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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

The BB&T Leadership Series: Discover Your True North Part 2

The BB&T Leadership Series, a video series with CEO Kelly King presented by The BB&T Leadership Institute, was created to support our commitment to leadership development. The series shares insights on leadership topics from some of today’s best and brightest thought leaders. We hope you find these interviews and the perspectives they share inspiring and motivating as we strive to personally be our best every day.

The well-known author, Harvard professor and former CEO discusses how to stay grounded and make an impact on people.

KELLY KING: We’re in the middle of a really big merger, as you know.

BILL GEORGE: Yes.

KELLY KING: And my friend–

BILL GEORGE: Congratulations, by the way.

KELLY KING: Oh, thank you. My friend and partner, Bill Rogers, some of you don’t know. The CEO of SunTrust is here, I’m happy to say today. And I’m sure Bill has been asked the same question that I have, which is, what is the big deal?

BILL GEORGE: Huge.

KELLY KING: And how do you keep your sanity with all this going on? And what I say is balance.

BILL GEORGE: Yes.

KELLY KING: My priorities in life are clear. It’s my faith, my family, and work. And I tell the board that. If that’s not OK, I’m sorry, but that’s my priorities in life.

And sometimes with all the struggles [? a lot, ?] I had to kind of recenter. Sometimes in the middle of the day, I have to say, stop. Take a deep breath and say what’s important. And where should I focus my priorities?

BILL GEORGE: You just put your finger out. How do you stay grounded? You’re in a high level position. You’re doing a big merger. A lot of people involved, their lives are impacted by this.

How do you stay grounded? And I think that’s really important. I have been meditating for 40 years. But there’s something that brings you back to it.

You put away all the electronics. You take a little time out every day, whether you want to go pray or meditate, take a long walk in a beautiful setting like this. But it’s something where you can reflect. I think you spend your whole day working on a task list. And you’re worried about, I didn’t get that number nine task done today.

That’s not what it’s all about. So you can stay focused on the really important thing. And frankly, that’s where all my creative energy comes from. I get my most creative ideas.

But I think everyone needs to do that every day. I say a minimum of 20 minutes. So you take that time. It’s not very much. But if you don’t do that, you can really lose your bearings and start to get pretty high on yourself. And you’re just go, go, go all the time, and you don’t realize you’re driving everyone nuts.

KELLY KING: And then too, Bill, I find that it’s just easier, not easy, but easier, if what you are doing in life is aligned with your personal purpose and your personal why. And you talked to Warren Buffett about that. He said sweet spot, or something to the effect that the sweet spot is when your motivations line up with your greatest strengths. And he’s one of the greatest leaders of all times, and he’s apparently found that sweet spot and that balance and that integrated life.

BILL GEORGE: He can’t retire because he’s having so much fun. But he’s about– [? if you ever ?] spend any time with Warren, he’s about as natural a person as you’re ever going to meet. I mean, I had dinner with him once, and he’s just Warren Buffett. In fact, my wife sat on the other side. And she said, wow, this is Warren, yeah.

But why not? We’re all just human beings. And back to the purpose and your purpose in life, why are you here on this planet? And what are you going to leave behind? And when you get to the point where your memorial service, funeral, and they do eulogies, they’re not going to talk about you being CEO of this bank or this corporation.

They’re going to talk about, how did you impact people? How did you treat people? And it [? maybe ?] be your grandchildren talking about how you– so to me, it’s all only one life. It can’t be, oh, I’ve got this life over here, and I’ve got that life, and never the twain shall meet.

KELLY KING: Right. And I believe at the end of the day, the essence of your life’s journey will be, did you make a difference?

BILL GEORGE: Did you make a difference? And how do you make a difference? And who do you make a difference in? They may not remember what the revenues went up while you were the CEO. But they’re going to remember how you impacted people.

And were you there for them? Did you create an environment of trust so that I had– frankly, 10 years ago, the trust when I was on the board of Goldman Sachs, the trust went out of the banking balloon. How do we get it back and say– [? this ?] [? out of ?] BB&T. But how do you ensure you have trust? Because I’m giving you my money.

And if you look at it, that’s a sacred trust. And so it’s the same thing when you put a Medtronic product in your body, a Medtronic defibrillator. You don’t know. Even the doctor doesn’t really know if it’s going to work. You’re entrusting that the manufacturers said that’s got to be the highest quality product, because a life is at the other end of that. It can’t be 99%.

