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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Medtronic’s George, Red Hat’s Whitehurst, Citrix’s Lipson talk leadership in the C-Suite

Bill George knows leadership – and can attract it when he needs to. 

The CEO that took Medtronic from a $1.1 billion market capitalization to $65 billion, George brought a a leader-heavy crowd to downtown Raleigh early Wednesday for the launch of his new book, “Discover Your True North,” where he told them directly that leadership can’t just be about the balance sheet. There’s room, he says, for “passions” in the C-Suite.

In the audience were a few people used to talking numbers, executives such as ChannelAdvisor CEO David Spitz, SEPI Engineering & Construction CEO Sepi Saidi, Highwoods CEO Ed Fritsch, former IBM site lead Dick Daugherty, Empire Properties CEO Greg Hatem, MCNC CEO Jean Davis and dozens of other C-Levels.

George says he was on track to lead global technology firm Honeywell when he looked in his rear view mirror (literally on his way home from work) and realized he was miserable, an epiphany led him to the “best 12 years of my life,” when he left the company for the much smaller Medtronic, a firm making a big difference in the lives of patients. Satisfaction is achieved by focusing on what you want. Not what you think you want, he says, bringing two Raleigh businessmen in front of the crowd to prove his point: Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat and Jesse Lipson, site lead for Citrix’s Raleigh operation.

Whitehurst, too, left a “cushy job” for something completely different – in his case, it was Delta for Red Hat.

“Everyone thought I would be CEO,” he says of his time at Delta. Despite a bankruptcy, Delta was a success story, and one he could have ridden to the top. “I remember going home… and saying I can’t go somewhere to lay off a lot of people… I just can’t do it.”

And then the call from a much smaller company came – Red Hat.

“I think a lot of people get enamored with size… versus what gets you up and gets you excited every day,” he says.

Lipson, vice president and general manager, Workflow and Workspace Clouds, at Citrix did the opposite. He moved from something physically small to something bigger when the company he founded a decade ago, ShareFile, was bought out by Citrix. ShareFile had 80 employees when it was acquired, a move that propelled the headcount to more than 600 in downtown Raleigh. And the acquisition was necessary for growth.

His competitors were raising serious cash, he recalls.

“We decided we needed to do something,” he says. And the Citrix wallet would help ShareFile grow.

It’s a new generation of leadership, George says – where it’s about the impact, not just the balance sheet numbers. And it’s not just what leaders are doing in the boardroom.

Since selling, Lipson, like his cohorts on stage, has had time for what George calls “passions.” In Lipson’s case, it’s HQ Raleigh, the entrepreneurial coworking organization he cofounded downtown.

“I’m beginning to see the potential of that as a business,” he says, admitting that, at first, it seemed “like a charity project.”

Today, about 125 organizations exist in the space, creating real jobs and real innovation, he says.

“It’s exciting to see the innovation and entrepreneurship and all the energy in Raleigh and this whole area,” George told the crowd. “I think we’ve always been looking for innovation beyond the Silicon Valley model.”

But whether you’re in the C-Suite in the Raleigh skyline or overlooking Silicon Valley, leadership is different today than in George’s class of C-levels, he says. He points out cautionary tales, such as Enron. He points out to “adjustments” that, today, “would be considered fraud.”

“What happened to my generation of CEOs?” he asks rhetorically. “I think we got caught up with charisma and style and equated it to leadership.”

The event was hosted by Three Ships Media CEO Zach Clayton, who has his own entrepreneurship story. Six years ago, Clayton turned down corporate offers to start Three Ships Media, which today employs 55 people.