Welcome to our interview with August Turak. August is an Author with Columbia Business School Publishing and a contributing writer at Forbes Magazine. He is a successful entrepreneur, corporate executive, and award-winning author who attributes much of his success to living and working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey for seventeen years. He is the author of Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity.
Welcome August, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Container13.
Q1: How can we create workplaces where more voices matter, people thrive & find meaning, and change & innovation happen naturally?
The first thing we have to do is an intellectual exercise. I have to convert you intellectually. I have to show you intellectually at least that service and selflessness work. That it’s just not a nice idea that we can banter around as something that would be, “Oh, wouldn’t that be beautiful.” No, it works. So the first thing we have to do is be converted intellectually that it’s in our self-interest to forget our self-interest. The more we forget our selfish motivations, the more successful we will become.
Second of all, people have to step forward. As I said in my book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks, one of the most important reasons I started my company was an exercise to prove to myself and other people in my organization at the time that I wasn’t full of it, that this would work. Nothing succeeds like success. We have to get other people to follow our lead by doing it ourselves.
The problem we have in our society is that we believe in education, the intellect, and the left brain. We believe that once we understand something that the work’s done. But that’s not true. It doesn’t translate into behavior just because you’ve been intellectually convinced of something. We all know people who are convinced that we should be nice to each other and they go home and treat their wife like crap. They don’t even see it. They don’t even see the problem.
In the last chapter of my book I say, “Listen, everything I’ve said, everything you’ve read, is worthless unless you decide to take action and make the Hero’s Journey yourself and become transformed.” You’re not going to build the transformational organization—which is what I think you just described in your question—unless we have a transformational leader. Building the transformational organization means people have to take the plunge and say, “Listen, I’m going to transform myself,” which means making transformation a priority in your life.
I see little things in my life that have changed my life through working with the Monks and all the things that I’ve done. I pick up other people’s litter these days. I catch myself in grocery store parking lots picking up other peoples’ litter. I can tell you that thirty years ago I was a litterer. I was the kind of person who threw something out the window.
There’s been a transformation that has taken place. You have to make this commitment. I wrote an article for Forbes called What Every Leader Must Know About Personal Development. In it I say I’ve done a lot of podcasts like this one with you, and I said, I enjoy them, but the big question I always get that’s hardest for me to answer is, “What do you do for personal development?” I said the reason why that is a hard question is that people think that you do personal development, so you can come back to business and be more successful. The goal is to be successful and make a lot of money and to reach that goal you should do personal development.
I say it’s the opposite. How many people are willing every single day of their lives to do x, y and z for no other reason except it’s personal development. For example, I’m going to just start picking up other people’s litter. I don’t know if it’s going to pay off, and frankly, I don’t care if it does payoff. I’m just going to pick up other people’s litter.
Very few people are willing to do exercises that are not directly related to some immediate goal they’re after in their life. And that is the big problem I face it in my work. Probably the only thing that’s been disappointing in the reaction to my book is that I pound away at community in the book yet of all the people who have contacted me for help, nobody asks how do I get a community started?
Community is so incredibly important to the transformational journey. You need to do this not as a single thing but in a communal way. Many people don’t want to be held accountable to any other people for anything. We all bemoan the death of real communities, but the real problem is we don’t want to be accountable to those other people. If we want to get on an airplane and go on vacation this weekend, we want to go. If the community is saying, “Hey, you promised you were going to come on this barn raising,” we don’t want to be held accountable to that.
In theory, everybody loves the idea of community, but in a community, everybody knows everybody’s business, and everybody considers everybody’s business to be their business. If you don’t go to church on Sunday, everybody in the village knows, and everybody in the village wants to know why. So yes, a community has its downsides.
Q2: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
The best thing goes back to the conversation we had before we started this interview—you have to articulate a vision.
You also have to create a story. My book is all about the Hero’s Journey and about mythology, movies, and storytelling. Everyone loves stories. We all want to live a story or adventure. The first thing is you have to be able to tell the story.
