Laura Elizabeth Kohler, the fourth-generation leader of her family's 150-year-old manufacturing firm, is passionate to bring about positive change in workplace. With a global workforce of 36,000 employees, is one of the oldest and largest privately held companies in the United States, and it counts social impact and sustainability among its long-standing values.
As SVP HR, Stewardship, & Sustainability, as well as a member of the Board of Directors, Laura has spent over two decades bringing together people leadership and social impact championship in Kohler’s approach to how it does business. She leads with a vision to enhance the workplace experience and create an environment where all associates can achieve their full potential. And as a founding member of Kohler’s executive leadership diversity board, she believes in celebrating diversity, leading with inclusion, and upholding equity for all. Her action in recent years can be seen in the establishment of Kohler’s Business Resource Groups, enhanced diversity recruitment strategies, retention and development opportunities for diverse talent, equitable health, benefit, and well-being offerings, and more.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Laura shares her thoughts about the opportunities and challenges of the present day.
What are the top new challenges in the post-pandemic workplace today? How should business and HR leaders tackle them?
The stop-and-start impact of COVID has created a challenging environment to engage talent. The intense demand for talent is further complicated by questions of where people will work and how we integrate people into a team in the post-pandemic workplace. The landscape is ever-changing, so our top consideration is to intentionally drive a culture of care, belonging and well-being to attract the best talent and meet the demands of our consumers. And, when we bring talent on board, it is critical that we maintain connections with each other, even as the workplace continues to shift.
In addition to accommodating the shifting workplace, leaders need to strengthen their employee value propositions. The pandemic has prompted employees to place more value on having work-life balance, mental health support and a sense of belonging where they work. It is critical now to consider the needs and desires of associates and the marketplace and ensure that the workplace culture matches those needs.
What are some of the most critical questions that leaders should ask as they prepare to navigate the new normal in 2022 and beyond?
This year has taught us that remote work is here to stay. Leaders should be asking, “How can we learn from what we’ve been through and make it work for us? How can we use it to drive the company forward?” Workers are looking for flexible schedules, career-building and education opportunities, and stability in the workforce. Companies that ask these questions and meet these demands are those that will retain talent.
The pandemic has been an impetus for innovation. What have been the biggest lessons this pandemic has highlighted in terms of the culture of innovation and adaptability? How will this play out in 2022?
Kohler has always had a culture of innovation and the pandemic did not change that. In fact, early on, we quickly shifted some of our manufacturing capabilities to produce critically needed personal protective equipment, something we had never done before. We also asked associates participating in our internal incubator Innovation for Good’s annual competition, I-Prize, to develop hygiene solutions specific to COVID. The pandemic pushed us to reimagine our physical I-Prize competition as a virtual event, which we successfully did. As a result, we attracted even more associates to be a part of the excitement. During COVID, this initiative differentiated us and drove the culture of innovation despite the fact we couldn’t innovate on site.
Social impact and stewardship work is core to our mission and mandate, and our work didn’t stop even though the world was disrupted. In fact, Innovation for Good became a thread that keeps us all together in a time where those common threads, especially in a company with a footprint as large as Kohler’s, are hard to find. Our work gives consumers and associates a feeling of pride and meaning during this time. The impact we are making has further motivated us to continue focusing on strengthening our communities no matter what disruption the world faces.
Technology has been the key enabler during the crisis. But it’s not really about tech but how you put tech to use. So, what's your advice on how to best leverage technology for competitive advantage?
We have perfected the use of technology for remote work, but we need to use technology to perfect hybrid working. We realise it will be rare to have an entire team on-site, so hybrid communication and connection will need to become seamless. Companies have invested in remote technology, but as workplace models continue to evolve, we need to invest in hybrid technology as well.
How do you see the larger HR landscape evolving in 2022? How should talent leaders reimagine workforce management?
Labour shortages are accelerating automation. Companies are doing whatever they can to continue to deliver without labour. That means rethinking traditional solutions. For example, we’re rethinking how we can continue to deliver across hospitality and manufacturing with smaller workforces supported by technology. This means we must also continue to invest in the remaining associates who may need different types of support to grow their careers, have healthy lifestyles, and stay with us over time.
Sustainability is becoming more important for all companies, across all industries. What’s your advice on how to align organisational goals with sustainability efforts?
Companies need to continually evolve a portion of themselves to meet the needs of the market and the people while remaining true to their core values. At Kohler, we hold ourselves accountable for being the best environmental stewards we can be, while serving as leaders in our communities. It is all about setting attainable goals and holding ourselves accountable for improving year over year. At Kohler, we always ask ourselves, “How can we be better than we are today and make business decisions based on how we are impacting people and the planet?”
What role are top leaders playing in boosting the employee experience during this Great Resignation? What is Kohler doing differently to enhance the employee experience for their workforce?
Our challenge as leaders, especially those managing hybrid or remote workforces, is to connect with employees. At Kohler, we are investing in upskilling leaders and inclusive leadership training. We are investing in leaders from the manufacturing floor to top executives. We offer real-time feedback for leaders and employ a listening strategy to take the pulse of the organisation and quickly prioritise and address the feedback and needs of associates. As our teams become more diverse, our leaders need to reflect that diversity. It is important to focus not only on diverse teams but the retention of diverse teams and an inclusive environment.
What have you learned from your employees and customers and how are you going to fulfil the sophisticated demands of all your stakeholders? Can you share some insights on this?
The pandemic allowed Kohler to pivot to remote relationships with our customers, which was initially a challenge we had to overcome. We have been able to stay close to our customers by listening to and connecting with them. It is important to show customers that we are in this together, whether amidst the pandemic or alongside them on their sustainability and stewardship journeys. We share with and learn from each other. When the relationship becomes more reciprocal, it brings the company and customer closer together and builds stronger relationships that will stand the test of time.
How are you transforming Kohler for the new world of work? What are your larger priorities and top challenges?
The Kohler brand has so many opportunities in the world ahead. Whether it is clean energy or water-saving solutions, Kohler has the expertise to explore those places and to play a role in helping the world transform. It is really exciting to be a part of the conversations, innovations, and solutions around those issues. To me, it comes back to the Sustainable Development Goals. We can impact those positively, and it gives us a higher mission of why we do what we do.
Another priority is making people’s lives meaningful in terms of their employment experiences. We all want to feel valued and to contribute to something meaningful in our lives. Kohler is making it a priority to make every role meaningful and allow every person to contribute to the spaces they feel passionate about.
As for challenges, the world is moving fast. We must remind ourselves that there are always threats to manage and problems to solve. We never know when the game may be changed. Kohler challenges itself to reject comfort with its brand and path, to think ahead and seek new opportunities. This requires leaders to expand their thinking constantly. The work is never done, and there is always something new to learn.