The Motivation Factor

Saturday, May 1, 2010 - 08:57

Money, power, success, achievement or a calling? What drives leaders to be what they are?

You do not need to convince Ronni Kahn or Paul Henderson that the quest for real satisfaction as a corporate leader often involves taking the road less travelled.

Kahn attributes growing up in racially-divided South Africa and 10 years living on a kibbutz communal settlement in Israel for her philanthropic attitude towards life and work.

British-born Henderson spent more than a decade in the cut and thrust of the banking world before joining the not-for-profit sector.

Today, they are both using their formidable business skills to give something back to the community through their respective roles: Kahn as the Founding Director of OzHarvest, a charity that delivers excess food to the underprivileged in Sydney and Canberra; and Henderson as Executive Director of Engagement at The Smith Family, the renowned independent children's charity that helps disadvantaged Australian children.

Their journeys raise interesting questions about what motivates leaders. Is it money, power, success, making a difference, passion or following a calling?

American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously theorised that individuals have layers of needs, starting with the physiological needs for air, water and food, and ending with self-actualisation and transcendence that result in self-fulfilment. Each layer must be satisfied before moving to the next level. Under his hierarchy of needs, money is not a big factor as a motivator.

For Kahn, named Australia's Local Hero in this year's Australia Day awards, motivation has never centred on financial or personal gain.

"Neither money nor power interest me really," she says. "Money is very useful because it's a tool, but it's certainly not an end. It's just a means."

While many CEOs lie awake at night worrying about annual results, success is measured in a very different way for OzHarvest, which distributes more than 100,000 meals a month to the needy.

"Our balance sheet is how much more food, how many more kilos we can deliver, how much more food we can save from going to landfill, how much more impact we can make in a positive way."

Born into a relatively privileged middle-class family in South Africa, Kahn soon became aware of the plight of others and promoted justice and equality through her involvement in a socialist youth movement. Later, she lived on a kibbutz in Israel where she reaffirmed her views that "we are all equal and we should all be treated as such".

Leading with passion

Kahn says the big advantage of running on and leading with passion is that it lures others in a way that the financial trappings of a traditional corporate environment cannot.

"People will follow passionate people for miles," she says. "I've learned by default that it's quite intoxicating. I just know that people are attracted to it and... I love what I do and it fills me with a thrill every single day, every minute of the day."

The global financial crisis has cast the spotlight on the often perverse incentives, schemes within some corporations, where ever-bigger bonuses and stock options never seemed to be enough. For Henderson, who had for more than a decade been a part of the high-flying banking world, the 11 September 2001 terrorism attacks in the US proved a life-changing moment for him and his family. Just before the attacks, while working for Citibank, he had been contemplating a move to the corporation's New York offices.

"(The attacks) really changed the landscape, and the opportunity that I'd been looking at in New York literally disappeared overnight."

Tick some boxes

Despite other overseas secondment opportunities, Henderson opted to stay in Australia and started to seek out new job opportunities through which he could tick the following boxes: ongoing personal development; further enhancement of business skills; and operating outside his comfort zone. Serendipity took over when an opportunity with The Smith Family materialised.

"It seemed like an interesting opportunity and I took up the challenge thinking this will be great for a short period of time; and seven years later I'm still there."

While not critical of the banking sector, Henderson says his motivations have changed over the years. In his twenties and thirties, it was all about climbing the corporate ladder.

"What happens after a period of time, and I've seen this with many people, is that you start to question where your career is taking you and you realise life isn't necessarily about getting to the top of a particular ladder."

Working in the cash-conscious not-for-profit sector has been an eye-opener. The big salary, hefty bonuses and personal assistant are gone, but Henderson is content. Why? His personal and professional values are aligned with those of The Smith Family. He likes working in an environment where money is not the main motivating force. And he loves working with people who are passionate.

Clearly, OzHarvest and The Smith Family fit the bill for Kahn and Henderson as they seek fulfilment.

"I love the interconnections," Kahn says. "I love when people get what we do. There's nothing more exciting than when they get it and want to make a change, act, or do something in their own lives. That is about the most exciting part of it."

A real difference

For Henderson, turning up to work every day is satisfying. "One of the reasons I've continued to enjoy what I do here is I like to think I'm making a real difference... In any role when you feel you're not making a contribution it's time to move on and let somebody else take over that mantle."

With the Australia Day award vindicating her team's hard work and OzHarvest seeking to expand around Australia and into countries such as South Africa, Israel and New Zealand, Kahn can now reflect on the difficult early days of the enterprise when it started in 2004. Expecting it to be an overnight success, she soon appreciated it would take time to win over restaurants, food outlets, governments and the community.

"The realisation came to me that it didn't actually matter how long it would take. If it took all my life, this was my role, this was my part. This was what I was meant to do."