Blog

Mayo Medical School Commencement Address - Challenges For The New Generation

On Saturday I was deeply honored to receive an honorary doctorate from Mayo Medical School and to give the commencement address. My subject was “Challenges for the New Generation of Physician and Scientific Leaders” in which I challenged the graduating class of MD/PHDs, MDs and PHDs to step up to leadership roles to transform the nation’s health care system. The text of my remarks can be found here.

NY Times DealBook - A Case for Rejecting Pfizer’s Bid for AstraZeneca

Is the role of leading large pharmaceutical companies to discover life-saving drugs or to make money for shareholders through financial engineering? Pfizer claims “both,” I don't believe pharmaceutical companies can create long-term shareholder value by focusing solely on chasing lower tax venues and cutting research and development spending.  Read more in my New York Times Dealbook article

Honored by The Franklin Institute

Last night I was deeply honored to receive the Bower Award for Business Leadership from The Franklin Institute along with eight very distinguished scientists. This was the greatest recognition of my professional life.

Looking over the list of previous winners of this award – which includes many of my roles models like Jim Burke of J&J, David Packard of H-P, Roy Vagelos of Merck, and more recently, Bill Gates and Mike Dell – I don’t feel deserving to be recognized among them, but I am deeply humbled.

During the day I also had the opportunity to give an address on “Becoming a Global Leadership” and to talk about the changing role of capitalism and the responsibilities of global companies in the 21st century, plus make a visit to Wharton.

All in all, it was a very special day, and I was very pleased to have Penny be there for the entire time.

Full Press Release

Franklin Institute Awards Bower Award for Business Leadership

Directors & Board Magazine: Bill George On Transitioning A Board's Makeup

Building a great board is a most difficult task. It takes a great deal of time on the part of the board members and the CEO. But it is the key to a strong system of governance. Read my full article from Directors & Boards magazine on transitioning a board's makeup here. Your feedback is welcome. 

Outsmart The Activists!

The “activist hedge fund” is a new breed of shareholder that has emerged in the 21st century, leading to increased pressure on corporate executives and boards through the strategy of taking on more debt and paying out more to shareholders. Because these activist shareholders are generally seeing positive returns and institutional investors are following their lead, it’s clear hedge fund activism is here to stay. Rather than resist the activist shareholder, CEOs and boards must adapt to activist interventions and use them to improve their organizations.

In a new article for Harvard Business Review, Jay Lorsch and I explore the hedge fund activism trend and identify six ways to fend off activist challenges drawing from real examples of companies including PepsiCo, Target, Novartis, Whole Foods, and P&G:

  1. Have a clear strategic focus and stick to it.
  2. Analyze your business as an activist would.
  3. Have your external advisers lined up in advance and familiar with your company.
  4. Build board chemistry.
  5. Perform in the short run against declared goals.
  6. Don’t dismiss activist ideas out of hand.

Read the full blog here. Your feedback is welcome.

GM’s Barra Leads from the Front

Put yourself in Mary Barra’s shoes: After 33 years with the company, you have been CEO of General Motors (GM) for just two weeks – the first operating executive in 30 years to be CEO and the first female. You are determined to transform the moribund GM culture that led the company into bankruptcy by focusing on superior vehicles that meet your customers’ needs with design, quality, and most of all, safety.

Then you learn that the company has a major safety problem with ignition switches on the Chevrolet Cobalt that has caused 12 deaths, and you must recall 1.6 million vehicles. Your investigation uncovers that GM employees have known about this for 12 years but the problem was never surfaced – all to save $1 per car.

You recognize immediately the potential consequences: angry customers, negative publicity, and an array of liability suits, Congressional investigations, and significant financial impact. You recall how Toyota’s quality problems impacted its reputation and cost the company more than $1 billion.

You know there is likely much more looming below the surface. Amid this uncertainty you are determined to be open and honest with your customers and the general public, yet you don’t have all the facts. How can you go public without complete answers and solutions?

The pre-bankruptcy GM often had similar problems but its leaders refused to face reality. Mary Barra is a very different kind of CEO: she is determined to lead GM into a new era that focuses on customers first and sets new standards of transparency in providing the safest, highest quality vehicles. I had the privilege of getting to know her last summer when she attended my Harvard Business School course, “Leading Global Businesses” while she was GM’s chief of worldwide product development.

Thus far, Barra has performed remarkably well under the mounting pressure. She has stepped forward and acknowledged the problems, and taken full responsibility for them. Unlike the old GM, she isn’t hiding behind lawyers and PR specialists. Rather, she has spoken directly to GM’s customers and apologized for what has happened, expressing empathy by admitting that “something went very wrong … and terrible things happened.”