Even when you go to a venture capitalist for money, they say what you’ve got to do is be able to do is articulate the story. What are you going to be doing differently? What is exciting about what you plan to do? It’s got to be something more than just dollars and cents.
When I was running a sales department earlier in my career or running my company, I used colorful language, “We’re not just going to go to work tomorrow, we’re going to charge the barbarians, and we’re going to show them…!” The greatest leaders use incredible colorful language.
My old mentor Pat Grotto used to say, “Don’t tell me how many bullets you shot, bring me bodies.” You need the colorful language of stories and ability to tell stories—but most importantly—you have to have a story to tell. You need a big picture vision.
My favorite movie of all time is Apocalypse Now. In the very beginning, Martin Sheen is fighting the hit man he has to go after. In it, he says, “I wanted a mission. And for my sins they gave me one. And I never want another one.” Well, how can you not want to watch that movie!
This is exactly what you have to be able to do when you stand up in front of your people as a CEO or the manager of a department, you’ve got to be able to articulate what the mission is going to be. Our whole society is suffering from what I call the death of a big idea. People don’t have big ideas. Lou Mobley, who was the IBM Executive I used to work for who created the IBM Executive school, said, “Too many executives and managers think that management and leadership are about getting things done. No, it’s about coming up with things worth doing in the first place.” That’s where imagination comes in place. You’ve got to have imagination.
Q3: What do people really lack and long for at work?
I worked hard in my book to articulate what we want is a mission. We want our lives to be an adventure. We want something that’s worth sacrificing for. At the same time, we think we don’t want sacrifice, and we don’t like sacrifice. We don’t want to be asked to sacrifice. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we are happiest when we’re sacrificing for something worth sacrificing for.
We are not happiest when someone gives us a million dollars and says just walk over there and amuse yourself with it. I mean that gets annoying very, very quickly. What we want is we think we want selfishness, but what we want is selflessness. We want something that’s so magnificent, so good, so pure, so worth doing that we can dedicate ourselves to it entirely and forget completely about ourselves and dedicate ourselves to some big idea so much larger than ourselves. Down through history, this is what religion did for people, but we also want it in our ordinary lives.
Most people think the purpose of leadership is to make themselves successful. No. The goal of leaders is to make other people successful. The more successfully you make other people successful, the quicker you’ll get promoted and be successful yourself.
The funny thing is once you have a conversion experience, you’re going to get more pleasure out of seeing other people succeed then you do out of your success. You become incredibly successful, and you are happier.
What people want most and what’s lacking in most people’s lives is something worth sacrificing for. Something worth being selflessness for because what we want to be is selfless.
Q4: What is the most important question management should be asking employees?
This is a pretty hard question. The biggest thing people ought to be asking people is, “What is important to you in your life?” But I think probably the most important thing is to ask questions period and be tuned into people. We need to be curious and interested in them. What we lack is for people to be interested in us and show that we care about them. I don’t think it’s one particular question we need to be asking as much as it is we develop those relationships and care about people.
I was thinking of something that happened to me after I sold my company. The acquiring company took over and made me general manager of the American operation. I put together a sales contest that was tied to the stock market. You could earn dollars through your selling then invest it in the stock market. You got paid based on how well the stock you picked did.
Well, it was a disaster because the salesman figured out some holes in the system I hadn’t thought of. The next thing you know I owe these guys $30,000 each! There was no way I could go back to corporate and say I need $90,000 to pay three salesmen for a month’s work! So I called the salesman into my office and said, “Listen, this is the most humiliating, most terrible, depressing thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve never done it before and hopefully never have to do it again.” I said, “I just cannot pay you guys what I promised you what I would pay you. It was silent for a few seconds then they started laughing. Then one of them said, “We were wondering how long it was going to be before you told us that!”
Before we ended this meeting, one of them said, “Hey Augie, don’t worry about it. Pay us what you can afford to pay us.” Well, when did I develop that relationship that I was able to get that kind of trust? It started years earlier by being interested in them as people.
Q5: What’s the most important question employees should be asking management?
