As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Kohler.
Stephen Kohler, Audira’s Founder & CEO, brings passion for people along with 25 years of extensive corporate experience within organizations ranging from startup to Fortune 100, across multiple industries.
On top of an accomplished business background and an immense network of functional and industry professionals, Kohler is a certified Professional Coach (PCC, CPCC), Balanced Scorecard Professional (BSP), and a passionate musician.
Woven through Kohler’s work is a desire to see people work authentically and in concert to achieve a meaningful goal.
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?
After spending 25 years climbing the corporate ladder, like so many, I realized that I was no longer fulfilled. Despite having achieved what I thought I had always wanted (senior corporate role, prestigious firm, etc.), I found myself realizing that I was no longer leading with purpose and passion.
After self-reflection and listening to others who had made similar career shifts, I determined that I had a passion to serve others. I transitioned into leadership development and became a certified executive coach.
I loved it so much that I decided to pursue a lifelong dream to start my own business and founded Audira Labs. In Latin, Audire means “to listen,” and we use listening — particularly through the lens of music — to help leaders, teams, and organizations amplify their leadership.
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?
My family and I are huge dog lovers and have two furry mutts at home. When I first started, I had a makeshift home office where I conducted my coaching and team leadership calls. Occasionally, our dogs would bark unexpectedly during serious conversations with clients and I would have to apologize profusely. Attempting to pivot, I literally moved my base of operations to my car for about six months. On video calls, clients would see me in my car and ask if I needed a place to stay because they were seriously concerned that I was homeless.
While it is a somewhat amusing story, the more significant lesson for me was about “self-narratives” that we all have. In this case, I had a narrative that my home could not be a productive place for me to work. To help shift my own narrative, I asked myself the question: what would it look like if your home could be everything you wanted in a working space? I then designed my workspace to match my vision. I am now happy to report that I’ve got the ideal working space at home and can’t imagine working anywhere else. And yes, it still includes two dogs.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
With permission, I will share three who greatly impacted helping me to get where I am.
First, my father, who gave me inspiration to serve others. Throughout his life, he has dedicated himself to giving back to the community and always put others first. He continually said (and still does) that giving to others will come back tenfold.
Second, my mother inspired me to pursue work that was connected with passion. Full of a love for life, she infused me with a belief that life is a grand adventure and too short to not to enjoy it.
Finally, my wife, Michelle (who also works with me at Audira) has been my unwavering partner, supporting me at every step of my life. From her, I’m reminded of the importance of remaining true to one’s values.
I’m grateful to have had each of these amazing people in my life (and so many more)!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our business was started with a simple belief: we are experiencing a crisis of listening. We are faced with an unprecedented amount of noise and cacophony due to social media, a 24/7 news cycle, and major events such as COVID-19 and tragedies of social injustice.
With this in mind, we believe that we have the opportunity to empower leaders to become better listeners — to themselves, to their teams, and to their communities. As Jimi Hendrix wisely stated, “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”
Our mission is to enable leaders, teams, and organizations to amplify their leadership through transformative executive coaching and experiential, music-infused, team leadership workshops.
With this purpose, our vision is to help create a world of “listening leaders” who can help create positive change in ourselves, our organizations, and in our communities.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I believe that, during difficult times, the most important thing that we as leaders can do is to reconnect with purpose. So often, leaders and teams struggle during difficult times because they don’t have — or have lost sight of — their respective North Star.
In our case, when COVID-19 hit, I took this opportunity to apply this concept for our team at Audira. In reflecting upon our mission to empower others, we began offering complementary coaching support as well as free webinars with the goal of creating a community and context of support.
One of the ways I like to help leaders and teams reconnect with purpose is to compose their “Anthem”. Using music as a metaphor, we have leaders create an original song that integrates their respective mission, vision, and values. This helps bring clarity to purpose in a fun and impactful way.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Being a philosophy major in college, I’ll answer the question with a question: “What is the consequence if I give up?” This is the examination upon which I continue to move forward. I continue to reflect on my values — my desire to learn, to serve others, and to lead an authentic, purposeful life.
In addition to my internal values, I am motivated by the impact I notice in my clients — their joy, reconnected sense of clarity, and direction. This lights me up and makes me motivated to carry forward, despite whatever challenges I might face.
Finally, there is the old adage that helps: to purposely “burn your ships.” When you’ve purposely gotten rid of any escape routes that make it easy to give in, it helps you do whatever it takes to succeed in your mission.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To listen. In many parts of the world (for example, corporate culture in the U.S.), we are trained to speak, to solve, and to fix. We are incentivized culturally to be experts and to be the loudest voice in the room. During challenging times, this is arguably the least effective tactic.