When Congressional hearings begin on April 1, Barra isn’t sending a subordinate: she will testify herself. She has promised to release findings of an internal investigation examining the problem’s root causes and why no action was taken. “Our overriding goal is to be transparent,” Barra said.

Barra is using this crisis to transform the old GM culture. In early March, she wrote to employees: “Our company’s reputation won’t be determined by the recall itself, but by how we address the problem going forward … What is important is taking great care of our customers and showing that it really is a new day at GM.”

To signal her determination to change GM’s culture, she appointed a new chief of global vehicle safety. She has assigned 50 employees to GM’s technical center to handle customer inquiries about safety and is holding daily meetings to oversee the recall. Using decades of experience in designing GM’s vehicles, she is focusing on understanding how the defect occurred and why it took over a decade to bring it to the public’s attention.

With so many problems like GM’s surfacing in the past decade, the American public has lost trust and confidence in the integrity and transparency of corporate leaders. In the automobile industry alone, the public still has raw memories of Ford’s Jacques Nasser blaming Firestone tires for the rollovers of Ford Explorers that caused 273 deaths, and denials of Toyota and Audi about problems with their vehicles.

It takes a long time to regain consumer confidence. By being open and transparent about GM’s problems, Barra has aligned herself with her customers and ameliorated public outrage. Acknowledging there is no quick-fix for these problems, Barra said “We have apologized, but that is only one step in the journey to resolve this … We have much more work ahead of us.” To reinforce her commitment, she announced the recall of 1.7 million newer GM vehicles suspected of carrying faulty airbags.

Barra recognizes regaining the trust of GM’s customers is far more important than the billions of dollars in lawsuits and fines that GM may incur. She weathered decades of “financial engineers” in the CEO’s chair who focused on short-term profit instead of building great products. She has been at GM long enough to know how difficult it will be to change GM’s entrenched culture. To change GM’s culture from its inward-looking, short-term focus, she has to be the role model for all employees of how to treat customers, especially during a crisis.

Mary Barra recognizes that “a burning platform” like this one offers a golden opportunity to convert GM’s culture permanently into a passionate focus on vehicles that make customers’ transportation safer and more enjoyable. Demonstrating her visionary approach to leading GM, Barra says, “We will be better because of this tragic situation, if we seize the opportunity.”

She has the leadership, wisdom, and commitment to do just that.

The Detroit News: Barra Not Alone as New CEO to Deal with Crisis

By Bryce Hoffman for The Detroit News, March 27, 2014

While few CEOs have had to contend with major crises right out of the chute, there have been others.

In addition to Akio Toyoda, crisis-management expert Bill George points to Jeff Immelt, who had the misfortune of taking over another General — General Electric Co. — just four days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

Those attacks cost GE’s insurance business $600 million and dealt a nearly fatal blow to its jet-engine business, as airlines around the world canceled orders for new planes.

“It had quite a devastating effect on their business,” said George, who teaches CEOs how to cope with crisis at Harvard Business School. “Jeff realized he had to do something about his consumer finance business and insurance business. Unfortunately, he was a little slow to do it. Mary Barra can’t be that slow. Mary has to face reality: How did this thing get hidden for 12 years?”

He gives Barra good marks to date.

“So far I like what I see. She’s being very forthright, very sincere and getting people around her to address the problem. But she’s got to get to the root core of how this happened and how it was allowed to go on for so long,” said the former CEO of Medtronic Inc.

“One rule I had at Medtronic was ‘You’ll never get fired for making a mistake, but you will get fired for covering one up,’ ” George said. “If I were advising her, I’d say that the most important thing is our customers. This company has to restore its trust with our customers. If we do that, we win. If we don’t do that, we lose. That’s the most important thing she has to do.”

HBR: Developing Mindful Leaders for the C-Suite

From Harvard Business Review, Published March 10, 2014

Time Magazine recently put “The Mindfulness Revolution” on its cover, which could either be seen as hyping the latest business fad, or as signaling a major change in the thinking of executive leaders. I believe it’s the latter.

