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Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Podtail: Discover Your True North by Bill George

Authentic leadership has never been more critical than now. In his excellent book Discover Your True North, Bill George outlines how, by following our internal compass, and staying focused on our True North, we can chart a course to being truly authentic leaders.

In this episode, Samie shares his central message of ‘Authentic Leaders go from Me to We’. Picking on examples from the book, we discuss the importance of ‘crucibles’ in our lives, and how these can be used to drive authenticity. We touch on the concept that Bill calls ‘servant leadership’, and even manage to combine both Mandela and basketball into the same petal!

The Good Leader Program

Here is “The Good Leader” program with former Medtronic Omar Ishrak and current CEO Geoff Martha that we did for Minnesota Public Radio and telecast via Twitter.

We talk about what makes a good leader, whether leaders are made or born, and the challenges for future leaders. I think you will enjoy it.

Corporate Competitor Podcast: Episode 4

Bill was a three-sport athlete in high school and rose to become a member of the Georgia Tech tennis team. His four decades of C-Suite experience include serving as the Executive Vice President of Honeywell, Chairman, and CEO of Medtronic, and TODAY he is a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, where he has taught leadership since 2004. He has written several best-selling books including one of my favorite leadership books of all time— True North. In this episode, you will see why clarity in leadership always begins with yourself.

The Leader As Coach

Hansi Flick’s Remarkable Turnaround at Bayern Munich

Ever since Hansi Flick took over from Niko Kovac at Bayern Munich, the results have been nothing short of spectacular. After losing two games in a row shortly after becoming head coach, Flick has led Bayern to a 38-game unbeaten streak heading into Sunday’s Champion’s League finals against Paris St. Germain. Under Flick’s guidance, Bayern won 19 games and tied one in winning the Bundesliga, were crowned champions in the German Cup with four straight wins, and won 7 consecutive games in the Champion’s League in getting to Sunday’s final, including its 8-2 dismantling of Barcelona and Lionel Messi.

What can we learn from Flick’s success that may help business leaders everywhere?

Flick’s style stands in sharp contrast to the famous soccer coaches of this era, like Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho. He is humble, quiet and unassuming – not your typical tough guy soccer coach, shunning the spotlight and refusing to take credit for Bayern’s success. So what is his key?

Let’s start with the obvious: With Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry leading the attack, Jerome Boateng, Joshua Klimmich and Alfonso Davies anchoring the defense, and Manuel Neuer in goal, Bayern has great talent at every position on the field, with a cadre of stars like Kingsley Coman, Phillipe Coutinho, and Benjamin Pavard on the bench. Yet when Flick took charge, Bayern was mired in fourth place in the Bundesliga and had just lost 5-1 to Frankfurt.

Flick’s formula is deceptively simple: work with his players and their needs individually to get the very best performance from them, and then meld the players into a smooth-functioning team more interested in winning than in being heroes themselves. The key is how Flick works with his players: he recognizes their potential, their shortcomings, and their psychological state on any given day. When they are down and losing confidence, he works to boost their confidence and to make suggestions for improvement. When they are not trying hard enough, he challenges them to work harder on behalf of the team or sit on the bench for a while. He insists that they put the team’s needs ahead of their own and gives credit to team players over individual performers. Sometimes that means benching stars because a particular lineup and set of players is needed for tactical success against an opponent, as described in this New York Times article (

Flick is not alone among soccer coaches in his approach. Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp has a similar philosophy that enabled him to create a spectacular winning record in 2019-20 that enabled his club to win the Premier League crown by 18 points over second place Manchester City.

To me, the approach used by Flick and Klopp is the winning formula for any business leader as well. Instead of old image of the leader as the charismatic star performer, today’s great leaders avoid the spotlight and instead build great teams around them that are fully committed to the organization’s mission and its values. If they get this right, they don’t have to spend the bulk of their time in reviewing business results and trying to control their people with systems, procedures and incentives.

Here are my ideas about how this approach can work for business leaders:

  1. Create an inspiring mission and values for your company, one that gets every employee, customer, and investor excited about the company.
  2. Develop a winning strategy to establish a unique position in the marketplace that makes your organization the very best at what it does.
  3. Hire and/or promote a talented group of leaders that believe in the mission and strategy.
  4. Position all your leaders in their “sweet spot” – that place in the organization that enables them to utilize their greatest strengths without exposing their weaknesses.
  5. Bring them together frequently to create a genuine team in which every person puts the company’s mission ahead their own goals and ambitions.
  6. Reinforce the team concept by stressing the team’s performance when things go well. When things go poorly, the leader on top should take full responsibility rather than calling out any individual for blame.

