[Podcast] Aligning Your Team with a Common Purpose – Interview with Fred Kofman Part 2


In the second part of his interview, Fred Kofman, Vice President of Executive Development at LinkedIn, shares with The Business ThorCast host, Joel “Thor” Neeb, why he thinks the key to a successful team is the alignment of your team around a common purpose and a set of shared standards.

Duration 24:18


An Upside Down Pyramid

Thor: What are the type of revolutionary leaders that are able to create that tension between accountability and organizational vision?

Fred Kofman: I would say the CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, is a great example of this. I write a few stories about him in the book. But, Jeff, we were discussing my coming to LinkedIn. At one point, I was, “Well, I don’t know if I want to work in a company, because I’ve been a consultant, I have my own company, and giving up my freedom. I don’t know if I can really commit to working for you.” And he stopped me, and said, “No, Fred, don’t work for me, work for the mission.” He really blew me away. He calls me his teacher, but he was my teacher in that exchange. I stopped on my tracks, and I realized that “You’re right. This is the mission.” So I gave Jeff the permission to manage me, but not manage me for his purpose, but to manage me for my purpose. That’s why I said, “I don’t work for him, he works for me.” Just like Reed was the chairman of the board and he could very well say, “Jeff works for me.”

Fred: Well, I’m the president of the board of myself, as far as, I have the authority to give someone permission to manage my asset, meaning me. Jeff works for me, just like a CEO would work for the president of the board. And, at the same time, I work for him, and I give him permission to allocate me, just like I imagine you would give permission to your commanding officer, to use you and all your skills. Now, you could see that as, “Well, I’m following orders,” but you can also see it as, “I’m giving my commanding officer permission to allocate me, or to use me in the best interest of a higher purpose that we’re both pursuing.” And that changes, completely, the authority relationship.

Fred: Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, a dear friend of mine, an absolutely admirable person, is another one. I have so many similar stories with Sheryl. Then, Paul Polman, who’s the CEO of Unilever. I have a bunch of CEOs that I work with in my book. There are lots of extraordinary people that have created wonderful organizations for the benefit of humankind, and their own employees, but essentially, the organization is not there to benefit the employees, in spite of what a lot of people think. The organization is there to benefit the consumers. You’re not fighting for your own pleasure. You’re fighting to serve a higher purpose that goes beyond the organization, is to protect other people maybe, or to keep people safe, and so on. And that’s, ultimately, what gives the commanding officer the moral authority, the fact that he or she is guiding people to fulfill that purpose.

Thor: Right, because they’re borrowing from the power of the aligned vision that everyone has bought into, and has helped to build as a team.

Fred: Exactly. I use, sometimes, the analogy of a surfboard. It’s very difficult to paddle or go for a stand-up paddle than to actually surf away. When you’re paddling, you’re using your own strength, but when you get on one of those big waves, my God, you’re climbing on a tremendous force, that’s far, far bigger than anything you can muster from your muscles. In a sense, the leader is the one that is inviting people to get on this big wave, to surf it towards the mission. Or just like sailing, you’re engaging the energy of the atmosphere, in a way that’s so much more powerful than rowing. Most of the leaders, when they are using their personal power, it’s like rowing, or paddling, instead of taking advantage of a much bigger force that they could ride on.

Thor: Yeah, the leaders end up rowing the boat, instead of providing the rudder for it, at the end of the day.

Fred: Exactly.

Thor: Let’s anchor on something you just said right there, because it’s an interesting challenge that I’m bumping into right now. We’re working with the CEO of a large tech company of about 25,000 people, and one of the things that he says he wants to create for his team is this spirit of entrepreneurship, and spirit of innovation. And when they talk about what their roles are as the C-suite leaders, they always mention, “We’re just here to remove obstacles for the rest of the team. The pyramid, the hierarchy is actually reversed. It’s the people that live at the top of the upside-down pyramid, and we’re at the bottom just pulling out obstacles.” There’s a challenge.

