As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kurt von Koch, CEO of FM:Systems.
An established leader in the enterprise software market, Kurt sets the strategic direction for FM:Systems to provide digital workplace management solutions that bring people efficiently and safely back into the office. In Kurt’s role, he ensures a customer-first culture, operational efficiency and growth of the business.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Geographically, I grew up in Newark, Delaware which is a small college town just outside of Philadelphia. I was very fortunate that the college town surrounded me with many smart and inquisitive people along with providing me with great access, as a grade-schooler in the 80s, to software and connected computers. I didn’t realize until much later in life how unique and special that access was. So much of that early and formative use of technology was essential to building my interests and forming my approach to solving client needs.
Philosophically, I was raised by my mother, a teacher, and my father, a policeman who had immigrated to the US as a teenager, allowing me to grow up with a strong appreciation for education and exploration. Exploring new ideas and concepts with my mother and new places and cultures with my father was a typical part of my childhood. Whether it was spending hours on school workbooks during summer vacation or traveling across Europe and Africa, these formative experiences gave me not only the foundation of being interested in other cultures but also an understanding that my way of doing things is not the only way — always seeking different and potentially better answers.
That early access to technology paired with a family that had an admiration of intellect gave me a strong desire to work hard, read widely, and to seek to understand the nuances of how the world works, how we relate and how to create success in that world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Yes! I still struggle with this today. The key mistake that I have made too often has been believing that because I said something once to one person everyone I interact with now knows it too. This is absolutely a personality and cognitive flaw on my part.
The key takeaway from this has been over-communicating. This has become the foundation of how I look at my job and my role as CEO. My priority is to create clarity, over communicate that clarity, and reinforce that clarity. In its essence, that is my job. It took me making plenty of mistakes, both big and small, in order to figure that out.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There are so many great books that have been inspirational and informative from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on understanding the importance of timing and hard work to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapians for a grounding in human progress and direction. But one that I find myself going back to over and over again is a very short book called Let’s Get Real by Mahan Khalsa. So much of how I approach conversations with clients, coworkers and friends is encapsulated in this very short yet very powerful book. It does a fantastic job of laying out a path for creating better work and better personal relationships through open and inquisitive dialog.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Yes, agreed wholeheartedly. The purpose and mission of our company has evolved a bit over the past few years. Some backstory… When I came into my role at FM:Systems, we had a business with a longstanding and strong position in the marketplace. The reality though was that it needed to grow. The opportunity was right in front of us and the market interest was there, we just needed to clarify and amplify the unique value we bring to our clients and partners.
To achieve that, we needed to focus on the purpose, or mission, of our company. Our management team spent a lot of time walking through what we did well, where we drove internal energy and inspiration, where we see the value we bring to market and, most importantly, listening to our clients and partners around why they chose to work with us and how we have most impacted their organization.
The mission we focused on and repeatedly over-communicate is that we exist in order to provide technology that enables organizations to identify, plan and deliver the ideal workplace experience for each and every employee. This clarity this mission brings to our organization enables us to move more quickly. Whether questions of product direction, acquisitions we may be considering, decisions that coworkers need to make can all be quickly measured against our mission ultimately providing a shortcut, or hack, for making informed and better decisions.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Yes. That I am wrong… and so are you. In each instance and assumption I come to, no matter how fervently I believe it at that moment, I am asking myself in what ways am I wrong. This also translates when speaking with coworkers, if I say it out loud or not, I am always thinking through the ways an idea being presented is wrong. I believe that by challenging ourselves and each other to walk through all the ways that something might fail, we mitigate more and more of that risk of failure and create an increased likelihood of success.
With a culture based on trust and thoughtfulness — where coworkers are encouraged to challenge the status quo — we get to better, more informed, more solidly constructed plans. Trust between coworkers is the most integral part of making this work. Without trust, your coworker won’t be comfortable pushing back on an idea they disagree with or have important questions on. And, when constructive feedback is held back, you are doing yourself and the organization a disservice by not sharing insights that could potentially set the team for failure by not considering all variables.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Great question. Everything is harder now than it ever has been for two generations. Certainly, the Great Depression and World War II were more difficult times for our nation and our world, but for the majority of us, our parents and our children, this is a time like nothing we have ever seen. Whether it is walking across the hall to chat with a coworker or if it is going to the store to get milk and eggs — it is all more difficult and stressful than ever before.