And I think that trust is something we lost sight of in a lot of businesses. We started thinking, oh, we’re playing to the stock market. And we lost sight of why we’re here.

KELLY KING: That is so true. I’ve said, to me, the ones that win in life in general and in business are the ones that produce the best value. But value is really about whoever creates the best trust.

BILL GEORGE: Well, I think you’re getting to kind of the idea of creating shared value. So if you do your job well, you’re creating value for me as your client. You’re creating value for your employees, because they have good jobs. They’re rewarded for doing a good job. They’re not paid minimum wage, but they’re rewarded for doing a good job. You’re creating value for your investors, your shareholders.

And I think, frankly, you’re in a lot of communities here. And are you creating value in the community? The bank has always been the center of the community. And sometimes the national banks lost sight of that fact of, we’re basically the essence of this community, whether it’s a large city like Charlotte or whether it’s a small town, rural town. That is really, I think, that’s shared value. And a lot of the short-term shareholders don’t like that notion, but I think we’re coming back to that.

KELLY KING: When you’ve read and taught at Harvard and other places and people use the word purpose and they use word why, do you think most people are viewing those as mainly the same? Or do you draw a distinction?

BILL GEORGE: I look at them as the same. And you talk about mission. At Medtronic, we talk about the Medtronic mission. It was the thing that drives the company. We’re trying to restore [? a beautiful ?] [? life ?] [? in ?] [? health. ?]

We had a metric. We actually measured ourselves by how many seconds go by until another person’s life is restored by a Medtronic [? patent. ?] One time when I got there, it was 90 seconds. Today, it’s two per second. So we’re helping a lot. We’re helping people.

And so that is, in many ways, to the employees, the 86,000 employees, that’s a more meaningful metric than saying, what were the profits last year? They can [? relate ?] to helping people. And if you create that kind of trust– and I think that’s the key.

So the why and the purpose become one and the same. My why is I’m here to help other people to have a secure financial future. I don’t know if you believe that or not, but if you are, that’s what I want from my financial institution, because that’s what I want. And it’s what I’d want for my kids or my grandkids too is that kind of sense of financial security.

KELLY KING: And in our industry, you know– and of course, you’re on the board of Goldman Sachs, so you’ve lived with this crisis these last 10 years– we lost a lot of the trust of the American public and globally as well. But you wrote in your book, which I happen to totally agree with, it was not the financial instruments. It was about failure of leadership that really created problem, wasn’t it?

BILL GEORGE: Yeah, it was all a leadership failure, honestly, because people lost sight of what– they got too excited with the hedge funds and the high money and the excess. There’s nothing wrong with derivatives per se, but if you don’t understand how they work and you don’t know what you’re– and obviously, the mortgage market went through extreme difficulties. So now we get back to basics.

It all starts with that customer. It’s what I call the last three feet, like three [? here ?] between you and me. You’re my banker. I’m your client. OK, can we have that trusting relationship?

And if I don’t trust you, I’m not going to do business with you. That’s just the way I look at the world. And so how do you create that trust in a large organization like this one that gets conveyed by people who maybe haven’t been here all that long but they have the same philosophy? And so that purpose is then shared.

KELLY KING: I think a lot of times all of us but certainly younger leaders get confused about having to be right all the time. And they make a mistake. They become the victim, and then they start giving up on life and giving up on being a good leader. But really, being a good leader is about making mistakes. The key is to learn.

BILL GEORGE: And if I can admit my mistakes, then the people who work with me at Medtronic can admit theirs too. I worked in an organization, the United States Department of Defense during the Vietnam War. No one could, because our secretary of defense said we never made a mistake. So we spent a heck of a lot of money and time trying to bail out of what was a mistake.

If I can admit my mistakes, then the people around me can admit theirs. Thinking, you’ve got a huge organization. How do you know what’s going on unless people tell you the truth?

And if they don’t, if they’re trying to tell you what you want to hear, you’re in trouble. You kind of get people that will tell you the truth. And that gets to admitting mistakes, admitting vulnerabilities, and saying, look, I’m not an expert in this.

