Liz Reitman

5 min | Leadership & Management Musings

Founders in Focus with Michael Koehler

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Michael Koehler, CEO and Founder of KONU

Liz Reitman: Hello, everyone. Liz here with my good friend Michael Koehler, CEO of Konu, as the next part of our series of founders in focus. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Koehler: Thanks so much, Liz. I’m so excited to be here with you.

Liz Reitman: Same. So, full disclosure, Michael and I are friends, so this is not just a purely business conversation, but we became friends through business. So that’s kind of been my world, and I’m sure maybe for you as well. It’s really fun to have you here, and I want to jump right in. You know, this is being used as part of our gay pride month, and I love how you come forth and make this part of your identity in terms of…It’s not a secret…You don’t hide behind that.

I was just wondering, as a gay business owner, have you noticed certain challenges, maybe not experienced by others? Or what has that brought forth as a business owner?

Michael Koehler: Thanks for this question. Thanks for highlighting that.

Liz Reitman: I went right in. Sorry.

Michael Koehler: I love this. So, I mean, it’s very interesting. I’ll start a little bit with my gay identity, and then I’ll talk a little bit about the challenges of gay business owners. So I was born on May 17, 1981, and the reason this is a significant date is in 81, is when the AIDS epidemic started. So I was literally born in that same year, maybe even the same month when that went down or when that started, when we began to learn about it. And as you know, this was an epidemic that the gay community struggled with for, like, a decade and a half, not really knowing treatments, and a lot of death was in the community. I grew up in that context.

Michael Koehler: Kind of even came of age, with a lot of fear and anxiety, even with the stigma about what it means to be gay. I wasn’t part of the community. There’s the elders, the people that have a decade or two ahead of me. Tthey lost many of their friends. We often talk about like these three generations. I’m kind of the middle generation that grew up in the mid nineties, the treatments were beginning to get better, it wasn’t an immediate death sentence if you got AIDS.

Liz Reitman: And did you grow up, Michael in Germany?

Michael Koehler: I grew up in Germany. Exactly. And in a way, in Germany, the conversation was even a little bit more behind. And so I’m giving a little bit as a context because if you would talk to a business owner, a founder who’s maybe ten years younger than I am, who’s in their thirties and not in their forties, their experience would be vastly different. Right. My husband Alastair is nine years younger than me. He almost came out in the same year as I came out. He came out at twelve. I came out 22 with a vastly different generations than his.

So I think the first thing I want to say is, a gay business owner is not a monolithic thing, but depending on geography and age and experience, there’s all kinds of different stories. So all that I can share here is my own experience and my own story. And that’s my version of that. So, when you asked me about the challenges, I can share a little bit about my challenges. And I think the interesting piece for me was that being gay never showed up as an identity that I would bring forward a lot in my business world. In my first job, I mean, I was out, but it was almost like, okay, that’s my private thing and I’m out and that’s it.

It never became a thing in my role identity. I only discovered that in the last ten years when I was also a business owner. And I would say, first of all, I think one of the reasons I think I am a business owner is because it gives me the freedom and the flexibility to play a little bit outside the rules. I don’t think that I would have answered that way when I started the business, but I think I was always drawn to entrepreneurship because I felt like at my first job, I run a leadership development firm. Right. So we teach very seasoned executives, leaders, change agents, how to manage change and complexity better.

My first job was as a teacher for kids, and I think one of the reasons I didn’t stay in that sector was that I had some internalized homophobia around, like, can I be out in school? Can I do my job? And can I belong in a system like the German state school system? So, I think this is part of this impetus of becoming my own boss and setting up my own thing. So that’s not a challenge. That’s, in a way, an opportunity, something that it gave to me. I feel very privileged to be working mostly in the geographies and with the clients that I’m out everywhere. And I feel very privileged in most contexts.

I will say I sometimes work in contexts where I still choose, do I come out or do I not come out? Which is mainly in countries where just the legal context around being gay is different. And the other thing I think that is interesting for me is, as a gay man in leadership development, there’s a lot of gay men in leadership development. I think its a little bit of a cliche. All of the coaches are either women or gay men, but same in design. I know, I know. But when I think about the clients I personally work with, it’s often the people, the leaders, that have some kind of otherness in their biography.

