August Turak: entrepreneur and author at augustturak.com.
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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
August Turak: 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, 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 to convince you 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, people have to step forward. 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 SERVICE AND SELFLESSNESS would work. Nothing succeeds like success. We have to get other people to follow our example by doing it ourselves.
Our society’s problem 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 it convinced you intellectually of something. We all know people who believe that we should be nice to each other, and they go home and treat their wives like crap. They don’t even see it. They don’t even see the problem.
You will not build the transformational organization—which is what I think you described in your question—unless we have a transformational leader.
In the last chapter of my book, I say, “Listen, everything I’ve said, everything you’ve read, is worthless unless you take action and make the Hero’s Journey yourself and become transformed.” You will not build the transformational organization—which is what I think you described in your question—unless we have a transformational leader. Building a 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 by working with the Monks and all the things 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 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 that is a hard question because people think you do personal development to come back to business and be more successful. The goal is to be successful, make a lot of money, reach that goal, and do personal development.
I say it’s the opposite. How many people are willing every day of their lives to do x, y, and z for no other reason except its personal development? For example, I’m going to pick up other people’s litter. I don’t know if it will pay off, and frankly, I don’t care if it does pay off. I’m just going to pick up other people’s litter.
Very few people will 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 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 important to the transformational journey. It would be best if you did 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 says, “Hey, you promised you would come on this barn raising,” we don’t want to be held accountable.
In theory, everybody loves 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 wants to know why. So yes, a community has its downsides.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
August: 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 tell the story.
Even when you go to a venture capitalist for money, they say what you’ve got 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 incredibly colorful language.
My old mentor Pat Grotto used to say, “Don’t tell me how many bullets you shot; bring me bodies.” It would help if you had the colorful language of stories and the ability to tell stories—but most importantly—you have to have a story to tell. You need a big picture vision.
Our whole society is suffering from what I call the death of a big idea. People don’t have big ideas.
This is exactly what you have to do when you stand up in front of your people as a CEO or department manager. You’ve got to articulate what the mission will be. Our whole society is suffering from what I call the death of THE 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 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 into place. You’ve got to have imagination.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
August: I worked hard in my book to articulate THAT what we want is a mission. We want our lives to be an adventure. We want something worth sacrificing for. 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 sacrificing for something worth sacrificing for.
We are not happiest when someone gives us a million dollars and says, walk over there and amuse yourself with it. I mean, that gets annoying very quickly. We think we want selfishness, but what we want is selflessness. We want something so magnificent, so good, so pure, so worth doing. We can dedicate ourselves to it entirely and forget completely about ourselves. This is what religion did for people down through history, 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 will get more pleasure out of seeing other people succeed than you do out of your success. You become 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 selfless because what we want to be is selfless.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
August: This is a hard question. The biggest thing people ought to ask people is, “What is important to you in your life?” 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 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 after I sold my company. The acquiring company took over and made me a 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 salespeople 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 cannot pay you guys what I promised you what I would pay you. It was silent for a few seconds, then they laughed. Then one of them said, “We were wondering how long it would 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 could get that kind of trust? It started years earlier by being interested in them as people.
What’s the most important question employees should ask leaders?
August: 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.
How do I become a good follower? We are loathing to admit that we are followers. Everybody thinks they need to be a leader.
I was the oldest of eight children, so I started 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 you become a great follower. That is the most important question people should ask 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 for many years, employees can be a pain in the ass. 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 thing that’s important is employees need to understand is there are good leaders in the world. They are working hard, and they 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 a leader. We are all followers, and we are all leaders.
An old mentor of mine, Jim Collins, told me, “Remember, everybody has 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, we don’t spend enough time on our personal development for its sake; we don’t worry too much about how I can be a great follower. The best way to be a great follower is to anticipate. Do things before you’re asked—that will turn you into a great leader.
What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?
August: 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 continually ask that question repeatedly 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 marketplace?
Every single one of us is our own business, so we should ask 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?
In a sense, every one of us is our own business, so we should ask ourselves, what is the business of my business? In other words, who am I?
Everybody has a brand. You also find there’s another analogy to the business. Once you start asking yourself who am I, you quickly find many different voices in your head clamoring for attention. Like there’s a lot of different moving parts in a business that is competing. There’s part of you that says, “I think I will study my Russian this afternoon, then there’s another voice that says, “I’ll do that after I take my nap.” There are all these arguments going on in your head, different priorities, different rationalizations. 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 you are living? What is the adventure you are living? What Hero’s Journey are you on? Harmonize all these voices, so 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 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 we are and the business of the business are much easier to answer because it extends the same question they’re living every day of their lives.