The use of mindful practices like meditation, introspection, and journaling are taking hold at such successful enterprises as Google, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Apple, Medtronic, and Aetna, and contributing to the success of these remarkable organizations. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • With support from CEO Larry Page, Google’s Chade-Meng Tan, known as Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, runs hundreds of classes on meditation and has written a best-selling book, Search Inside Yourself.
  • General Mills, under the guidance of CEO Ken Powell, has made meditation a regular practice. Former executive Janice Marturano, who led the company’s internal classes, has left the company to launch the Institute for Mindful Leadership, which conducts executive courses in mindfulness meditation.
  • Goldman Sachs, which moved up 48 places in Fortune Magazine’s Best Places to Work list, was recently featured in Fortune for its mindfulness classes and practices.
  • At Apple, founder Steve Jobs — who was a regular meditator — used mindfulness to calm his negative energies, to focus on creating unique products, and to challenge his teams to achieve excellence.
  • Thanks to the vision of founder Earl Bakken, Medtronic has a meditation room that dates back to 1974 which became a symbol of the company’s commitment to creativity.
  • Under the leadership of CEO Mark Bertolini, Aetna has done rigorous studies of both meditation and yoga and their positive impact on employee healthcare costs.

These competitive companies understand the enormous pressure faced by their employees — from their top executives on down. They recognize the need to take more time to reflect on what’s most important in order to create ways to overcome difficult challenges. We all need to find ways to sort through myriad demands and distractions, but it’s especially important that leaders with great responsibilities gain focus and clarity in making their most important decisions, creativity in transforming their enterprises, compassion for their customers and employees, and the courage to go their own way.

Focus, clarity, creativity, compassion, and courage. These are the qualities of the mindful leaders I have worked with, taught, mentored, and interviewed. They are also the qualities that give today’s best leaders the resilience to cope with the many challenges coming their way and the resolve to sustain long-term success. The real point of leverage — which though it sounds simple, many executives never discover — is the ability to think clearly and to focus on the most important opportunities.

In his new book Focus, psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence (or EQ), provides data that supports the importance of mindfulness in focusing the mind’s cognitive abilities, linking them to qualities of the heart like compassion and courage. Dr. Goleman prescribes a framework for success that enables leaders to build clarity about where to direct their attention and that of their organizations by focusing on themselves, others, and the external world — in that order.  Cultivating this type of focus requires establishing regular practices that allow your brain to fully relax and let go of the anxiousness, confusion, and pressures that can fill the day. (Editor’s note: here is Daniel Goleman’s related HBR article, The Focused Leader.)

I began meditating in 1975 after attending a Transcendental Meditation workshop with my wife Penny, and have continued the practice for the past 38 years. (In spite of this, I still do mindless things like leaving my laptop on an airplane, but I continue to work on staying in the present moment.) All of our family members meditate regularly. Our son Jeff, a successful executive in his own right, believes he would not be successful in his high-stress job were it not for daily meditation and jogging.

Meditation is not the only way to be a mindful leader. In the classes I teach at Harvard Business School, participating executives share a wide range of practices they use to calm their minds and gain clarity in their thinking. They report that the biggest derailer of their leadership is not lack of IQ or intensity, but the challenges they face in staying focused and healthy. To be equipped for the rapid-fire intensity of executive life, they cultivate daily practices that allow them to regularly renew their minds, bodies, and spirits. Among these are prayer, journaling, jogging and/or physical workouts, long walks, and in-depth discussions with their spouses and mentors.

The important thing is to have a regular introspective practice that takes you away from your daily routines and enables you to reflect on your work and your life — to really focus on what is truly important to you. By doing so, you will not only be more successful, you will be happier and more fulfilled in the long run.

 

WSJ: Free Advice for Satya Nadella

Another well-done Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Feintzeig on Microsoft CEO, February 4, 2014:

So, you’re the new CEO of Microsoft: a sprawling tech company that critics say missed the mobile and social revolutions, losing crucial market share to Google and Apple. And your two predecessors—one of whom is Bill Gates—are hovering over your shoulder.

Where to start? Former executives and management gurus have a few ideas for incoming chief Satya Nadella.

Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, said departing CEO Steve Ballmer, who will now sit on the board, represents Nadella’s greatest challenge.

“I think that’s the single biggest problem with respect to change. [Nadella’s] got to be able to manage a very, very strong personality who’s just stepped aside, who’s even on record [saying] he wish he could have been the one to make the changes,” Mr. Finkelstein said.

“Be aware that anything you’re going to do, it’s almost like there’s an implicit veto by Ballmer,” he said. “I think Ballmer is the third rail in any sort of change effort.”

Winning over Microsoft’s board members should be another priority for Nadella. “They’re beholden very much to Ballmer and Gates,” Mr. Finkelstein said.

He recommends Nadella focus his energy on gaining allies internally and demonstrating his own track record as CEO for a year or two before he makes any big changes.

“With things going in the right direction, you gain more power,” he said.

Michael Useem, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school, disagrees. As a Microsoft veteran, Nadella needs to move fast, he said. New executives typically have a honeymoon period of 90 to 100 days to get to know the organization and develop their approach. But Nadella should only take 50 days to get up to speed.