Thor: And I love your wave analogy, because it sounds like, to me, somebody who’s yelling to the team, “Get up on the surfboard,” but there’s no wave there, because the team underneath the CEO is saying, “It feels like there are 3,000 CEOs in this company. It feels like we’re going in 3,000 different directions.” And this leader is trying to retain the innovation, in the Silicon Valley spirit of entrepreneurship that made them a powerful company in the beginning, but I’m arguing that he’s being challenged by the fact he doesn’t have enough prescriptive guidance on the direction the team needs to go and enough alignment. You talk about how you build a group that has the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation and doing their own thing, but at the same time, is going in the same direction consistently?

Fred: There’s no way to run an organization based on dogma or absolute principles. And sometimes you can be dogmatic, you can be too prescriptive, but you can also be dogmatic in being so disorganized, and not holding people together in a way that will contribute to accomplishing the mission. There’s no… I don’t have this idea that the leader is there to serve the people. I think the leader is there to serve the mission, and sometimes that calls for relaxing the constraints and helping remove obstacles and letting everybody… A thousand flowers bloom, and see which one is the lead. But, sometimes, that means killing some projects, deciding that there are things that we’re not going continue doing, or setting some standards, and making sure that these standards become part of the culture, and being prescriptive about some things for the sake of the team.

Fred: It’ll be like starting a workshop and setting some rules on how we’re going to work together. And when you guys walk in, you set a certain culture, or a certain set of standards in the room, in order to make the activity fruitful. If people started behaving in a way that would make it impossible, well, you would have to do something. I do the same when I teach… Coming back from the breaks, I establish a certain pattern of punctuality, as a gesture of respect for one another. And that becomes an experiment in impeccability and the fulfillment of commitments. It’s shockingly difficult for people to be mindful of that. And in fact, people realize that we can work a lot better together when there are some standards that we all abide by. Then that becomes part of the mini-culture that we’ve created for the experience.

The Yin and Yang of Failure and Success

Fred: I think, in a company, there’s this interplay between boundaries and freedom. And if you overweight either one of them, you’re going to get in trouble. You can think of the symbol of the Taichi, the yin-yang, that is the black and white. And the black can be the chaos, or the mystery, or the freedom of the unknown. And then the white is the order, and the discipline, and the organization. There’s a psychologist named Jordan Peterson that extraordinarily uses this analogy. He even makes it the ontological point about the religious perspective on existence. But without going so far, we can say that every human being lives in this boundary between order and chaos, between organization and freedom, between the known and the unknown. And whenever that goes out of balance, you become ineffective, or you become unable to accomplish the mission.

Fred: So I’d say, the first thing is to drop any dogma and to be in service. And being in service means, just doing what is called for. I don’t have a recipe. In general, what I’ve seen, when people are not very creative, it’s because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of failure. They’re afraid of being punished. They’re afraid of breaking some unwritten norms, or maybe some written norms. Understanding the fear, understanding what is blocking the creativity, rather than trying to push it, or ignite it, or turn it on, saying, “Well, people are already turned on when they’re healthy, and they’re not afraid.” If people are not very entrepreneurial and creative, I will start with the inquiry; I’d start with curiosity, and not by telling them they need to change, by saying, “Help me understand what’s good and what’s bad. Why is it good for you, or you think it’s good for us not to be entrepreneurial, and not to take some risk? How have we created a system in which you and other people are better off by not being entrepreneurial, than by being entrepreneurial, even though we declare that we want to be entrepreneurial?” And asking that of himself, of the team, or herself… I don’t know… And of his or her team, and the people that report to them at the senior organization would be, for sure, the first step in discovering what needs to happen, and what commitments to change they need to make, in order to unlock the creativity and entrepreneurship.

Thor: I think the thing that stands out the most of what you just said, and it absolutely needs to be in a future book, is that “The leader’s not there to serve the people, the leader’s there to serve the mission.” And I’m actually going to share that exact quote with this leadership team when I talk to them next time because that’s their challenge right now. They feel like they’re there to serve the people and it created an opt-out culture.

