Fireside Chat #1: Marion Labs, Kauffman Foundation

The Big WHY!

Ever wonder how little kids learn so fast? I believe that one secret they have is their incessant use of the word “WHY”. Think about it. How many exhausting conversations have you had with a three-year-old who keeps asking “WHY?”  in response to every answer you give. This sincere and inexhaustible desire to understand helps every youngster fill his fertile mind.

There is an old Southern saw that says: 


“Those who know WHAT to do will always have jobs. Those who know WHY will be their leaders.”


We used this approach to build an outstanding HR staff to support the dramatic growth of Marion Laboratories during the ten year period when the company grew from $100 million in sales to $1 Billion with EPS growth of 50% per year for eight years in a row. Employment during that period grew from around 1100 to 3400, and the company’s productivity levels led its industry.

Early on in that growth, it became clear that soon the new people would quickly outnumber the seasoned associates on board who knew and lived the unique culture that had enabled success. The HR staff was a critical element in helping new managers and new associates learn the unique philosophies used to manage the company’s operations, so we used the big “WHY” to encourage new HR staff members to understand more than just the WHAT of Marion’s policies and philosophies.

By encouraging people to ask WHY, and by anticipating these questions, we were able to accelerate their learning and their ability to help others learn and understand. We even put the quote on posters in HR offices to remind each other of the importance of this thinking.

We also discouraged the use of “It’s our policy” as the answer to questions.  We trained staff to explain WHY that was our policy.  We even structured policies to include an opening statement of purpose in each policy that was published.

I am convinced that  this one strategy is a key reason that no less than a dozen of the Marion HR staff during those years have gone on to become the senior HR executive for major national and multi-national corporations around the globe. They already had developed the habit of focusing on the key element of any HR policy or action—understanding WHY!

Try understanding “WHY”; it may help you accelerate the development of your own staff!

Motivation or Manipulation?

Because I have been associated with highly productive and high energy organizations, I am often asked, “How do you motivate people?”

My answer: You can’t motivate someone to do what he or she doesn’t want to do. If you try, you are really trying to “manipulate” them.

There is an old Southern saw that says, “Given the opportunity, people will tend to act in their own self interest. Not given the opportunity, people will STILL tend to act in their own self interest as they understand it.”

Therefore, you can count on people to expend the most energy on those things they see as in their best interest. Ewing Kauffman would often say, “How do we find the things that are in both our best interests? Or, how can we create situations in which it is in your best interest to do what I need you to do?” Douglas McGregor, whose 1960 management classic “The Human Side of Enterprise” became the foundation for much of what we now call “OD”, would have called this “the mutuality of individual and organizational goals.” I have found that Kauffman’s stating this in more human terms is more effective.

The other side of this coin is to be sure that we aren’t doing things that “de-motivate” people or even “punish” them for doing well at the things we need done. For example, early in my own career I was given the assignment of managing the donation campaign for a leading charity in the plant where I worked. I wanted to show my bosses that I could do a good job even though I found the task personally distasteful. I worked hard and the campaign was successful at a record-setting level. My “reward” for this success was getting to manage the campaign again the next year—NOT what I had in mind.

A similar example could be asking for candid questions from the staff only to berate the staff member who has the guts to ask a tough question. Reward systems have their positive and negative sides and not all effects are intentional.

So, if you want to identify the kinds of things that make people feel rewarded or punished, just think back over your own experiences about the times you felt really good OR really bad about your job and what it was that caused those feelings. You will be well on your way to understanding the keys to the motivation question.

Walking with Giants

Last week I was having lunch with a friend and client who asked, “Where did you learn all of these things you have been sharing with me and my team?”

As I described my history and the great leaders and thinkers I have had the privilege of working with and knowing, he excitedly said, “Michie, you have walked with giants!”

I hadn’t thought of it that way. My work with Ewing Kauffman, Founder of Marion Laboratories, during the pace of high growth of that business, and later in the building of his Foundation, gave me the opportunity to work with and study under some of the great business and leadership minds of the last 50 years. These included many of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs and scholars of leadership and entrepreneurship.

Kauffman himself was legendary in his ability to spot talent.  Even more, he was uniquely able to align their interests with his own to achieve mutual goals. Other superstars of entrepreneurship such as Eli Callaway of Callaway Golf, Jim McCann of 1-800-Flowers, and J.R. “Bob” Beyster of SAIC gave their own flavor to my learning.  Spending personal time with great scholars and teachers such as Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, Jeffry Timmons, and Howard Stephenson expanded my understanding to new heights. And, working directly with the leading minds of the Venture Capital industry to develop the curriculum for today’s world famous Kauffman Fellows internship program, provided amazing insights into early stage, high-growth, technology-based businesses, and the challenges these business face in finding success.

The most important lesson from all of these great minds was the value of reducing complexity to its most simple level so that it could be used effectively throughout rapidly growing organizations. This has been especially helpful in my work with high-growth entrepreneurs–time is their most scarce commodity.  I learned entrepreneurs are efficient.  They value “just in time” learning and find tools to help them with current problems and issues that stand in the way of today’s success. They also value insights into what’s coming over the horizon and can often only be seen by one who has “seen the movie” of rapid growth before.

My friend has encouraged me to write a book, but books take too long to write, and important simple messages often get lost in books. So, I have decided to try blogging as an avenue to share some of the tools and insights I find most helpful to leaders and entrepreneurs. I hope you find the blogs interesting and productive, and of course, share your feedback!