the greatest environment?

Fred: A common purpose.

Thor: How do you think that a corporation can help to create that inspiring common purpose? Because I agree with you, it was easier for us as fighter pilots, to be able to say, “This is noble. This has a strong ‘why’ behind it,” Simon Sinek-style, but how do you do that in a corporation? How do you create that sense of purpose, in your eyes?

Fred: Well, I don’t think it’s hard. I think it requires seeing beyond the apparent. Let me tell you an example, something that happened to me when I was working with an insurance company. I was going to go to their headquarters, and I was going to teach for three weeks. My seven-year-old daughter just came with pretty eyes, and said, “Daddy, please don’t go.” I was just heartbroken. [chuckle] How do I explain to my daughter that I have to go to work? And then I choose to go because it’s not that I have to, but that’s what I chose to do with my life. So I told Michelle, “Look, dear, if I died, it would be awful, I’d miss you, and you’d miss me, and there would be a lot of things we couldn’t do together.” then I said, “That would be worse.” And she said, “Why?” I said, “Oh, because mommy would have to go to work, and then you probably couldn’t keep this house, and you couldn’t continue to going to a private school you’re going, and maybe you’ll have to give up the car, and you couldn’t go to college.”

Fred: By this time, she was freaking out, and was upset. I said, “Well, no, but you see, these people, I pay them every month, and if something ever happened to me, they would give mommy enough money, so that you would have all the money you need for a long time until you finish college. And that’s what these people do with a lot of parents, that can take care of their children, and can go out into a sometimes dangerous world with peace of mind.” She looked at me, and she said, “Just go, daddy, please go.” It makes me cry just thinking about it. When I went to this company, I told them this story. One of the executive team members just said, “Well, you should be selling insurance,” but another one interrupted him and said, “We don’t sell insurance, we sell love.” I thought that was very wise because it’s true. It is a superpower, to allow people to take care of their loved ones, even beyond their physical existence.

Fred: I know it doesn’t sound like much when you say, “Oh, well, it’s life insurance.” But it’s not life insurance; it’s a means to express a love that transcends your life, or my life, in this case. If I feel proud of being a consultant, well then, why would the people in the company not feel proud? I think every business, at its heart, has a very noble mission; you just have to see through the product and understand the human concern that that product is taking care of. If some people’s lives were not being made better by the mission of the organization, the organization would not survive in the market. I’m talking about organizations that trade their services, that have to give service to others. How they live and die by the quality of satisfying a human need, that’s important enough to make people pay them back more than what it costs to provide the service. That’s the principle of the economic market.

Fred: Once you understand that, I feel totally comfortable inspiring people to any business, in their work, that we’d want to do together. If someone is not inspired by that, then they should find another business that inspires them, a mission that they can fully support with their heart and their mind, and that’s essential for their quality of life. There’s nothing more terrible than living a miserable life in service of something that doesn’t matter to you. That’s such a hellish existence.

Thor: No matter what the paycheck is?

Fred: Exactly.

Thor: When I had stage IV cancer I was presumably facing my end of life scenario. The doctors had told me to expect that, I remember looking back at life up to that point, and the thing that I was proud of, the proudest of, were those times when I was a part of an incredible team on an inspiring mission. Whether that was my family team, and the mission that my family and I were on, or the fighter pilots that I got to fly with, or when I was in the Air Force Academy. What it wasn’t, what I wasn’t proud of, and what I think people would’ve thought about, is when I threw my hat in the air at the Air Force Academy, or when I became a fighter pilot or some of those accolades that mean a lot to us during the journey. We think they’re going to be important. When I was on my presumable deathbed, that didn’t mean anything to me. It was just those times when I had a sense of purpose behind an inspiring team.

Fred: Exactly. Exactly. And I think the quality of life is measured by, how long are those times? The more time you spend there, you’re in heaven, and the less time, you’re in hell.

Thor: We were working with Nike, and I tell this story pretty regularly because it resonated with me. We were working with the leaders of Nike. It was actually the Nike Jordan team, so it’s the Michael Jordan group, and so it was a inspiring group. They’re the ones who had made the Air Jordans throughout the ’80s that I’d worn and a great brand, but they’re just really, really passionate about what they did. And they had their leaders together, and they’re talking about how they’re going to start this new outreach program in Chicago, where Michael Jordan was from, and they’re going to connect it back to the shoes, and they were really excitedly talking about this project.

