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Stephen Kohler: “Connect with Purpose”

Connect with Purpose, and be sure to clearly communicate it to all of your key stakeholders. This means you must clearly identify your organization’s underlying mission, vision, and values. Within this process, don’t simply talk at employees — include them in helping to define, articulate and shape these core beliefs. Starbucks has modeled this beautifully by actively […]

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Connect with Purpose, and be sure to clearly communicate it to all of your key stakeholders. This means you must clearly identify your organization’s underlying mission, vision, and values. Within this process, don’t simply talk at employees — include them in helping to define, articulate and shape these core beliefs. Starbucks has modeled this beautifully by actively integrating what they call partners’ views in shaping the organization’s purpose and applied policies.


As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Kohler, Audira’s Founder & CEO, who 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 doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After spending 25 years climbing the corporate ladder, 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 the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

These days it is all interesting. I think probably the most interesting thing that I have noticed is the fallout from the pandemic and the racial equality movement on leaders. It has created a huge surge of need amongst leaders to have stronger listening and leadership skills in the exact moment when a lot of those training and development funds got (understandably) cut from budgets. That is why we have chosen to give back to our networks by providing a lot of free content, webinars, and coaching. Fortunately, companies have realized that this is the new normal, and they need to move forward and have begun to invest again. I also like to believe that they understand that having strong leadership skills is like muscle memory, and they need to prepare their leaders now to be able to respond to the next (and ongoing) disruption that comes along.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Audira, we use music as a lens to help leaders, teams, and organizations amplify their leadership. To bring this to life, we have created a completely virtual curriculum consisting of a series of music-infused experiential leadership workshops. During these workshops, participants use instruments and exercises to strengthen principles such as communication, collaboration, and accountability. Our participants love that it is unique, experiential and applicable to their day-to-day leadership responsibilities and that it is not another boring Zoom meeting with a talking head. In fact, we piloted this new format as part of Prof. Harry Davis’ Leadership Studio at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

So many of us are working without purpose or passion. We are working in roles that are not aligned to our personal sense of mission, vision, or values. We fall into following the old adage that says, “They call it work for a reason.” If recent events such as COVID-19 have taught us anything, it’s that everything is temporary and can change in an instant. Life is too short to not pursue work that is both meaningful and sustaining financially.

Additionally, many of us are not being listened to or listening to others. This kills engagement. None of us like to work in a place where we don’t feel our expertise or opinions matter. On the flip side, organizations with highly engaged workforces create a listening leadership culture that helps people feel like their contributions matter. As a musical reference, every instrument in an orchestra knows that they are important in developing a rich, dynamic, and impactful performance, and they all have their part to play.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Unhappy workers will, by definition, not put their best foot forward. They lack engagement, which is required for creative and flexible problem-solving. They also usually suffer from poor communication, accountability, and alignment. This directly translates to their performance and results in lower profitability and operational efficiency. It also directly impacts employees’ mental and physical well-being, as some employees may feel anxious and even depressed in such an environment.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Listen to your employees. Most employees who state that they are not engaged report that the number one reason is that they don’t feel heard or valued. Shure Incorporated (one of my former employers) did a great job listening, by holding regular town halls and employee engagement surveys to solicit feedback. More importantly, they acted on the feedback vs. simply giving it lip service.
  2. Connect with Purpose, and be sure to clearly communicate it to all of your key stakeholders. This means you must clearly identify your organization’s underlying mission, vision, and values. Within this process, don’t simply talk at employees — include them in helping to define, articulate and shape these core beliefs. Starbucks has modeled this beautifully by actively integrating what they call partners’ views in shaping the organization’s purpose and applied policies.
  3. Co-Create and enlist your bandmates! 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 that encourages not just its employees but external customers to help recommend and design feature improvements for their line of products.
  4. Improvise by drawing on the principle of jazz improvisation to remain agile and adaptable. Consider how Uber transitioned during the pandemic from its focus on human delivery to food delivery with UberEats.
  5. Remain accountable and as the adage goes, do what you say and say what you do. Ensure that whatever values you state that your firm believes in are actually what are practiced. 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.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I believe that, in many ways, this has been done for us thanks to COVID-19. The global pandemic has, in many ways, blown up the concept of what a work culture is. Working in a physical office? Changed. Working for a company based on geographic location? Changed. Work/life balance? Changed.

It is our opportunity now to make the most of what has been presented to us. The most effective organizations will work to foster cultures that are employee-focused through flexibility, empowerment, and support.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I would like to believe that I am a good listener, foster collaboration, and am highly accountable. I believe that you would see these traits on display in any forum or initiative in which I’m involved. You would witness me listening and soliciting input. You would notice me including others and asking them for help in leading various efforts. And you would see me doing my best to do what I say and say what I do. When things go wrong, you would see me take personal accountability.

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 about that?

I’ve been so fortunate that I can happily report that I’ve had many. Part of this may have been that I’ve actively sought out mentorship throughout my professional and personal journey. I’m a voracious learner and love to ask questions, especially to individuals about what inspired them and helped pull them through their respective challenges.

Perhaps the biggest gift of mentorship along the way has been the continued reminder to pursue work that is filled with both purpose and passion. When graduating college, I had the good fortune of receiving several job offers — some of which paid well, but did not offer work that connected with my sense of mission or passion, and another which paid the least, but for which I secretly most passionate. My father wisely asked, “Which one would you pick if money weren’t an issue?” This sealed the deal. However, I was still expected to support myself!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I do my best to give back in some small way every day. As part of my coaching practice, I like to offer pro bono support to those unable to pay (during COVID I have offered quite a bit of this). I also like to mentor youth and have supported young entrepreneurs with creating and executing business plans. Finally, I serve on the board of a non-profit (Escorted Transportation Systems), which offers seniors rides to/from medical appointments.

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.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be a global listening movement. It would encourage us all to slow down, breathe, and truly listen to one another without fear, judgment, or hate. We would use creativity — in all forms — to help foster this sense of listening and a desired impact of bringing us together.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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