To me that’s a simple question, “How do I become a good follower?” I wrote an article for Forbes on how do you become a great follower. We are loathing to admit that we are followers. Everybody in the country thinks they need to be a leader.
I was the oldest of eight children, so I started out as a leader. But I was happiest in my life when I was following somebody I believed in. All too often people wonder how to become a great leader, but nobody asks how do you become a great follower. That to me is the most important question that people should be asking their leaders.
Once again it’s the service in selflessness. It’s a two-way street. We talk all the time, what should leaders be doing? But I’ll be honest, as somebody who has worked in business many years, employees can be a pain in the ass too. The sympathy, the understanding, the empathy—those are all wonderful things—but it can go both ways.
There was an article I wrote for Forbes called The Dark Side of Leadership. What I talked about is the loneliness that leaders have to go through. It’s one thing to borrow your wife’s wedding ring and pawn it to make payroll. It’s quite another thing when all the people benefitting from it don’t even know it.
One of the things that’s important is employees need to understand is there are good leaders in the world. They are working hard, and they do have a tough job. Your job is to be a great follower, and it’s just as important as being a great leader. As organizations become flatter and flatter, we are all flip-flopping back forth many times in the same day from leader to follower and follower to leader. We are all followers, and we are all leaders.
An old mentor of mine, Jim Collins, told me, “Remember, everybody’s got a boss. The Vice President reports to the President, the President reports to the CEO, the CEO reports to the Chairman of the Board, the Chairman of the Board reports to the Stockholders, and the stockholders report to their wives. Everybody’s got a boss.”
We are all followers and just in the same way that we don’t spend enough time on our personal development for its sake; we don’t worry too much about how can I be a great follower. The best way to be a great follower, by the way, is to anticipate, to do things before you’re asked—that will turn you into a great leader as well.
Who am I? Louis Mobley, the IBM Executive used to say the most important question a business can ask itself is, “What is the business of the business? What business are we in?”
You have to continually ask that question over and over again almost every single day because things are changing so quickly. If you take for example the cell phone companies Nokia and Research in Motion, they were on top of the world a few years ago, and now they’re bankrupt. Things change so quickly.
Steve Jobs decided that the phone wasn’t just a communications device—it could be so much more. So what business was he in? He was asking this question all the time. When Mobley first exposed me to this thinking, I was only 25 years old. I said, “Wow, all he’s saying is we’re asking the who am I question in a group setting.” The business itself is asking, who are we? What do we stand for? What makes us different? What’s the unique value we’re adding to the marketplace? What unique value could we add to the market place?
Every single one of us in a sense is our own business, so we should be asking ourselves what is the business of my business? In other words, who am I? Why am I getting out of bed in the morning? What is my purpose here in life? What do I want to accomplish? Where do I want to go? What do I want to see on my tombstone someday? What do I want my legacy to be? What do I want people to say about me when they’re asked? What’s my brand?
Everybody has a brand. You also find there’s another analogy to the business and that is once you start asking yourself who am I, you quickly find out there’s a lot of different voices in your head clamoring for attention. Just like there’s a lot of different moving parts in a business that are competing with each other. There’s part of you that says, “I think I’m going to study my Russian this afternoon, then there’s another voice that says, “I’ll do that after I take my nap.” There’s all these arguments going on in your head, different priorities, different rationalizations. You have to harmonize all of those things and come up with a single mission that inspires you.
What is the story you articulate to yourself? What is the myth that you are living? What is the adventure you are living? What Hero’s Journey are you on? You have to harmonize all these voices so that you’re willing to forego that nap in the afternoon and live this mission instead.
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We just don’t ask ourselves that question a lot. Interestingly the byproduct is, and I say this about the Monks because the monks spend so much time asking who am I? The questions of who are we and what is the business of the business are much easier to answer for them because it’s an extension of the same question they’re living every single day of their lives.
Editor’s Note: If you liked this interview with August, please check out an earlier interview we did with him here: How to Truly Transform by Relentlessly Asking “Who Am I?”
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