Some kind of experience of being marginalized and being successful at the same time. It’s either women or people of color or immigrants or some other kind of difference that I often feel drawn to. And I think the hardest sometimes for me is to work with kind of the, you know, the classical white straight man who kind of symbolizes, you know, many of the things that may not feel safe to me or may not have felt like belonging to me as a gay man. So, it’s a long way of answering your question, Michael, what are your challenges?

Liz Reitman: Well, I love that you slipped it into opportunities.  I was thinking it as soon as I said it, I was like, oh, that’s very slanted in my perspective. That may not necessarily be the case, but it is also interesting how you say, like, you know,

part of your challenge sometimes is running leadership workshops for your stereotypical white, hetero male and I wonder how you work with that type of population? Or do you have to modify how you're training individuals, knowing that you touching a broad range of people.

Michael Koehler: Yeah. There’s a big part of it that I love, actually, which is I’m working more and more with cis male, white, straight folks who are very interested in practicing their muscles around diversity, equity, inclusion, and who don’t always find safe enough spaces to do so. They sometimes feel a little bit late to the game. They sometimes feel shame around it, maybe guilt, definitely insecurity. And that is in a role when they’re sort of senior, and at the same time, also in an identity in which you’re supposed to know, in which not knowing can feel very threatening and in which you historically have these expectations that you know how to fix and solve problems.

It’s not always easy to do this work, and I feel like we sometimes forget it. And so I find it meaningful to work with those that are ready to get on the bus and engage in the journey and do some of the work and explore in their own time. I find that meaningful. And I think that is also where intersectionality comes in, because I’m not just a gay man. I’m also a white man. Right. I’m a man. Right. So I’m holding those privileges. As a German, I’m very much aware that I come from a kind of culture of, you know, you and I have talked about it multiple times from a national identity that has been. Has a, you know, really problematic aggressor history with the Holocaust and other parts like colonialism, that Germans don’t talk that much about.

And so I can also find the parts in me that have anxiety and fragility. On the one side, I’m a gay immigrant in this country. On the other side, I’m a white male German. And so I think it is meaningful to me to access those different identities to do this work.

Liz Reitman: Yeah, I love that. I’m going to digress, but just because I found this fascinating, as a jew speaking with a German, I would just love if you could, maybe articulate what your upbringing was like in terms of what school required of you guys to learn about the Holocaust, because I found this fascinating, and this is digressing completely, but just because you brought it up, I thought there might be some relevance.

Michael Koehler: Oh, yeah. And I think it is very relevant to the broader conversation around diversity, equity, inclusion, because I think one of the dimensions that is so underrated in America and avoided is dealing with history and leaning into history. And I think that many immigrants in the US, and I think many US Americans as well, will have an opinion on that. But often immigrants would say it’s wild that the US is not confronting its past and getting real about it and fighting over what do we teach our children. In Germany, there has been a lot of effort to really bring history teachings around the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust into schools, school curricular at different levels of age.

And I would say, in hindsight, probably 20% to 30% of my history lessons were about that part. Those twelve years of german history, including both studying the context, but also field visits. We would go to the local memorial sites, we would go to a concentration camp or termination camp, memorial sites, visit them. And that’s my generation, my parents generation, who were born right after World War II, they didn’t do that in school. Many of the teachers were still Nazis. So most of the stuff came out of the seventies. There was the german version of the civil rights movement in the US was kind of a lot of people on the streets around confronting Germany’s history.

And many of these student protesters were in the humanities. Many of them became teachers, and then mobilized towards bringing that into school curriculums. I was in school in the eighties and nineties, and so by then it had already entered school curricular. And you would also see a lot of stuff on tv, a lot of documentaries. You would have a lot of memorial sites and cities. I feel like the conversation of the US is always like, don’t make us feel bad about our history. Right. We need to be proud about our history. And I think the sense in Germany is, it’s okay to feel a little bit bad about your history.

I mean, we didn’t commit the Holocaust, but I think there is a unique responsibility that we have to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again and that we know the context and the factors that led to that. I mean, a lot of the studying is also like, what were the bigger societal challenges that led to that? So often the narrative is like, there are the evil Nazis, and then. But of course they were evil, but they were rising in a democratic system on the ground of a lot of uncertainty. And there was also a pandemic and there was economic challenges and all of that stuff. And when people say, I’m concerned at the moment around what’s happening politically, those are early warning signals that we can draw similarities to. I think it’s important to know that, to know the tendencies to scapegoat others, to display as responsibility.

