Article: Invest time in building the basics: Laura Kohler


Invest time in building the basics: Laura Kohler

Laura E Kohler, SVP, HR, Kohler Co, talks about her passion for theatre, how it has helped her as a professional, and more.
Invest time in building the basics: Laura Kohler

Even when I had babies, I only took two weeks off, and I came back. Sometimes, being a Kohler at Kohler makes it harder.


It must be very hard to be a working mother in a factory environment, or in a place where you have no flexibility to leave, to see your children, or go if somebody is sick. So, I think I have been more thankful that I have a flexible job at the level I do, than being a part of the family.


Laura E Kohler is a Power Woman in every sense of the word. Senior Vice President, Human Resources, of a 140-year-old global giant with a staff of 30,000 plus, she is a dynamo who drives the people management agenda for Kohler Co – a name synonymous with luxury bath fittings and ubiquitous in almost every other airport washroom. In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Kohler talks about the unique 70-20-10 model of learning, her passion for theatre and how it has helped as an HR professional, and what an entrepreneur needs to do be able to successfully manage the difficult art of scaling up. Excerpts:

You have said that that the plumbing business is your biggest across the world. Is there a difference in the way organisational policies are defined, to cater to plumbers as customers?

Our business is a B2C business. Anytime you hire people for a B2C business, it is a different profile than a B2B. We sell to the end consumer, so people need to have a consumer orientation. In our business, they also need to have a fashion and trend orientation, because bathroom and kitchen are really interior fashion. When we hire, we look at people who like our brands and product, who have a sensibility towards lifestyle, and are passionate about fashion and trends.

Training is all about continuous growth. We train people on product as well as leadership. So, some people could be great technical experts while others could be for our leadership pipeline. Our job is to figure out who is suitable for which role.

What is the 70-20-10 learning model that you talk about?

It’s a learning model. If you work with Kohler, 70 per cent of your development would be the challenge we give you on the job, making sure that your day-to-day work is stretching and growing you. Twenty per cent will be your coaching and mentoring, either from your boss or from another person that we assign for your development. Ten per cent is the actual, formal training. Most people think of development as what class you went to. At Kohler, it is about learning and growing on the job.

How does 70-20-10 model benefit the organisation?

We always try to promote from within. In 2011, 67 per cent of our positions in senior management were filled through internal promotion, and 30 per cent of them were women. When you are habituated to take stretch assignments every day, you will be more prepared for the next assignment. And we also will have results to prove that since you did well on your stretch assignments, you are ready for the next role. And you never know when that role will be created. Sometimes, someone may leave the organisation; sometimes, we may create a new position. So we always want to ensure that our people are ready. And I believe that giving people stretch assignments is the best learning tool.

Kohler has been able to establish its business and succeed in diverse cultures. How do you adapt your people strategy to accommodate cultural diversity?

The first and foremost imperative is to hire a good local team. That is the fastest way to learn and adapt to the culture. We work with the local team to build management practices more suited to the country and culture, instead of trying to import management from other places. Secondly, we respect the diversity of culture and the diversity of markets, and do not try to make every office like our headquarters.

To ensure that the Kohler values are not compromised, we hire people who have the Kohler essence. We look for people who are adventurous, passionate, intellectually curious, interested in learning and trying new things, have a sense of enterprise, and a problem-solving attitude. After that, building a culture which is aligned to our values is not difficult.

Besides the business of plumbing, Kohler also has other businesses such as luxury furniture, hospitality and stand-by power. Do the people policies vary for each business?

The policies do not vary. We have standard performance management, standard succession planning, standard compensation across the globe, because we want to exchange talent between businesses. So, there are certain global standards, and then we customise certain practices to make it more appropriate for a country or a business, but the fundamentals are the same.

So, what are the fundamentals of Kohler?

In HR practice, the compensation philosophy and structure is the same around the world. The benefits philosophy is the same around the world. For example, our benefits will never be higher than the market average or lower than the market average, because we don’t want to attract someone because of the benefits, neither do we want someone to leave because of the benefits. Leadership development is global, although you may find certain leadership programmes that are unique in India. However, the higher level programmes are the same globally. Leadership competencies are global; how we expect our leaders to behave is global. Potential rating definitions are global. Labour laws may be different from country to country, but there is a certain philosophy on labour; there is a certain philosophy on ethics that is global. There might be some amount of local customisation; but the basic standards are global.

