According to Businessweek, only 3% of companies make it to the 4th generation of leadership.
Together with our amazing team of associates, I’m honored to be celebrating Kohler Co.’s 150th anniversary – a true testament to generations of leaders and associates around the world of Kohler who’ve been willing to solve tough challenges, boldly innovate, and take risks to deliver gracious living to the world.
And with this incredible milestone in business, the #1 question I’ve been getting is this: How does a leader achieve sustained impact over 150 years?!
Now, I don’t have the single magic formula (or all the answers…nor the space in this article to write a novel), but here's what I’ve observed to be factors of impact from my own 30+ years as a leader:
- Thriving over time – years, decades, and even generations – takes a deep-rooted, personal connection to a mission that matters. This connection to purpose is what gives us the ability to keep going when it’s hard (impossible?) and to choose the narrow (and often bumpy) path that leads us (collectively) to something better. Having this strong sense of purpose has also been shown to correlate with economic success; it’s been proven to contribute to overall happiness; and a strong sense of purpose contributes to even longer life spans.* Kohler’s “mission that matters” goes back to our earliest days where the very nature of our business was established. In 1975, my father, Herbert V. Kohler Jr. formalized this into our strategic model. This pivotal moment marked the establishment of our commitment to deliver gracious living to the world, a strategic framework that has proven its resilience for over 150 years (and going strong). Beyond a meaningful mission, it’s time to make it personal. On to my next point…
- Know your why and keep it as your North Star. Complete this sentence. I exist to _____. Or I make a difference because I _____. Simon Sinek’s timeless advice to “know your why” can be transformative in unlocking our true potential. When we delve deep into understanding our purpose, our intrinsic motivations, and the underlying values that guide us, we tap into a wellspring of inspiration and passion. Our “why” becomes our compass—guiding meaningful choices, granting clarity to persevere in the face of challenges and setbacks, and reminding us of the profound impact we can each have on the world and pivoting us back to what matters most during the most difficult of times. While I have always been a student of the arts and the environment, my own why has intensified as I see the next decades clearly in front of me and an end to which is inevitable. Time is finite. I have embraced that and that has brought me deeper focus on what matters most. I exist to create a more sustainable world – one where #SafeWaterForAll can become a reality for the 2.2 billion people around the world who live without it; one where inclusion and equity unlock prosperity; one where art can thrive; one where we each do our part to mitigate the risks of climate impact. Which brings me naturally to my next point . . .
- Dare to reinvent yourself and discover something new. With my “why” in hand and after 20 years as the head of HR (along with a variety of other roles in communications and more), I took a new path in 2023 as Kohler’s first Sustainability and DEI Officer. Being “the first” of anything can be scary, but I am incredibly honored to be surrounded by world-class teams. Together, we are focused on worldwide integration of environmental sustainability into all aspects of business for every process we use, product we create, and service we provide. As a global company with operations and customers across the world we have an expectation of ourselves to leave the world a better place than we found it…because without that, business success means nothing and matters little. This work isn’t easy. But it’s the reason I get up each day – to deliver BIG CHANGE and even BIGGER, LASTING IMPACT – one step at a time. It means I use my voice, step out of my comfort zone, be a bit of a “maverick,” lean on my teams, admit when I’m wrong, and actively seek out what I don’t know. Inspiring others to own the change. The shift is key.
- Think Sustainability (“Big S”) and apply it to all areas of your life. We are all responsible for being stewards of our planet, our communities, and each other—for ourselves and especially for future generations. Sustainability with a “Big S” means we’re in it for the long haul and thinking expansively, building and integrating sustainable, supportive, fruitful practices into everything we do and into all areas of our lives. As a company, we hold ourselves accountable to our ambitions and actions in our Believing In Better report, published annually with key metrics reviewed quarterly. As individuals, we must think deeply about what makes us sustainable as a whole and complete person—work and life fully integrated—a new sort of “sustained multipotentiality” where our life feeds our work, and our work feeds our life. This is thriving for the long haul and “Big S” sustainable thinking.
- Strive for better each day In life and in business today, we can’t be content with the status quo. There are more challenges in this world than solutions (the global water crisis, climate change, inequities, political unrest, economic uncertainty, and so much more). But each of us is called to step out on the edge. To think bigger and more strategically. To work differently and to innovate for good. To serve others, to lead boldly, and to change the world for the better. And to Become More. As we get better each day, this effort compounds over time so we’re better able to handle all life will throw our way. Of course, we cannot overlook the importance of maintaining our health and wellbeing as a means to go the distance and to make the most impact possible. American entrepreneur, author, and motivation speaker Jim Rohn said it better than I can:
“Don't wish it was easier, wish you were better. Don't wish for less problems, wish for more skills. Don't wish for less challenges, wish for more wisdom. The major value in life is not what you get. The major value in life is what you become. Success is not to be pursued; it is to be attracted by the person you become.”
Surely this list is not complete. What would you add? What has helped you in your career?
Businessweek (as shared from Cornell University https://www.johnson.cornell.edu/smith-family-business-initiative-at-cornell/resources/family-business-facts/)
Bronk, K. C., Hill, P. L., Lapsley, D. K., Talib, N., & Finch, H. (2009). Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groups. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 500–510.
Hill, P. L., Cheung, F., Kubel, A., & Burrow, A. L. Life engagement is associated with higher GDP among societies. (2019). Journal of Research in Personality, 78, 210-214.