To accomplish this, leaders need to eschew their focus on numbers and analytics, leaving that work to others, and concentrate on their front-line leaders. To be close to their customers, they need to reduce the number of layers between them and their customers by flattening their organizations, eliminating middle managers and/or converting them to leadership roles, and banning consultants altogether. The latter charge millions of dollars to do the work of management but have no responsibility or accountability for the outcomes and deter the development of internal capabilities to fulfill these tasks.

If leaders follow these approaches, they will learn how much more engaged and empowered their teams are, as superior performance inevitably follows.

If this sounds deceptively simple, that’s because it is. But it is highly dependent on the leadership of the person on top having the human skills to pull it off. Perhaps that’s why so many executives fall back on control mechanisms and analytics because they lack the genuine leadership and personal qualities to pull it off. And why so often a poor performing soccer team or a business can be turned around by a single change in the top leader.

That’s why I believe the coaching model is the new standard. To make it effective, leaders must be authentic, genuinely humble, willing to be vulnerable, open to criticism and suggestions, aware of their shortcomings, and passionately committed to help everyone to perform at their best. Leaders cannot acquire these qualities when they reach the top. Rather, they take a lifetime of practice, of learning from their mistakes and their failures, and of doing the hard work of improving themselves and their leadership abilities every day. Leaders who do so – like Ford’s Alan Mulally, Best Buy’s Hubert Joly, and Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy – achieve enormous success.

Whether or not Bayern wins the Champion’s League final on Sunday, Hansi Flick has already established himself as the role model for the new generation of coaches – and quite possibly, for business leaders as well.

WSJ: U.S. Companies Lose Hope for Quick Rebound From Covid-19

Big U.S. companies are deciding March and April moves won’t cut it.

The fierce resurgence of Covid-19 cases and related business shutdowns are dashing hopes of a quick recovery, prompting businesses from airlines to restaurant chains to again shift their strategies and staffing or ramp up previous plans to do so. They are turning furloughs into permanent layoffs, de-emphasizing their core businesses and downsizing production indefinitely.

Delta Air Lines Inc. DAL -2.31% curtailed plans to add more summer flights and said it doesn’t expect business flying to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. CMG 1.87% is adding staff and changing operations to accommodate more to-go business. Vox Media, the publisher of New York magazine and several news websites, said it would lay off 6% of its workforce as the company confronts a prolonged drought for its lucrative events business.

 DAL -2.33% “We cannot defy gravity and continue with the business model we had before the pandemic,” Pret A Manger Chief Executive Pano Christou said on Friday as the sandwich chain reported an 87% drop in U.S. sales and announced plans to close nearly 20 stores.

Executives who were bracing for a monthslong disruption are now thinking in terms of years. Their job has changed from riding it out to reinventing. Roles once thought core are now an extravagance. Strategies set in the spring are obsolete.

“It’s going to be a different game,” said Bill George, former CEO of medical-device company Medtronic PLC and a senior fellow at Harvard Business School. Mr. George said many companies now need to explore strategies they might have once deemed unthinkable, from hospital chains embracing a long-term shift to telemedicine to apparel makers figuring out how to market and sell their wares in an environment where many stores don’t reopen.

U.S. airlines had been signaling an easing of the broad grounding that analysts say will lead to combined losses of $23 billion this year. Some of them had begun expanding summer flights in anticipation of a pickup in demand. Much of that hope faded last week.

Both Delta and United Airlines Holdings Inc. UAL -3.08% said they would scale back their ambitions to fly more later this summer. Delta said it would halve the number of extra flights it adds in August to 500 and that capacity in the September quarter would at best be 25% of the level a year ago.

“We’re seeing stalling demand growth at this point,” Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. The company opened the airline earnings-reporting season with a loss that Mr. Bastian called a staggering illustration of the pandemic’s impact, and he told analysts he didn’t expect the level of business flying to ever recover to its pre-pandemic level as companies rethink the need for putting employees on the road. Leisure traffic could take two years or more to recover, assuming a vaccine or treatment becomes widely available, he said.

Meanwhile, American Airlines Group Inc. AAL -2.81% told 25,000 workers that their jobs are at risk after federal aid expires Oct. 1 and United said it is exploring shedding 36,000 employees, or nearly half of its U.S. workforce, as both airlines said they expect it to take years for demand to approach normal levels.

There are some signs of strength in consumer spending. The Commerce Department on Thursday said U.S. retail sales—a measure of purchases at stores, at restaurants and online—increased 7.5% in June, driven by a pickup in sales at motor-vehicle dealers, furniture, clothing and electronic stores. Spending has also been buoyed by enhanced unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of the month.

Still, some economists say the data obscure the reality on the ground, where consumers are increasingly fearful of the economic impact of a new surge of Covid-19 cases in much of the U.S.