Liz Reitman: And so it wasn’t even just the Nazis, right. It’s looking at the culture of the individuals. Your average neighbor, and, how they may be contributed or did not, and, understanding or gaining an understanding behind what was. Exactly, to your point, what was going on culturally. Right. Because I’m always fascinated by, like, how do people not help others more? But, you know, when you really understand what was going on and the fear and death and all these other things, I can. I can understand. Right. I can have a better understanding of that. That process for others. Yeah. Interesting. We could go on and on.

Michael Koehler: I’m so curious now about your perspective on this, Liz.

Liz Reitman: You’re asking me a question? I love it. I had no idea that this was brought forth in the education system– to lean into the uncomfortable and to acknowledge, like, I knew that Germany worked very hard and were, you know, trying to pay back in some capacity, but I didn’t realize the depth of just leaning into the youth and trying to educate and be part of the culture. I think about, exactly to your point, here in America… I’ll never forget, I went to Checkpoint Charlie, which is this museum in Germany, and it featured different societies where people have been persecuted from different countries. And I remember being shocked. America was on that wall. I was like, what? We’re there?!?

I had such a naive perspective. It was all about slavery and what occurred during that era. And I’m sure there’s many other things that we could add to, but I just remember my thinking was so naive. I thought, I’m part of the greatest country ever. Yeah, I learned about slavery, but not to the depth of what you’re talking about and to really understand  just really what that was about.

Michael Koehler: And I think the connection is the connection to organizational life and to bring it back to the workplace. Right. Is confronting harsh realities, unpleasant truth I think is a core capacity we need in business. Right. Whether it is the question of, when I think about the rise of AI, that’s an uncomfortable truth to confront and to lean into that we would rather avoid. When you think about people’s experiences at the workplace where folks feel like they don’t belong or they are marginalized, that has a direct impact on the organizations, not only the culture, but the impact or the output that this organization can create. And then when people have the courage to bring up that uncomfortable truth that people would rather avoid, then what happens? Are people leaning in or are people shutting it down?

So in a way that muscle is, I think in my understanding, a core muscle not only for societies but for teams, for organizations to make progress.

Liz Reitman: Totally. Is that what your organization is brought in to do? Is that part of your teaching and education?

Michael Koehler: Yes, I would say if people ask me how do I increase my capacity to manage change or to lead in uncertainty, that is a core part of it. And you know, we are not always brought in to do that. Sometimes we’re brought in to fix and solve and then it requires a renegotiation with the client to say, look, we can only help you if you and your people are willing to do the work and to confront this stuff that you would rather avoid.

Liz Reitman: Interesting.

So I'm curious, just this idea of acceptance, equality, visibility, how do you bring that forth within your organization?

Liz Reitman: Not necessarily what you’re doing, what you’re hired to do, but what are you doing as a business owner to have those components be a part of your core mission, your value, or not? I don’t know.

Michael Koehler: Yeah. Yeah. So we are a deliberately developmental organization, which means that kind of learning and development is always at the core of our work. Kind of one of the ways to think about this is a mentor of mine, Professor Bob Keegan from Harvard would always say people are engaged in organizations and two things simultaneously. The one thing is they are wearing the hat of doing their role, they’re trying to do their role as best as they can. If you’re in graphic design, you’re designing something, if you’re writing whatever your role is. And then the other role is. The second job is you’re trying to look good, you’re trying to look competent, and you’re kind of trying to cover up a little bit the things that may not be that pretty.

And those are two jobs that people are constantly doing and being deliberately developmental means that you may be able to let go a little bit of this need to constantly look good, be seen as, and just reduce that and trust that if you are sort of letting go of that guard a little bit, that actually you have more time to both do your job well and to develop a little bit better because you may be a little bit less defensive because the feedback may not trigger. What do you mean? I’m not good. I’m not competent. But the feedback is actually like an invitation to grow. And we know that psychological safety and culture plays a big role in that, but that’s the idea. And so in my organization, we try our best to see the whole person in the way that they’re showing up.