Thor: And I remember, I’m talking to one of the leaders in the background, and we’re away from the group, and I said to him, “This is a lot of fun, working with you guys because you’re always so passionate about what you do.” He looks around a little bit. He makes sure nobody’s listening, and he says, “Well, Thor, we got to be passionate about this, because if we ever forget why we do this, we’ll remember that what we do is just sell sneakers and t-shirts.” And it dawned on me, “There’s nothing inherently cool, or sexy, or noble about what they’re doing.” But they had created such a compelling ‘why’ behind the scenes and hired the culture that was going to support that ‘why,’ that they had done the impossible, and sold t-shirts and sneakers to release the athlete in people, and made them believe that it could do that for a generation. It was amazing.

Fulfilling Your Personal Mission

Fred: Yeah. There’s something very important though that every human being has to decide if you’re going to live in a material world or a spiritual world. “And that’s a leap of faith,” so to speak, to use the words of Kierkegaard, who’s a Danish philosopher, an existentialist philosopher. The way you said it is, “They’re really selling sneakers.” And, well, they created the story that they are helping kids, or inspiring kids, or something, bringing forth the athlete in every person. But why would you call reality selling sneakers? I think it’s much more real to think otherwise, and the way they pursue that purpose is by selling sneakers, but it just doesn’t matter.

Fred: There’s a great story about the architect of the London Cathedral in the 1600s, and the guy went one afternoon to the cathedral, which was in the process of construction, and he saw two workers, side by side. So he just went to the guy in a bad mood and asked him, “Why are you so upset?” And he said, “Well, I hate this job.” And then he turned to the others, said: “Well, you’re doing the same thing, how come you’re not so upset?” He said, “I don’t know, because I’m helping Christopher Wren, is the name. “I’m helping Lord Christopher Wren build a cathedral for the glory of God.” Which one of the two is the one that lives in the real reality? You do have a choice. Everyone has the choice.

Fred: And there are very nasty ways to describe any activity, and there are ugly things, and denominating ways to describe the same activity. The question is, why are you doing it? And can you see through them, I would say, the physical manifestation, confusing it with spirit? And what leaders do, is they enable people to connect with that spirit, and to create a sense of community, and the bond that unites people, which makes life worth living. I don’t know what else would make life worth living if you don’t have a purpose that you’re proud of, and you’re not pursuing that purpose with people that you’d be proud to be in their company.

Fred: Now, you don’t have to be fighter pilot. I mean, I admire your experience, it’s a wonderful thing, and it’s the stuff that stories are made of, but, well, not everybody has that potential or that possibility. But everybody has the possibility to live a heroic life within the measure of their abilities. We’re all small heroes in the stories of our lives if we choose to be. Some of us can be bigger than others, but we’re all… As being a hero, as we need to be, and to fulfill our life mission. Once you understand that, there are no small jobs. Everything, you see through them. And then you don’t work for a company; the company works for you. The company becomes the platform through which you fulfill your life mission. Great leaders do that with people; they don’t boss people around. They have become, really, the platform that people use to pursue a mission, that is much bigger than one they could pursue by themselves.

Fred: So you could have, if you are leading a team of pilots, well, you’re not their boss, but you became the enabler of all of you, working in coordination towards a mission that’s meaningful to all of you. That’s the kind of leadership that resolves the problem because then, you want to cooperate, and you’re willing to sacrifice, even your personal life, for the sake of the mission and the team. And that’s an amazing way to live. I always quote the line of Braveheart, which is amazing, when he says, “Every man dies, but not every man lives.” Dying is a part of existence, but living, really living, is a choice. And it’s a choice that you have to make. The living is tough. Dying is easy. Living is hard. And that’s why leaders are so important, to inspire other people, and teach them how to truly live in the short time that we have on this Earth.

Thor: That is my absolute favorite movie of all time, and that quote is on a Braveheart poster inside of my TV room in my house.

Fred: Ah, okay, well, I didn’t know that, but clearly, we have similar heroes.