Besides your work, you are also actively involved in theatre, arts and education. How does it impact your decisions as a professional?

My role is all about people. I can coach and communicate with executives, and I can also connect with the factory workforce. I travel around the world and go to our factory locations, and I can also go to rural places and be a part of community events and stewardship. I am comfortable in diverse situations, communicating and connecting with people, because of my theatre experience. And this has made a big difference in my role as an executive.

Is HR your first love or is it theatre and the arts?

I went to Duke University for my undergraduate degree, and then did a Masters in Fine Arts. I thought I wanted to be in theatre. But I was also thinking about law school at the time. The theatre world is a very hard business. I was in my late twenties, and still working in a lot of jobs. I was waiting tables, and doing training films because they make money when you are an actor, and I was also directing films and teaching. And I had all these different jobs just to make money. When I was about to turn thirty, I thought the world of HR is similar, because it is about people, and I was very good at managing and organising. I began to build my career in public affairs, public relations and human resources. So yes, theatre is my love, but I also believe that I use theatre everyday because I have to communicate a lot. I still use my passion and I get to communicate with people, which is really what theatre is.

You have made your career choices and succeeded in them. Do you think it would have been difficult to achieve the same while managing a family of four had it not been your own company?

I think sometimes it is harder because, being part of the management, the ownership and the family structure, my job never ends -- it is 24 by 7. Even when I had babies, I only took two weeks off, and I came back. Sometimes, being a Kohler at Kohler makes it harder. As an executive, I have had more flexibility to be a working mother. For instance, as an executive, I have the freedom to take my children to the doctor’s appointment and come back to work. I had the flexibility to work at night if I had to leave early to help at the school. Because of this flexibility, I really appreciate being an executive when I was bringing my children up. On the other hand, it must be very hard to be a working mother in a factory environment, or in a place where you have no flexibility to leave, to see your children, or go if somebody is sick. So, I think I have been more thankful that I have a flexible job at the level I do, than being a part of the family.

Indian women seem to give in to family demands, and quit the workplace by the time they become middle managers. What do organisations need to do to enable women to succeed in their career?

The important thing is that everyone at the management level is held to the same result. How they get their results could be different. So, you might have one person who just wants to work nine to five, and she is really productive in those hours. You might have others who need a little more flexibility. They may leave at three, but they will deliver the results at night, or from their home. They are still high performers – but they just manage their work differently. It is about allowing flexibility in the work environment, and about the results. So how you do your work doesn’t matter; the results should be the same, and should be at par.

In the US, you see more stay-at-home fathers. We also see more fathers who want to be a part of their children’s lives. So, fathers ask for more flexibility. They want to leave at three to coach their child’s soccer team, but they still have to deliver their marketing plans or their product launches on time. That’s how I think we are seeing flexibility becoming a requirement for everyone.

What’s your message to entrepreneurs in India seeking to build a sustainable and profitable business?

You need to first build a foundation of what is important to your company, your mission, your ethics and your values. You need to manage the details, so that you are managing your people, and your numbers appropriately, and building that discipline around what is important to you. This is because, as you get bigger, it will only get harder, and if you have a good foundation of processes, beliefs and practices, it gives you a foundation to build your house on. However, if you are always moving and changing, you will find that once your business starts to take off, you don’t have anything to build on. It is like sand, and you won’t grow as quickly. But some entrepreneurs don’t want to invest time to build the basics. Another philosophy that we at Kohler follow is to invest as we grow, because we don’t want to risk too much money. We keep investing as we get results.

Fast Facts

The Kohler Empire: Established in 1873, Kohler today is a $4.68 billion company with more than 30,000 employees.

The making of a bathtub: In 1883, the company’s founder, John Michael Kohler applied enamel to a cast iron trough to create the company’s first bath tub. It marked the first of many plumbing products manufactured and sold by Kohler Co.

Love for theater: Herbert V. Kohler Jr, the current Chairman of the Board and CEO, had initially rebelled and taken up poetry and theater when his father first pushed him to join the company.

Like father, like daughter: Laura Kohler, daughter of Herbert V. Kohler Jr. did a Masters in Fine Arts from Catholic University and founded a theater company. But she joined the company in 1995, in her late twenties, because, in her own words, theater wasn’t able to give her a steady pay check every month.

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Topics: Leadership, C-Suite

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