So when we do check-ins, we often do check-ins at the beginning of meetings. Very often. These checks inside are related to questions that concern the whole person, that allow people to show up a little bit more vulnerable, to share and be with their things, get real about the things that they experience at home. And it doesn’t really matter which identities you’re carrying with that. Whether you’re a young new parent trying to figure out how to balance the work life and the family life, whether you’re experiencing breakup, whether you’re an immigrant, that experience, you know, marginalization on the weekend. But whatever it is that brings in that may preoccupy you from doing your work, there is space to process that, to name that.

And then I think we find space to, just, as I said at the beginning of the conversation, also find the gifts in those facilitators. So a lot of our facilitation is also based on stories. So the best stories are the stories that are a little bit heartbreaking and that we learn something from. Right? So when some new facilitator starts with us, we work through. Okay, what is heartbreaking? What are the, some of the pieces in your own life story that you’re willing to share that illuminates some of these ideas and kind of sifting through that with each other is also really meaningful because we may not share every story with the outside world, but sharing our stories with each other contributes enormously to people feeling seen.

Liz Reitman: I love that, Michael. I mean, in this day and age where you’re hearing about quiet quitting and this younger generation not wanting to work –the concept of just having space in your business to see the whole person and hear their gifts. That’s such a flip, right? I know when I was in the workforce that was never the feelings. You didn’t share, you didn’t go deep. And even as a business owner, for a long time, I really kept my personal life very separate from my business and felt like I had to have two identities. And I learned when I was more authentic is when it created for a greater harmony within the organization.

Michael Koehler: Yeah. And the paradox is it’s not a distraction. I feel like sometimes people in the corporate world feel like it’s a distraction or it’s like, oh, they can’t do their work again. Now I need to listen to their stories again. But I actually think the opposite is the case. I think actually people show up with more commitment, with more dedication, with more creativity, with more sense of belonging and purpose. It drives the retention, but it also drives the outputs. I really believe that.

Liz Reitman: I love that. Michael! I wish you should be leading every company. We need to make you individually scalable. Is that possible? I guess I’ll just make this my last question then

how do you balance?

Liz Reitman: Because I know you and I have talked abou being pulled in a lot of different directions, trying to have time for family, for personal things, for space. So as a business owner, how are you managing the weight of building a business? And I know you’re rising and growing consistently and having meaningful time for yourself.

Michael Koehler: First of all, this is hard. It’s really hard. And I haven’t fully figured this out. And I think, again, some of it may also be related to identity, like setting boundaries and protecting space has not always been something that I have as a gay man particularly learned. So I want to start with that. What I am learning, I think, is despite this being my business, I’m learning to separate my work role from self and kind of really a mentor of mine once said there’s a slight difference between, are you your role or do you have your role? Are you business or do you have your business? And sort of seeing your business and your role at work a little bit more as a thing that you can step in and out of rather than it being you.

That is something that I’m practicing. The way I’m practicing that is really allowing myself to do other things. I started becoming a yoga teacher, allowing myself to be a yoga teacher, fully allowing myself to garden at my in-laws, fully allowing myself to take my European style six weeks of vacation every year. Right. And really being offline for that and allowing myself to do that. Does it always work? No, but I think, again, I think that’s what I’m driving towards, and not over identifying as much joy as this business brings, not over identifying my own with the business in good times. So I also don’t identify with it in challenging times.

Liz Reitman: That’s beautiful. I think that’s the challenge for any entrepreneur. It’s like you put so much time and energy in building this business, and it really does become your identity. So I think I always learn awareness is the first step in any change, and the fact that you’re aware that this is a work in progress and that you’re trying and that you realize it can’t be all or nothing is beautiful. So thank you for that. It reminds me as well. So, Michael, as always, a joy to have you and hear your little bits of wisdom. I always learn something from you, so I really appreciate you taking the time to be on with me.

Michael Koehler: Likewise. Thank you so much, Liz, for making the space.

 

At KONU, we embark on the vertical development journey with our clients. We enter that uncomfortable and sometimes scary space with you, your team, and your organization as you uncover and take on learning edges. we can take this section for that bottom half www.konu.org here is the website to link