Five drivers Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

Ego, greed, fear, love and purpose.

They drive Rudy Karsan as the chairman and CEO of Kenexa. And, to varying degrees, they drive every person in the world of business.

Karsan says you need to abandon what you think you know about each of those characteristics, what society tells you each of those words mean. He says that you need to understand that, as a leader of a business and a leader of people, each of those words have both positive and negative connotations. Your job is to take the ego, greed, fear, love and purpose that exist in yourself and each of your employees and leverage it to a positive outcome.

“There is a natural perception in the minds of people that ego, greed and fear are negative, and love and purpose are positive,” says Karsan, who co-founded Kenexa, a $157 million human resources solutions company with approximately 1,500 worldwide employees. “I view all five as having positive and negative elements, depending on how you’re trying to make a decision and what you’re trying to do.”

For Karsan, the challenge starts in his own mind. He needs to balance those five drivers within himself before he can ask his leadership team to do the same, starting a cascading process that ultimately defines Kenexa’s culture and hiring practices.

“The biggest challenge I’ve had is that I’m a person of extremes,” he says. “I have to make sure that not one of those five drivers tend to dominate the others. That’s not just an issue leading Kenexa; it’s anytime I play a leadership role.

“The question is, how can I maximize the organization’s purpose, whatever it might be, while keeping my own drivers in check and in balance to achieve a maximum outcome.”

Manage your drivers

Karsan isolates fear, in particular, as an emotion that you need to manage both in yourself and in your employees if your company is to remain successful over the long haul.

Fear is bred by risk and uncertainty, something that every business will encounter at some point.

“In our drive for growth, we have inevitably run into cash flow problems, and we have gone to the brink of bankruptcy,” he says. “That’s happened maybe three or four or five times in our history. When we are in one of those modes, a huge challenge for me is to keep my fear under control, and continue to manage the company for the benefit of the stakeholders, clients, owners and employees. We were very close in terms of cash flow problems to going belly-up or missing a payroll. If you miss payroll, you do a lot of damage to a company and you might not recover from that. So fear starts dominating, and under fear, you tend to want to fight or flee.”

Karsan says fear produces three essential responses in people: the adrenaline-spurred fight or flight mechanism or a tendency to freeze like a deer caught in headlight beams.

As a leader, the key is to emphasize those in your organization who have a tendency to stay the course and fight and neutralize the effect of those who tend to flee or freeze.

“As a leader, you have to be flexible,” Karsan says. “There might be individuals who are predisposed to fighting, some who are predisposed to fleeing, and some who are predisposed to freezing. First off, the way you manage it is you find out who the fighters are, and they are the ones who are going to be naturally accustomed to being on the vanguard of that battle. In a time of crisis, you take your fighters and put them on the front lines.”

Your fighters will be relatively easy to spot. They’re the ones who enjoy taking initiative and leadership roles and thrive on challenging projects. Identifying those who flee or freeze can be a bit more challenging for leaders in upper management. Once you’ve identified those who are less willing and able to meet a fear-producing challenge, you need to decide how best to handle the situation.

“With people who flee, you really only have two tools at your disposal,” Karsan says. “One is that you try to engage them and pull them into the decision-making. You explain how we’re going to get through this, and how we’re going to create a positive environment. The second choice is to find out what drives the flee response. What is the next level below the fear for that person? Is it a fear of having an incident of failure on their resume? A personal fear of failing? The fear of not having a paycheck? You need to find out what that fear is, and attack it. You can be flexible around how you do it, but you need to develop work plans around each of those three modes of fear.”

Fear can take hold within an organization when employees and managers are worried about potential injury to their egos. Which means that, along with a person’s fear points, you need to identify what inflates and deflates their egos.

“When you think about ego, it’s the internal driver to want to do well,” Karsan says. “It can go to an extreme, to narcissism, but in the midpoint is this incredible will to overcome odds to succeed. When ego is not out of balance, it is essential for success.”

You need to know what drives the egos of your employees so you can understand how to best utilize their egos to better your business. Some employees are driven by receiving accolades. Some are motivated by working on a product or project that substantially affects the markets you serve.