One key way of navigating through this uncharted territory is to try and find as many of the ways this exigency has created opportunities for good. From a business perspective, with 6 offices across the US, UK and Europe, we needed to quickly figure out how we keep all of our employees safe and effective. Protecting the job, salary, and health of all our employees has been my number one priority through this pandemic. After we wade through all of the ugly messiness that has come our way, as a business, we sat down and talked about the opportunities that had been created as well. Looking at all the ways our solutions can provide new value in adhering to CDC guidelines and ensuring a safe return to the office has been rewarding and exciting.
I know you asked about personal challenges but it seems hard these days to differentiate between our business and personal lives. Each morning I get a report on the number of coworkers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are out sick. And each evening I get an update on those same coworkers and their progress as we hear from their families. This is not something that I ever thought would be a daily question I would wake up thinking about.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The approach we took was really a 4-step process that started with the foundational belief that COVID-19 was both a change-agent and an accelerant to our market’s existing trends. Meaning, that it would radically upend certain existing trends and, conversely, provide the oxygen to the fire growing other existing trends. We saw our first step as identifying those key trends and understanding the impact those “advancing and contracting” trends would have on our clients. In step two, we limited our discussion to only things that our products did today. Keeping out the ideation around the possible of what we could do with new development and effort. Instead focusing on the reality and value of today. From there, we allowed for only quick development tasks that could be done to meet the current needs. And finally, we reviewed the ideas of the possible and the notions of beyond first order effects and into second order effects that would have a more long-lasting impression upon our market and business.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
With four daughters, our eldest a graduating high schooler preparing to go off to university, the opportunity we have found to spend more time together, to enjoy and listen to one another as a family, to actually eat dinner together without running to the next event (the usual lacrosse practice, play date or business trip) is something that we just would not have had without this pandemic. I am so grateful for this imperfect gift of extra time.
That is what I keep trying to do, from a personal and business perspective, is finding those imperfect gifts that have come along with this pandemic to make it easier to bear.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
At FM:Systems, we have been very fortunate that a lot of the driving forces of how employers identify, plan, and deliver a safe and effective workplace is what our solutions do today. From providing features for notifying organizations where congestion (adherence to 6 feet separation) is getting too tight, to tracing potential contaminants in the workplace, to notifying and prioritizing areas for sanitization — these are all solutions that clients are taking advantage of today.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Our interactions with the workplace, hospitals and schools are going to be radically changed. For the foreseeable future, we will see many more employees work from home. This will fundamentally alter the way offices are designed, built and leased. I also believe we will see the concept of “me” spaces and “we” spaces advance dramatically. This is an existing trend in our industry of creating “me” spaces for intense individual focus and “we” spaces for collaboration and energy. My prediction is that we will see much of the typical office environment shift into a “we” space where you can go and collaborate with coworkers, get energy from those ideating around you, with companies investing in employee’s home offices for more ideal “me” spaces or focused areas of work happening at home. This will also drive the need for more flexibility in leasing agreements. What once had a minimum of a 5-year commitment is going to see a strong move towards shorter term leases. And, in my opinion, should give some much needed oxygen to the “WeWorks” of the world and those lessors that can provide similar levels of flexibility.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy? Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I believe the 4-step process I mentioned earlier is one that others can use as well to understand the broad reaching effect COVID-19 is having on their market, how to best respond and lead.
In doing this it is so important to understand what your organization does uniquely compared to others in your industry and the value that brings to your clients. Once identified it is imperative to weigh your view of the future with that unique characteristic. All the while asking how does that unique characteristic need to be supported and cultivated as you push into and through this coming new normal.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Age quod agis. This is Latin and literally translates to “do that which you are doing.” As I internalize it, this means: “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. So, put your heart into it and get it done.”
Growing up in the 90s, we had Denise Rodman who by all accounts was not a naturally gifted basketball player. If we look past some of his notorious behavior both on and off the court, we have a guy who was not a classic basketball player and was actually comparatively new to the game but — through shear and often intense focus on doing his job with all his heart, all his effort, leaving not a single ounce of energy unused — he made himself into a great player and is a fantastic (maybe controversial) example of this mindset.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I am on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kurtvonkoch/.