Fred: I already wrote the book, it’s the one that’s coming out, because this is in my book. I say, “I hate this talk about servant leadership, that the leader is there to serve.” Imagine a commander that says, “My main mission is that everybody comes back safe and nobody’s going to get hurt.” It’s like, “Well, I’m sorry, you’re in the wrong business. If you go into Special Forces, and you’re expecting your commander to babysit you, and make sure nobody gets hurt… ” That doesn’t mean you can frivolously put peoples lives at risk, by no means I’m saying that, but we’re going to put ourselves in harm’s way, and as a leader, I’ll put myself first. I won’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do, or I haven’t done myself. But I’m putting my life at risk, and I want you to put your life at risk. That’s the precondition for the job.

Fred: I’m not here to serve the people. We are all here to serve a cause that is bigger than us. We’re here to serve the mission. The goal of the company is to achieve a mission and help the consumers, or humanity, or whoever the target of the mission is. It’s not the people who’re fulfilling the mission. But we live in this crazy culture where everybody feels entitled, and even the leaders, they will say, “Oh, the great thing is, it’ll create so many jobs.” Who gives a damn about the jobs? This is not about creating jobs. This is about serving the consumers, serving the mission. Otherwise, you get into these crazy bureaucracies.

Thor: Yeah, exactly. And the challenge that they’re articulating is, it’s the world we live in right now, where people are looking to minimize suffering. That all of existence, you said it earlier, “I don’t live for pleasure.” On the other side of that coin, we shouldn’t live just to minimize suffering either. We shouldn’t just be looking for the next aspirin to make us feel better. We should figure out and acknowledge that suffering will occur, but if we can leverage suffering, that’s inevitable, and get outside of our comfort zone, and get into some place of growth, where the only place where growth takes place at is outside of your comfort zone, that as a team, that we can go pursue something better. And sometimes, that means putting your team in uncomfortable positions to do that.

Life Well Lived

Fred: You shouldn’t be trying not to suffer, because that’s fruitless. We’re suffering all the time because we know, for starters, that if everything goes great, as good as it can be, we’re going to get old, we’re going to get sick, and we’re going to die. Hopefully, in that order. We’re either going to die before our loved ones and break their hearts, or we’re going to die after them, and then they’ll break our heart. It’s just the nature of existence. There’s no way around it.

Fred: Living afraid of suffering is hiding under the bed because the monsters are lurking out there, and that’s already being dead. The question is, what makes all this suffering worth it? What’s the mission that’s important enough, that’s meaningful enough, that will make your life full of suffering still worth it and full of joy? But that’s not focusing on your beautiful little self, that wants to get the aspirin, because that fails. If the aspirin worked, I would definitely recommend it, but I can say, by personal experience, aspirins don’t work. And what works is living fully. What works is throwing yourself fully into a purpose, or a mission, that gives meaning to your life, with people that you care about and care about you. That doesn’t stop the suffering, but it makes it worthwhile. However, happiness doesn’t ensue, because you’re looking for it, it’s just a side benefit of living a life of purpose.

Thor: I love it. What’s the quote? “If you do what is hard, your life will be easy. If you do what is easy, your life will be hard.” And if we’re always searching for that next aspirin, we can minimize our suffering, we can exist, and exist, and not go after something bigger, but like the Braveheart quote, “Every man dies, not every man truly lives.” This is an opportunity to leverage the suffering, acknowledge the suffering’s going to take place, and in spite of that, and sometimes because of it, do something great on the other side of it.

Fred: Exactly. That’s the ethos of a life well lived. That’s the ethos of the spiritual warrior. You don’t have to be a physical warrior to do that, but you have to be a spiritual warrior to accept the slings and arrows of life, and keep going, and focus on your mission and what you see to your life.

Thor: When I did… I don’t think I told you this; I did an Ironman Triathlon on my five-year anniversary of stage four cancer. I’d never done a triathlon before; I’d never run a marathon before, I’d never swam more than 100 yards in the water before. I did training in swimming, of course, but never open water. I always was in a pool.

Fred: Oh.