Thor: I think what was really interesting about what you said there, is that it’s a choice, and you’ve highlighted the fact that there’s a choice that was made, that you can either look at the world as building sneakers and t-shirts or you can look at the ‘why’ first, and look at the t-shirts and sneakers as the means to achieving that ‘why,’ which is so important. And it reminds me of a story in “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Frankl, and you referenced it in “Conscious Business” as well. But the story was, somebody came to him… He’s a psychologist… And it was somebody who’d lost his entire family in the concentration camps. He was in the camps as well, but he lived through it, and he felt guilty, and he felt like he had nothing left to live for. And he had talked to this person about how they were living for these relatives, and going on, because of them, and carrying their memory on with them. And it’s really interesting to see that this person had a choice, to connect with that ‘why,’ and they did. And they said, “Okay, I’m going to live for that for the rest of my life.” And it gave him a 180-degree difference in the outlook on their life, and they were able to live their life more effectively, because they connected to a compelling ‘why,’ as something that really inspired him. It goes along with what Nietzsche said when he said that, “He who has a compelling ‘why’ can withstand any ‘how.'”

Fred: Exactly. Exactly. And there was also the case with Victor Frankl when he was subjected to this horrific torture, and the ultimate, just annihilation of what is human, in a human being, in the camps. And he could survive all those attempts to destroy him because he had a ‘why.’ He kept thinking, “I’m gonna come out, and write about this, and tell the world.” And he did just this amazing work with the whole therapy, with a certain meaning, and tried to help people find meaning in their lives, and they will come out of depression. And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did the same thing. He was in the camps in the Gulag, and he survived, because he was focused 100% in coming back, and telling the story, and teaching the world, or showing the world what kind of abomination was created by authoritarianism, and the attempt to control other people.

Leading a Team with a Common “Why”

Thor: I’m so fascinated with this. I’m so aligned with what you’re saying. Our listeners are probably saying, “Well, as a fighter pilot, why are you… This is fuzzy talk. This is the touchy-feely piece of leadership,” and, “Why does it always come back to this?” This is really important. And even a younger version of me would say, “Ah, I’m more rational than that. I don’t need to apply these things.” But I think the world’s screaming for it. Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And I think that’s so true. I think inside, in truth, most people are walking around begging for a leader that’s going to inspire them, looking for that sense of ‘why’ and a purpose.

Fred: Exactly. Without that, you don’t have a life. You’re lasting, but you’re not living. It’s just meaningless. “We all are in this,” choosing the words of Viktor Frankl, “We’re in this search for meaning.” And right now, most people are in a desperate race to make themselves happy by consuming things or getting pleasure. I have nothing against pleasure. I love having good things in my life, but the search for meaning and the pursuit of happiness are not the same thing. And the meaning requires a ‘why.’ Meaning requires a sense of transcendent purpose that will connect you with something that’s bigger than you. Why would you sacrifice anything? Why would you not take $10 more in your salary and go work for a competitor? Why would you care about the people that you are working with unless you’re engaged in doing something extremely valuable with them?

Fred: Unfortunately, the levels of engagement worldwide are abysmal. It’s about 10%. That means that in these large surveys when they ask questions to check if people are engaged in their work, 90% of their people are not engaged. Nine out of 10 people, they hate their jobs, they hate their companies, they hate their colleagues, they hate themselves. And what kind of world are we building like that? The first part of my book is trying to prove why you cannot get coordination in a complex system. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s the only way you can manage this insoluble problem that afflicts every complex organization.

Thor: It’s a challenge that every leader faces, right? That they are really tasked with creating a system and not success.

Fred: Well, yes, absolutely, yes. The word ‘create,’ for me, implies exemplifying it, demonstrating it, being it, involving it. Leadership is going to confront you with all your limitations, and all your fears. You lose all credibility. You have to be truthful. You have to develop yourself. It’s personal. It’s personal work. And most people go to school, and they want to learn intellectual things, that then they can use to speak to others, or to throw things to others. But the truth is, that it’s your being that elicits followership. It’s who you shape yourself to be, and that requires deep commitment, personal exploration, confronting your demons. Following what Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey,” departing to the underworld, and fighting the battles. Internal and external battles, that are going to enter you, which is going to encourage people to trust you, and I wouldn’t even say, follow you, but to see you as the exemplar of what they want to want to be, and how they want to pursue the mission. That job, in your personal work, it’s so frightening. Not many people are willing to undertake it. I don’t consider leadership an easy pathway, “Oh, you’re the boss, and you get to tell other people what to do.” To earn the moral authority, you have to do tremendously hard work.

