AMA Interview: Bill George on “True North Groups”

Posting Date: December 01, 2011

Bill George is Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic. His latest book is True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development, coauthored with Doug Baker. The book is a continuation of the ideas developed in George’s previous books, Authentic Leadership,True North and Finding Your True North. In True North Groups the authors draw on recent research in psychology and sociology to explain why surrounding oneself with a small, supportive group of people is so critical to personal and leadership development.

AMA spoke to Bill George recently for an Edgewise podcast. The following is an edited version of that interview.

AMA: How does the new book, True North Groups, continue the concepts of True North?
Bill George: This is an idea that came out of True North, because the issue we’re trying to resolve is, how do people stay grounded? How do they know who they are? I think we all need in our life a small, intimate group of people with whom we can have complete trust, total confidentiality, and with whom we can be very open.
In my first book, Authentic Leadership, I described the kind of leaders I felt we needed back in the early 2000s, to overcome some of the problems we were having at Enron, WorldCom, and more than 200 companies who had accounting adjustments of very large sums of money.
Then I did some intense research on 125 other leaders that led to True North, where I described how these people became leaders. Ever since then I’ve been working on the question, how do we continue to develop really exceptional leaders, not just at the top of organizations, but throughout organizations? These are the people who can turn around the lack of trust we have in our society towards leaders, and also turn around our whole business community.

AMA: That brings us to the new book. Just what are True North Groups?
BG: A True North Group is a group of six to eight people with whom you can share the greatest challenges of your life, at work and personally—your joys and sorrows. It’s a group of peers. You don’t necessarily need a facilitator; it can just be people who share on a two-way basis. We believe this is a very big idea, because we think it’s a key to leadership development. It can help you develop the essence of leadership, which is emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Through having a group like this, you can see yourself as others see you. You can work through a really difficult situation, either in your past or your present, or determine where you want to go in the future. It is a safe place and a support group that’s always there for you.

AMA: How do you go about choosing people in your group?
BG: They aren’t necessarily people you know well. Some of them might be; many others might not be. The important thing is to choose people who really want to explore their lives and are willing to engage in a mutual exploration of some of the challenges we’ve all faced. Because in our society today, groups have kind of fallen apart. Just having 2,000 Facebook friends does not ensure that level of intimacy or support when you really need it most.

AMA: Tell us about your True North group.
BG: I actually have two groups. One was formed in 1975 with a group of other guys. We’ve been meeting together every Wednesday morning for the past 36 years. We talk about the challenges we’re facing, and there’s typically a program that takes us into the realm of the heart, or our beliefs, or our values.
I am also part of a group of four couples that have been meeting since 1983. We meet once a month. We too talk about things that are very important in our lives, and we travel together a lot, and vacation together too.
We have a lot of fun. In fact, last week’s program in our couple’s group was on humor, but humor at a deeper level. My wife posed the question, “Think about a time you did something really dumb,” so we had to talk about that thing and have a good laugh about it. This is a group where it’s a safe place to talk.

AMA: How have you personally benefited from these groups?
BG: The groups have been very beneficial in my life at crucial times. Let me describe one briefly. I was at Honeywell, en route to being a leading candidate to become CEO. My wife had a good job, my kids were in high school. Seemingly everything was going well. One day I’m driving home, I look at myself, and I see a miserable person in the mirror. I realized I was really losing my sense of who I was—losing my sense of True North— because I was trying so hard to get to be CEO.
So after discussing it with my wife, the next morning I went to my men’s group and shared this with them. They said, “We have seen these changes in you, and yeah, you seem like you’re not being as authentic as you were; you’re kind of trying to put on a role or a façade on this corporate ladder.”
I acknowledged they were right, and then one of them said, “You know, you’ve turned down Medtronic for a job several times. What about Medtronic?” And it caused me to go back to Medtronic to rethink that, and I can tell you, it was the best thing that ever happened to me in my professional life. But had it not been for that defining moment, and the opportunity to talk to my men’s group, I don’t think I would have done that.

AMA: How can these groups can help you in business? Are they or something like them already being used in companies?
BG: The thing we’re really uncovering is how much you can affect the development of leaders, and that’s where I think this book will have a big impact.
Leadership is changing dramatically inside corporations today. It’s no longer about having a few great leaders on top of the organization; it’s much more of a horizontal or collaborative model. The old, command-and-control hierarchy model is dead. At least, if it’s not dead, it ought to be. This is a whole different way of looking at leadership, which asks the question, “How are you going to develop the kinds of leaders that have a high level of self-awareness, and are very value-centered?” We believe True North groups are one of the very best ways, if not the best way, to achieve that. We’re finding that these groups become a low-cost, extremely effective way of developing leaders for the future. Also, since in essence, it is a collaborative model, it teaches people how to be good, collaborative leaders, and not to depend upon title, money, fame, power, or some kind of hierarchy.
We have seen some companies starting to use this model. One of them is Unilever, which has put their top 100 people through a program where they use small groups. And they’re now moving that to the next 500 people.

AMA: Haven’t you used these groups in your own classes at Harvard?
BG: We’ve had more than 1,500 people participate in True North Groups in my MBA classes, in our executive education program at Harvard Business School. All of them go through a format where they start by telling their life story, talking about times they lost their way, the greatest crucibles of their times, times they violated their own values, what they really want, and what’s the purpose of their leadership. These groups get much higher evaluations than anything else we do in the classroom, and they’ve been very impactful in people’s lives. Many people have written that they consider it a transformative experience. Even though we’re now doing 300 students a year, far more students are requesting it than we have places for.

AMA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
BG: There is a great hunger for more intimacy in people’s lives. They’ve realized they can’t achieve it through material means, and many of the large organizations they were a part of have kind of disappeared or fallen away. This is an opportunity to help people in their personal growth, while at the same time helping their leadership development.
I think a lot of people say, “Look, I’m not really a leader.” Actually you are. We just have to reconceptualize what makes a leader. It’s not about controlling budgets and having a big title. It’s really much more about leading people, even if they don’t report to you, towards a common goal, and a common set of values, and a common bottom line.

For more information: True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development