“The risk of a relapse in demand is rising,” said Gregory Daco, an economist at Oxford Economics. Mr. Daco’s measure of states’ recovery finds the economic rebound has slowed week-over-week in 14 states and declined in 15, with confirmed infections rising in 39 states that together account for 90% of the U.S. economy.

The U.S. posted a single-day record of more than 77,000 new cases on Thursday and its case count on Sunday was more than 3.7 million, a little over a week after reaching 3 million. The accelerating spread has derailed what many businesses had hoped would be a smooth transition to normal levels of activity. Executives are increasingly resigned to the idea that a vaccine is the only path back to normal.

“The real endpoint is the biology,” Gary Burnison, CEO of executive-search firm Korn FerryKFY -1.90% said on an earnings call this month.

California halted indoor activities at bars, restaurants, salons and gyms—many of which were already struggling to recover from earlier shelter-in-place orders—less than a month after allowing them to reopen. School districts in a growing number of cities, from Houston to San Francisco, said remote-only learning would continue this fall, another blow to businesses hoping to get working parents back in the office. Job site Indeed said it won’t require employees to return to its offices before July 2021.

Chipotle opened its first drive-through lane two years ago. On Wednesday, the burrito chain said it expected at least 60% of new locations would have them, adding that it had hired 8,000 people since May in part to staff reformatted stores with windows where customers who drive can pick up orders placed in advance online.

Vox Media, the publisher of New York magazine, the Verge and SB Nation, furloughed about 100 employees in the spring after it suffered sharp revenue declines as the pandemic drove down advertising spending and caused it to stop producing lucrative events.

On Wednesday it said it would lay off about 70 employees, many of them from the events business, in an acknowledgment that it doesn’t expect parts of the business to bounce back. Also last week, the Guardian announced the British newspaper would reduce its staff by 12%, or 180 people, with cuts to the newsroom and business side of its operation.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the second half of the year will not rebound anywhere near our pre-Covid forecasts,” Vox Media Chief Executive Jim Bankoff wrote in a memo to staff. “Furthermore, as cases rise tragically across the country and many of our elected leaders avoid decisive action, we have very limited visibility into the timing or strength of a recovery.”

MPR News: Former Medtronic CEO: ‘The Office Is Going To Change Dramatically’

The economic pain from COVID-19 spans businesses big and small, across industries — and it isn’t clear when it will let up. That makes for tough planning on the part of business owners and executives.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with Bill George about how the corporate sector is weathering the pandemic — and what changes could come to businesses in a post-pandemic world. George is a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, and the former chair and CEO of Medtronic.

Listen to the full interview here:

NY Times: Bezos Takes Back the Wheel at Amazon

SEATTLE — At the end of February, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, were in France discussing climate change with President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace and celebrating atop the Eiffel Tower with the designer Diane von Furstenberg. Days later, paparazzi spotted the couple grabbing dinner at Carbone in New York.

By late March, he had decamped to his ranch in West Texas, focusing on Amazon as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States.

After years of working almost exclusively on long-term projects and pushing day-to-day management to his deputies, Mr. Bezos, 56, has turned back to the here-and-now problems facing Amazon, the company said, as the giant retailer grapples with a surge of demand, labor unrest and supply chain challenges brought on by the coronavirus.

He is holding daily calls to help make decisions about inventory and testing, as well as how and when — down to the minute — Amazon responds to public criticism. He has talked to government officials. And in April, for the first time in years, he made a publicized visit to one of Amazon’s warehouses.

“For now, my own time and thinking continues to be focused on Covid-19 and how Amazon can help while we’re in the middle of it,” Mr. Bezos wrote to shareholders last week.

Mr. Bezos’ daily oversight hasn’t led to perfectly smooth sailing. Amazon has struggled to respond quickly to the growing number of coronavirus cases in its work force, and it has been slammed with orders from consumers.

But Amazon is one of the few companies that have benefited financially from the crisis. Because of all the customer demand, shares of the company have hit record highs. That has made Mr. Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, $25 billion richer since early March.

Mr. Bezos’ change reflects how completely different managing is during a crisis, said Bill George, a former chief executive of the medical device company Medtronic who teaches leadership at Harvard Business School.

“That you analyze, plan, delegate, hold people accountable — all those good techniques kind of go out the window,” Mr. George said. “The leader, no matter how large the company, does need to take charge.”

Before the pandemic, Mr. Bezos increasingly spent his time away from Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. He traveled the world and devoted a day each week to Blue Origin, his space exploration company.

At Amazon, Mr. Bezos typically gave his priority to projects that addressed a major risk to the business or where he felt he was uniquely qualified to get involved, according to two people familiar with his process, who like others interviewed for this article requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss Amazon’s operations publicly. That meant he was spending more time on fun, futuristic bets. Before the voice assistant Alexa was released, he held several meetings a week to track the product’s development. He closely followed the cashierless Amazon Go stores.