Fred: Sometimes, I use my children to tell the story of, “What’s the difference between leadership and management, a manager or a boss?” When I wanted my children to read, I threatened them. I said, “Well, if you don’t read, or you don’t do your homework, you can’t sign on to Facebook, or you can’t use your phones, or whatever.” Take away their devices, and they’re scared enough that they will read. But one day, I realized, “I don’t really want my children to read. I will want them to want to read.” And wanting my children to want to read, is a much harder problem than wanting my children to read. I know how to make them read, but I don’t know how to make them want to read. It’s impossible, in fact, to make them want to read. You feel like a thief, jumping in front of you with a gun and saying, “Be my friend.” They can say, “Give me your money,” but they can’t make me be their friend. No gun in the world can make me be somebody’s friend. A follower cannot be bought, cannot be extracted, so carrots and sticks cannot be threatened. It can only be earned by deserving it through the hard work of growing yourself into a healthy, authentic human being.

Thor: It reminds me of the story that we just took part in. We had a leader that we’re working with at another tech company, and he was saying, “I just don’t know how I’m going to get my team to go out, and work harder, and increase their sales for this year by another 10%. I don’t know how I’m going to push them out the door to make that happen and work harder this year for a little bit more.” And when we were talking to him, we said, “You can’t push them to do that. There’s no way you can push people out the door to make that happen, and nobody wants to work with you if that’s your plan. It has to be a pull mechanism. You got to pull them towards something greater.” And to his credit, he built this entire vision for success, and he stopped focusing on quarterly numbers, and stopped focusing on the myopic short-term things that they can accomplish, instead of what could be in three years, if they continued down a great path, and went to a future they were all excited about. And I watched it happen, just this last quarter. They went from losing in Q3 to in Q4, the numbers were just released on Thursday, having a 10% year-over-year growth for the quarter, and wholly attributed to that.

Fred: Absolutely. Well, congratulations, on helping this leader see the truth, and then proving it. [chuckle] The irony is that you really make more money like this too. [chuckle] It’s not that now you’re going to go write poetry and be poor. This is really the success. Now, of course, you have to do the hard work too, and you have to have the intellect to plan the right strategies and follow sound processes that would yield the result. You love what you teach, and I saw you do it. This doesn’t take away from the discipline that’s required for execution, but if you don’t have a ‘why,’ then why would you execute? Why would you put your heart and soul into executing a mission that is meaningless and worthless? When you put yourself at risk and do anything more than the absolute bare minimum not to be fired, when people work because they’re afraid, or because they’re greedy, they’re not giving you their best. They’re giving you the bare minimum they need to give you, in order to get whatever they want to get out, and that’s not a way to win. You don’t win like that.

Fred: You can only win when the other team is as pitiful as you are, but if you ever encounter a team of committed individuals, they’re going to mop the floor with you. You will have no chance. It’s the level of commitment, of engagement with the path of consciousness, and the intensity, and the execution, that defines who’s going to win. But, in business, winning doesn’t mean you destroy your competitor. Winning means you provide better service, your potential customers, and potential customers. Competing in business is competing for serving other people better. To beat my opponent, I compete to be better at serving the consumers.

Fred: And I think you guys are doing the same. If you had a competitor, you say, “Okay, we don’t have to go eliminate the competitor, we want to be better, we want to stay on our toes, and we want to give better service to our potential clients at a lower price.” In capitalism, competition always ends helping the consumer, and the people who don’t like competition are enemies of capitalism because they try to win by using subterfuge, and violence, or restrictions to those who are better than them, which I consider highly immoral. The morality of a mission, and competing with anybody else who’s trying to satisfy or fulfill that mission, is that, ultimately, we’re on the same team. Even if we’re competing, we’re rivals, but we are not enemies. We’re rivals, but if I were a consultant and I’m doing something similar to you, I would enjoy the comradery. It’s almost like you were describing of your squadron, that you’re helping everybody else because you’re on the same team.

Thor: Yeah, it goes back to what you wrote about in “Conscious Business,” where you said, “There are learners, and there are knowers.” And unfortunately, the knowers in the world, once you have a fixed-state mentality, where they don’t see the world changing as a result of their efforts, they try to hold things back and try to take the incentivization opportunities out of the system for the competition. But the learners, like you, recognize that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, or the average of the five groups you’re competing with, the average of where your attention is going, and so I want those groups to be as incredible as possible, because that pulls my average up.

Thor: Ladies and gentleman, that’s the end of part one of our conversation with Fred Kofman. We’ll conclude this conversation in the next episode of The Business Thorcast.

Thor: For more information on today’s episode, please visit our website at www.thebusinessthorcast.com. If you liked this podcast, please rate it, and leave a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play. Thor, over and out.