August Turak is a highly successful corporate executive, consultant, entrepreneur and author. His business experience spans from MTV to Raleigh Group International and Elsinore Technologies, a company he founded that won the Fast Fifty Award from KPMG. He is a contributor to Forbes.com and is regularly featured in national media.
Recently, August released a new book, Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks. It is filled with practical business advice, yet infused with a deeper wisdom from centuries-old practices. When you read it, I guarantee it will have practical applications for your organization, and also for you as an individual.
The subtitle of your book is “One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity.” Tell us more about your search and what led you to a monastery outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
In 1996 I was coaching some college students at Duke University when they talked me into going skydiving with them. I shattered my ankle in the dive, and by forcing me to face my own mortality the accident precipitated a personal crisis. A few months later I discovered that one of my Duke students was spending the summer as a monastic guest at Mepkin Abbey. I wrangled an invitation for a weekend retreat and have been returning ever since, sometimes for weeks and months at a time. Ironically the last thing on my mind on my first trip to Mepkin was Trappist business success or even my own. I was searching for psychological and spiritual solace.
You have distilled numerous business lessons from the Trappist Monks. When you first hear “business secrets” and “Trappist Monks” in the same sentence, it stops you. Tell us more about your journey to uncovering these secrets. What surprised you?
As a business executive and entrepreneur, I was struck by a simple question: How do a couple dozen aged monks, working only four hours a day and largely in silence, manage to run several highly profitable multi-million dollar enterprises with such frictionless efficiency? At the time I was the CEO of two software start-ups so of course I wondered if and how I and other business people might do the same. I decided that the answer was yes, proved it in my own companies, and have now written a book to share my experience and insights with others.
Selflessness. It’s one of the attributes the monks are known for. How do you apply selflessness in business?
I came up through sales, and every great sales rep knows that the more he forgets himself, his product, his quota and his commissions and instead fanatically focuses on serving his customers’ needs, the more product he sells. Commissions take care of themselves. When corporations do the same profits take care of themselves. And every great leader knows that the more he focuses on making other people successful the more successful he becomes. Promotions take care of themselves. In Business Secrets of the Trappists I use many other examples and case studies to demonstrate that, paradoxically, selflessness is the shortest path to business, professional, and personal success.
As an entrepreneur, you’ve founded companies that have become wildly successful. You said something that struck me: “In the beginning, there were just six of us, including my brother Tom. We didn’t have a business plan beyond what one of my partners described as: ’We’re smart guys — we’ll figure out something to do.’ We may have been vague on what we were going to do, but we were crystal clear about who we wanted to be.” I read that a few times. You put principles first and a plan second. That’s a unique approach. Please explain how that worked in practice.
One of the life principles we built our company on was taking a “back against the wall” mentality. This meant quitting wasn’t an option. We just kept hustling until we finally stumbled on a small company with a great product that needed some help in sales and marketing which matched our skill sets. And we just kept going from there. While putting principles and mission first and planning second is indeed unusual, it is hardly unique. As I point out in my book, Jack Welch used the same approach to transform GE from a tired old relic of the industrial age to the most admired and profitable company in the world. He did it by emphasizing the principles of quality and excellence rather than products and plans. Mission, purpose, and principles provide the context for planning. As the saying goes, if you don’t know who you are and where you are going, any road — or plan — will take you there. Managers get things done. Leaders must decide the things worth doing. Deciding which things are worth doing relies on value decisions based on principles not planning. Planning is a subset of execution, and one of the biggest mistakes most business people make is failing to understand the difference between mission and planning. They are two entirely different things.
Would you share one of your principles?
It is in your own self interest to forget your self interest.
What books are you currently reading?
I am reading a history of King Richard the Lionhearted and a book of Anton Chekov’s short stories. People are often surprised to find that I rarely if ever read business books. However I have found that business is 80% understanding people and 20% everything else. It has been through history and the greatest fiction writers that I have learned many secrets to the human heart that have proven so invaluable in business. Learning how to read a financial statement is relatively easy. Taking a group of individuals and turning them into a team passionately focused on a common mission is excruciatingly hard.