Focusing on the long term is “pretty much all” he did, Mr. Bezos told Forbes in 2018, in one of the few in-depth interviews he has done about Amazon in recent years. “I very rarely get pulled into the today,” he said.

The coronavirus crisis changed that luxury. At first, he publicly went dark. No trips were documented on his Instagram account, and on March 4, when Amazon told its headquarters employees to work from home, the email came from a generic office safety email account, signed by “Amazon Human Resources.”

The company’s board meeting, scheduled in Seattle the next week, was held online, and Mr. Bezos began talking regularly with his executives, focused on responding to Covid-19. Eventually, he held the calls daily, including on weekends.

Mr. Bezos has been “incredibly focused on this and is participating in, and driving, our leadership meetings” for the response, Jay Carney, the company’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, said in a March 31 interview.

As the coronavirus gripped the country, cases appeared among workers in Amazon’s warehouses. By mid-March, Amazon’s vaunted logistics operations were breaking; customers wanted more products just as fewer warehouse workers showed up for their shifts, afraid to risk getting the virus or left to care for children whose schools had closed.

Mr. Bezos and the other executives soon approved plans to stop accepting low-priority items into warehouses and to delay customer shipments of other items that Amazon considered low demand, according to three people briefed on the changes.

Mr. Bezos helped decide which features to remove from the Amazon website to reduce customer demand, such as burying its popular page promoting daily deals, one of the people said. He also approved delaying Prime Day, the company’s summer shopping extravaganza.

Still, workers and lawmakers increasingly called for more precautions at the warehouses. On March 21, Mr. Bezos sent a rare letter to all of Amazon’s employees, which the company immediately posted on its blog. He said the company had ordered millions of face masks for workers, though few of those orders had been filled.

“My list of worries right now — like yours I’m sure — is long,” he wrote.

Waiting weeks to address his employees was a mistake, particularly when Seattle had an early outbreak of the virus, Mr. George said.

“You need to be out there early, every day, and talking to your people,” he said. “If the people are risking themselves, you need to be there with them.”

Amazon said the senior executive who oversees operations had communicated with employees earlier.

In late March, Mr. Bezos posted on Instagram a picture of him holding a video chat with Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, one of several officials he has talked with. The photo gave a glimpse of Mr. Bezos’ puppy, which sometimes yaps during calls, and the Saltillo tile at his West Texas ranch. (Amazon said he had worked from other places as well.)

Mr. Inslee said in an interview in late March that Mr. Bezos had focused on the issue of vastly increasing testing for the coronavirus in the state and country.

“We were talking about whether we could somehow activate the Amazon supply chain to see if we could mobilize the production and distribution of those assets, including the delivery logistics,” Mr. Inslee said.

Testing has animated Mr. Bezos, Mr. Carney said.

“How do we get to a point where tests are available on demand,” Mr. Carney said about Mr. Bezos’ thinking, “where results are as close to instant as possible?” That would let Amazon and other employers identify and quickly “isolate places where there are potential outbreaks and then defeat this,” Mr. Carney said.

Meeting notes from Mr. Bezos’ call with executives on April 1, which were obtained by The New York Times, showed that they had discussed working with medical organizations to focus on expanding testing capacity for its workers and others “to help immunize from criticism that we’re selfish in using the tests for employees.”

The company would later announce plans to start building its own small lab. “We are not sure how far we will get in the relevant time frame, but we think it’s worth trying,” Mr. Bezos told shareholders.

He has joined the daily calls from the new testing team, which has procured tests and is close to rolling out a pilot program to test employees, according to a person familiar with the effort.

Notes from the daily meeting, which were first obtained and published by Vice, also showed that the warehouse crisis, and organizing by workers to raise safety concerns, continued to be a risk to the company. While the notes do not mention Mr. Bezos by name, they reported “general agreement” among the executives about how Amazon should handle an employee who the company said had been fired for breaking quarantine rules when he protested its safety measures. The notes said the company should make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement,” adding that he was “not smart, or articulate.” Amazon’s general counsel, who wrote the meeting notes, later apologized.

The publication of the notes prompted criticism from New York officials and several U.S. senators.

On April 8, when the virus had spread to more than 50 Amazon facilities, Mr. Bezos made a surprise visit to a Whole Foods store and an Amazon warehouse, both near Dallas, which the company filmed. Afterward, he asked other executives why masks, which the company had finally obtained, weren’t being required, according to a person involved in the response.

A few days later, Amazon told its warehouse workers that they had to wear masks.

This content was originally posted on on 4/22/20.