“In software, for example, some engineers have a lot of ego around the number of people that touch the application they created,” Karsan says. “So you make sure that your super-high performers are working on your most robust and highest-selling products. There are some that have an ego around speed and accuracy of coding, so you might have them fixing bugs in the software and the like.”

You need to dig for underlying reasons when it comes to the other emotional drivers that affect your work force. Even positive characteristics, like a sense of purpose, can have negative consequences if not managed properly.

“We have a sense of purpose as a company, which is to serve humanity,” Karsan says. “To many people, ‘purpose’ is a very positive word. But if we let our people get too extreme on that phase, every one of our leaders would be sitting on three or four nonprofit boards and we would be giving away our work pro bono to a hundred different nonprofits. Then, we’d go belly-up. So while serving humanity is a part of our founding reason and something we continue to do as part of our mission, we can’t lose sight of the fact that a business is built on growth and profit.

“You always need to remind yourself of two things: Cash is king and sales rules.”

Connect with your people

To find out what drives your employees, managers and executives — what they fear, what gives them a sense of purpose, what stimulates their ego — you need to set up a well-defined process of communication and information-gathering that begins when a job candidate first arrives for an interview and continues throughout the hiring process and all the way up the company ladder.

At Kenexa, Karsan and his leadership team have formulated a structured interview process that aims to find the basic drivers for a given job candidate.

“We use a technique called ‘structured interviews,’ and around the structured interviews, we research the best kinds of questions to ask so that we get pr

edictive analysis on the probability of that individual working out or not working out here,” Karsan says.

“Whatever dimension you’re talking about, those individuals tend to have a certain amount of preponderance, a certain direction that they lean. You can ask questions for one dimension, like ‘How do you handle fear?’ But in general, what you do is put the process in place for structured interviews, and that is a way to attract the right kinds of people to the company and ensure healthy long-term relationships.”

Once Kenexa hires an employee, Karsan and his leadership team make sure that person is taking regular stock of themselves and how their drivers and tendencies play into the mission and goals of the company as a whole.

You don’t have to implement those kinds of regular personal gut-checks on a grand scale. In fact, it helps if it occurs in smaller discussion groups with peers. Karsan has made daily, monthly and quarterly meetings — which he calls “huddles” — a part of every employee’s work life at Kenexa.

“A huddle is basically a meeting, so for example, at 6:05 p.m. Eastern Time, the six or seven people that form the leadership team have a daily huddle. The daily huddle follows a predetermined agenda, which centers on what happened today, what is the most important outcome that was achieved today, what is the most important outcome that you’re going to achieve tomorrow and what are you stuck on. With six or seven people, it takes maybe 15 minutes. Everyone at Kenexa goes through some form of a daily huddle, and that is cascaded throughout the organization.”

In many cases, the team that immediately surrounds a manager or employee can serve as the best possible mirror. You can dictate the need to leverage ego, greed, fear, love and purpose from a 30,000-foot level, but the execution and implementation is going to occur far closer to the ground.

“If it is someone who you work with really closely, those six or seven people on that daily huddle team, then it becomes a matter of experience and know-how,” Karsan says. “There is a level of awareness where you just instinctively know on an individual basis what it takes to move the ball forward.”

Whether your company is in a crisis state or simply trying to stay the course, setting the stage for communication and giving employees standards and practices by which to govern themselves and their teams, and doing it from the top, is critical. As much as you set the stage for using employees’ internal drivers to move the business forward, in the end, all you can do is guide them. They’ll come to their own conclusions.

“The single biggest mistake I see leaders making is that they view communication as a one-way street,” Karsan says. “When you are talking or writing, the question that people ask themselves is, ‘How can I say this in the best possible way?’ But if you replace the question with, ‘How can the recipient hear this in the most effective way?’ you might have a different answer.

“All communication is driven by two things: a rational component and an emotional component. If you can attach both components in a bandwith that is tied into the receiver, who is receiving information in a manner that is most effective and efficient for them, then you are the most successful.”

How to reach: Kenexa, (877) 971-9171 or www.kenexa.com