Article: Leveraging our own gifts to serve the world better

Leadership

Leveraging our own gifts to serve the world better

In a recent webinar hosted on the SOIL Institute of Management's digital channel, Laura Kohler, Senior Vice President—Human Resources, Stewardship & Sustainability, Kohler Co., shares how the ethos of her family's business drives her to pursue a higher purpose in life.
Leveraging our own gifts to serve the world better

There is always a way to leverage our gifts to serve this world. Through conversations with global business leaders, SOIL Institute of Management Founder & Chairman Anil Sachdev has been seeking to explore this uplifting belief.

In this edition of the Becoming the Best Version of Yourself webinar series, Laura Kohler, Senior Vice President—Human Resources, Stewardship & Sustainability, for US-based manufacturer Kohler Co., describes how she brings her capabilities and her teams' capabilities to solving the problems faced by communities.

In pursuit of a higher purpose

Kohler and her teams frequently involve themselves in projects to benefit the communities around locations where the company operates, and also in projects that might be further abroad but that help to address issues such as sanitation and water poverty. "We want to bring our expertise to solving some of the world's greatest problems, to bring our innovation, our capability, to the places where we work and make them better," she says. "That's what energizes our associates: when we take our capability and we find a need."

Where does their motivation come from? The obvious answer is the company's ethos, "Believe in Better", as Kohler shares—a better planet, better communities, better lives. That ethos infuses them with a sense of responsibility to improve the environment, communities, and lives, and to actively avoid the approach of taking from the world without returning.

The more personal answer, though, comes from the experience of actually helping others. Once, Kohler shares, she and her team were involved in a project to bring safe drinking water to a village in India. As they worked with the community to develop the project and get it launched, Kohler learned about one of the people living in the village, a blind woman who, like others, made the long daily trip to the nearest well to draw water, and who was doubly disadvantaged and put in danger by her disability.

"I saw that," Kohler says, "and I thought: that is why we do the work. That is why we try to bring our engineers in to help a village, to lift people up and to help a woman like that."

That sense of having a higher purpose that goes beyond customers and shareholders has also proven to be a binding and motivating force in the workplace at Kohler Co. over the last 10 years, and has driven a sense of community and ownership among the staff. "People want to know that they're part of something larger than themselves," she says. "They want to be part of a greater network, they also want to have purpose."

Walking the ground, working with people

There is something of a family legacy intertwined with that business ethos. As Kohler shares, her grandfather, Herbert Kohler Sr, was very much a "man of the people", the sort of business leader who would personally walk the floors of the manufacturing plants and spend time with the workers. "I've always modeled myself on him," she says. "I walk the manufacturing floors of Kohler Co. around the world, I spend time in the field, and some of the most valuable time I've spent is with our associates in many parts of the world, listening to them, seeing our products being made in every different country that we do business in."

Kohler's affinity for people did not first emerge in her family's 146-year-old firm, though. After graduating, she spent some time working outside the family business, including a stint as an urban instructor and wilderness instructor at Outward Bound School. That role involved facilitating corporate groups in experiential learning—what's now known today as organizational development work.

When she came back to Kohler Co. and took up a leadership position as the director of public affairs, she began to apply that knowledge, and that subsequently brought her to the HR function. The HR leader of the time was leaving, and recommended her as a successor on the grounds that despite having no formal training or experience in HR, she knew people and was already applying all the skills and knowledge needed for the position.

"I was sad to give up communications, but I think that managing the people function of any company is an honor and a huge opportunity," she says.

And is she able to leverage this gift for connecting with people, to serve that higher purpose so central to the company culture?

"I think I have a gift for communication and for inspiring people, and so I try to bring people along with me on that journey" she says. "My gifts are not in an office—I'm not at my best when I'm by myself studying reports, I'm at my best when I'm out hearing what the issues are and then bringing resources together to help solve a problem."

 

Listen to the full conversation here.

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Topics: Leadership, Culture

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