The most effective leaders listen — they listen to themselves in terms of their core values. They listen to their team members in terms of what they believe is needed. And they listen to their organizations and communities of what is possible.
Much of the underlying difficulty of challenging times is that of not feeling heard and feeling disconnected with others. Creating a context and community for listening is an amazingly powerful antidote.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Invite your respective team members into an “ensemble.” Using a musical metaphor again, one of the most powerful ways to motivate others is to help them co-create together, much like an orchestra or jazz ensemble. We all feel motivated when we believe we are part of something with shared purpose and meaning. We believe that we matter when we see our contributions being added to the collective mix of the song.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
To be both compassionate and candid. Borrowing from author Kim’s Scott book, Radical Candor, many of us believe that we have to make a false choice: to either be brutally honest (with no caring) or warm and fuzzy (with no candor). We can do both. We can provide the truth that is needed in an authentically compassionate way. We can view truth as a gift vs. something that will harm the other person.
Using a musical metaphor, this is the equivalent of playing a passage with strong articulation (clarity) with a warm, full tone.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We learn to separate the “what” from the “how.” All too often, as leaders, we confuse the two, and we mix-up our desired outcome with our process or approach.
To this end, we can learn much by looking to the world of entrepreneurship. Keeping an eye on the desired outcome (versus process), entrepreneurs constantly test out various products, services, and business models, letting go of those that don’t work and doubling down on those that do.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
We improvise! As the jazz legend, Miles Davis, taught us, “There are no wrong notes.” Jazz musicians are masters of creating from chaos, and we can learn much from them.
The essence of musical — and leadership — improvisation is three-fold. First, we listen to what is present without judgment or attachment. We let go of what “should be” or “what was.” In a musical setting, for example, we hear the bass and drums begin playing on their own. Second, we notice what is needed. We ask ourselves, “what if we added some saxophone?” Finally, we experiment and build based on impact. We say, “That sounded great. Let’s try adding some clarinet.”
As leaders, it is the same. The most successful leaders constantly improvise and adapt. They let go of old paradigms and constantly ask, “What’s possible” and “How might we?”
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- They don’t listen: they don’t listen to their customers, their employees, or their stakeholders. This results in lost sales, decreased employee engagement, and general lack of public support. Look at what is happening right now with Facebook and general public concern over their policy with data privacy.
- They don’t reconnect with Purpose. They don’t examine their underlying “reason for being” and, from a strategic perspective, what business they are truly in. This results in often being overtaken by the competition. Consider Kodak’s struggles and need to reinvent over the past several years.
- They don’t adapt or let go of “the plan.” Think Blockbuster vs. Netflix.
I’m a huge believer that we, as a species, aren’t often very good at learning from history. The biggest thing we can do is to learn and apply lessons from the past. As the joke goes from the classic movie The Princess Bride, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia….”
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
There is an expression I often go back to: “give in order to get.” From a practical business standpoint, one of the best things you can do is to continue to offer value to your current and prospective customers. This can be as basic as free how-to tips delivered in videos, newsletters, social media, webinars, etc. Another example would be added value services packaged as part of your paid offering.
The organizations that thrive are constantly giving before they get. As an example, a local restaurant near my home does this beautifully by including a handwritten thank you note and extra goodies in every takeout order. I compare this to the airlines, which candidly, have a long way to go on this front.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen — Notice what is happening around you, including your market, your customers, your competition, your employees, and overall community. Let go of what was “supposed to happen” and truly listen to what’s present. Tesla identified a huge untapped need for cars that were both efficient and powerful.
- Connect with Purpose — Identify your organization’s underlying mission, vision, and values, and be sure to clearly communicate it to all of your key stakeholders. Nike did this with their brilliant slogan “Just do it,” which embodied all of these elements into a memorable tagline.
- Co-Create — Remember that, as leaders, we don’t lead alone and must ask for help along the way. Invite ensemble members to join you on your quest to help shape and execute a shared vision. Consider Aiwa Labs, an audio electronics brand, which encourages its users to help recommend and design feature improvements for their line of products.
- Improvise — Using the jazz improvisation principles described earlier, practice remaining agile and adaptable. Consider how Uber transitioned during the pandemic from its focus on human delivery to food delivery with UberEats.
- Remain Accountable — As the adage goes, do what you say and say what you do. Practice compassionately candid conversations to help hold yourself, your team, and your organization accountable. Consider Zoom’s CEO who took personal responsibility when they experienced security glitches in the software platform.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I know that I know nothing” — Socrates
This quote has always held meaning for me because it speaks to the importance of being a life-long learner, remaining curious, and being wary of our ego’s tendency to believe we “know” things. By embracing a beginner’s mindset, we can open ourselves up to expanding perspectives every day.
How can our readers further follow your work?
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