Thor: I only did one bike race beforehand, and it was only 60 miles, not the 112 that you do in Ironman. I trained for this. I remember everyone telling me, “This is crazy that you’re trying to do this, it’s so much suffering, and it’s so much pain you’re putting yourself through.” And I finished, and it was amazing. I got to have this incredible journey with my family, and we were in tears at the end of it, as we put a period at the end of the sentence of cancer that I had had for so long. When people brought it up to me, and they said, “You just put yourself through so much pain to go through this, and it just sounds so hard.” My answer to them is, “It was hard. It was extremely hard, and there was a lot of pain, but here’s the thing, you are already in pain too. Whether or not you want to acknowledge it, whether or not you want to have that conversation right now, they know in their hearts they’re already in pain too. The only difference is I’m getting something from it.”

Fred: Oh, that’s so beautiful. You’re using your pain to get something and to build something meaningful from it, and that’s the stuff of life. It’s like the Buddha says, “We’re all in pain. There’s no escape from suffering. The question is, what are you going to do with it?” you did something, you turned it into art, you created something with your suffering. That’s a personal win. “It’s,” as you said, “The final point in ending the sentence of cancer and opening a new paragraph.” That’s a beautiful way to express it.

Thor: I like what you’re connecting here, because you’re basically saying, “Here are some things you can do on an individual level, and how you give yourself a purpose and look at the happiest times in your individual life, and now, let’s translate that to an organization. And let’s look at the revolutionary changes that have taken place organizationally in the past, and look at the common elements in this common sense of purpose that you’ve seen in your own life as an individual. Imagine that translated to an entire team, to succeed.” Can you talk a little bit about how you make that transition from one to many or that type of revolutionary change?

Fred: I let the leader make the transition by embodying that. It’s clear that the alignment around a common purpose, and a set of shared standards of how to work together, and the affection that exists between the members of the team that are working together to achieve this common mission, is the key to winning. Given that everything else, it’s not a defensive or competitive advantage, meaning, today, anything can be reverse engineered. It’s hard to do something that your competitor cannot copy almost immediately. So, where are you going to get your advantage? Well, it has to be because you’re better than others in things that cannot be copied because they have to be grown from the inside. Once people understand that, and once a leader realizes that the essence of the personal transformation is in the art of using the pain and the suffering for a meaningful purpose, then the organization follows suit. People see, “This is how I want… You know, when I grow up, I want to be like her. I don’t know what she’s doing, but I want to get to glow just like that.” Or, “I want to join her team because those people look like they have something that we don’t have. What is it that they’re doing?”

Fred: Then you just share your story, like you shared it. Those who are, let’s say, excited enough, and enthusiastic enough about transcending the fear and the suffering… I don’t think this is something you can talk about, at least, I don’t talk about it. I just say the things that I’m telling you and everybody nods because you can’t disagree with this, but there are about 1,000 books about this. I say the good news is, that this is very simple, like a diet. The hard part of the diet is not reading the book. The hard part of the diet is doing it. It’s eating the right thing when you have the impulse to splurge, and indulge, and eat something that you know is not going to be good for you.

Thor: Yeah, that’s an important thing to acknowledge, that at the end of the day, this is a simple solution, and it’s prescriptive, and anyone can apply it, but it’s simple, but it’s not easy, and it takes dedication.

Fred: Exactly.

Thor: This is fantastic. Thank you so much for this discussion. I didn’t know necessarily where this would go, because there’s so much we could talk about from your book, and your perspective on leading organizations and teams for many years and I enjoyed this conversation. I have more questions now than answers, but that means we have to do more of these moving forward.

Fred: Well, I’m very, very happy that you have questions rather than answers. We have a mutual admiration, because I really appreciate, just the stories you told me about the way I saw you teach, certainly, that energy, and the intensity of you and your team.

Thor: Where can people learn more about you, and get a hold of some of your teachings and books? Where would you turn them to?

Fred: Oh, they can look me up on Amazon, they can find my books or online, K-O-F-M-A-N. Or if not, they can look me up on LinkedIn.

Thor: Awesome stuff. Well, thank you so much, Fred, for joining us today on The Business Thorcast.

Fred: Sure, very welcome.