“He knows the personalities. He knows the issues. He knows where value’s being created and destroyed and he knows where are all the skeletons are,” he said. “He will not be allowed to have that luxury of a full year to take charge.”

Nilofer Merchant, a Silicon-valley based former technology executive who now advises companies like Yahoo and Logitech, said Nadella should lead by collaboration.

“What’s going to happen in the next 90 days is people throughout the organization and the industry are going to come to him with their proverbial ball of problems and ask him to solve that problem,” she said. “He’s got to not buy into that framework, because his job is to figure out how to get other people to solve problems.”

“So instead of telling, controlling, directing, he’s got to…figure out how to get them to know how to solve the problems themselves,” she said. “It’s all about getting the team at Microsoft to understand what to do, not that he tells everyone what to do.”

And if Nadella wants to take cues from other tech companies, he should look to IBM, not HP, she said. The latter company’s chief, Meg Whitman, is intent on protecting core businesses, Ms. Merchant said, while IBM has devoted itself to reinvention every few years.

William George, the former chief executive of medical device company Medtronic Inc. and a professor at Harvard Business School, said Nadella’s first course of action must be to establish a team that’s his own. Veterans – including those who wanted the job Nadella won – have to make a choice, he said.

“They’re either going to be loyal and committed to Nadella or they should move on,” he said.

Nadella should promote his internal favorites or bring in outside talent to fill out his inner circle. Then he has to turn his sights to the board of directors.

“The next step is to work with John Thompson,” the new chairman, George said. “Nadella’s got to work with him to upgrade the board. They need a newer board, a fresher board. [They] need to bring in sitting CEOs, recently retired CEOs, to add wisdom and insight.”

After a lengthy and public search process, Nadella also has to set forth his vision for the business more quickly than most.

He should lay out his full strategic plan in about six months  – or at longest, a year – George said. If Nadella wants to make dramatic changes, it will take five to seven years to make that transformation. And George, for one, hopes Nadella thinks big.

“They really have to go from becoming the fast follower to being a leader in innovation,” he said of Microsoft. “That’s where I think the vision should be.”

WSJ: How Microsoft’s Global Search Ended at Home

Great Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Feintzeig, February 4, 2014:

With the announcement of Satya Nadella as its new chief executiveMicrosoft’s global search for a new leader ended in its own backyard.

During the five month long search, the board was said to have courted candidates including Ford Motor Co. chief Alan Mulally and former Nokia Corp. leader Stephen Elop before tapping Nadella, a popular executive who started at Microsoft in 1992 and leads the division that makes technology to run corporate computer servers and other back-end technology.

When Nadella’s predecessor, Steve Ballmer, announced he was stepping down last year, he told The Wall Street Journal that the company needed profound changes, and he was not the executive to make them. Although companies often go outside for transformative leaders, by picking Nadella, board members are signaling that they believe an insider is up to the job.

More often than not, a company’s next CEO is already working there. In 2012, the last full year for which data is available, 73% of S&P 500 companies with outgoing CEOs selected an internal candidate as successor. This continued a slight downward trend – as recently as 2008, according to the research, 83% of companies chose to promote from within.

A high-profile search process is “not a very healthy time” for a company, said William George, a management professor at Harvard Business School and former chief executive of medical device company Medtronic Inc. Morale problems can spring up as workers grow uneasy about where their employer is headed; an internal pick, said George, may reassure staff.

Nonethless, the search process suggests that Microsoft failed to effectively plan for Ballmer’s successor, management experts said. The former CEO held his post for 14 years–plenty of time to have a replacement groomed and ready, George said.

Succession planning should start as soon as a chief executive starts his or her job, with three or four potential candidates on the board’s radar, according to Michael Useem, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school. The practice gives board members ample time to know the up-and comers, he said. Granted, Microsoft isn’t alone in having thin succession plans, and the company’s reorganization last year left it unclear who, exactly, was Ballmer’s number two.

And companies should move fast if they have internal favorites, George added.

“If you liked internal candidates, choose them. You know the internal candidates and you should step up to it,” he said.

Microsoft would not comment on the specifics of the search, but spokesman Peter Wootton said “it’s not uncommon for a search of this magnitude to require four to six months.”

For now, Microsoft must “build up the bona fides” of Nadella and clearly explain its choice, said Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business and a corporate communications expert who’s worked with companies like Novartis and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Leaders should also note that the company needed to proceed carefully at a crucial time in the history of the business.

“Externally, it’s going to be a very tough sell. I think people are going, ‘This a very disappointing, boring, ho hum announcement,’” he said.