When I went to Medtronic, I knew a lot about technology. I knew nothing about medicine. And so I had a partner who was a medical doctor. He was our vice chairman. He was fantastic.

And we teamed up, because I needed his help. And [? I needed ?] a terrific CFO we brought in. So I think you need people around you that are better than you are at what they do.

KELLY KING: On this learning thing, though, another one of my books that I’ve really enjoyed in addition to yours is Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck. And for the audience that have not read Mindset, it’s really a really important read, because it’s all about helping us to understand the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

Well, what I’ve found is that people that have a growth mindset can encounter failures and make mistakes and grow through it and go on and achieve more successes. But those that have the fixed mindset are the ones that become the victims. And that’s one of the problems we have in our country today, I think, is that we have too many people with a fixed mindset.

BILL GEORGE: Well, I think the growth mindset is the key to everything, because we’re constantly growing as people. When you stopped growing, then you’re kind of heading for the end. And I’d like to think I’ve been more creative and learned more and grown more and learned more in the last 10 years than I had at any point in time in my life. So if we’ve got to keep growing– and that’s part of being adaptive, flexible.

The world’s changing. So are we continuing to adapt ourselves? Do we have that growth mindset? I think it’s a wonderful concept.

The fixed mindset really conveys a rigidity, or rigid atmosphere. But you want all your people to be growing too. Everyone in your organization’s got to be growing. And you can expect that of them. When they stop growing, then I don’t know. Then you’ve got a problem. And I’ve seen that happen a lot where people are not continuing to grow. So we need to do that.

KELLY KING: So one of the mindsets that I’ve found in my own life that is important is to have an enthusiastic positive attitude. Managing our own mindset is important as a leader.

BILL GEORGE: But see, you convey that sense to everyone you interact with. You have a positive attitude. Hey, we got a problem here. Yeah, it’s a big problem. We can get all the best people around to help solve this problem.

It is a problem. But then we can have that attitude of, we can get it done. Let’s figure out how we’re going to solve this problem. I think you have to bring a positive attitude.

So it’s not bad, though, to have what I call truth tellers around you, someone who will come into your office and say, Bill, how do you think the executive committee went this morning? I had a general counselor who did that. And I said, I thought it went great.

We took a vote. Everyone agreed on what we were going to do. We got the new plan. We’re moving. He said, actually, three of the people that are back in their office are really mad at you.

I said, why? Because you were giving off signals to where you wanted the meeting to come out, and you just drove to that conclusion. And in the end, they said, yeah, we’ll go along, but they didn’t really believe it. So good for him to tell me the truth, because you need people around. I’d missed it that morning.

If you don’t have that sense of what’s really going on and people that will tell you– but I didn’t think of that person negative at all. He was very positive. And if I said, we got a legal problem, he wouldn’t say, no, Bill, you can’t do that. He said, no, let me.

You can’t do it that way. Let me go find the right way to do that, OK? And because we got a lot of regulation, you got to live with it. But just a naysayer, we can’t do this, can’t do that, you’ll never get anywhere.

But I think having people around us that can say, OK, let’s go find a way to get it done. And that, to me, is not negative. That honest truth teller, I love people like that.

KELLY KING: And that’s part of that self-awareness and that security to be willing to let people tell you the truth.

BILL GEORGE: Yeah.

KELLY KING: I know in my early journey in leadership, I finally figured out that you should be developing decisions by consensus building. So my early wrong version was, we’re going to talk about this as long as y’all want to talk about it as long as we get my answer.

BILL GEORGE: As long as we get my answer.

KELLY KING: But you quickly have to grow through to the idea that probably the best idea out there is not your own. It’s probably some form or fashion of what I call iterative thinking of getting everybody’s ideas.

BILL GEORGE: Yeah, because we’re talking about it. We’re having an honest discussion.

KELLY KING: Right, yeah. So you talked to 101 leaders, if I remember the number correctly. And I wonder if there are a couple of those you’d like to tell the group about that they may not have ever had the kind of experience you’ve had but a couple of leaders that you would talk about and any particular lessons you learned from them.

BILL GEORGE: Well, one of the most amazing people I ever met is a good friend of mine now, a man named Ken Frazier who is– believe it or not, he was born in South Carolina. His grandfather lived in South Carolina. He was a slave. So that’s 150 years ago his grandfather was born– more, actually.

And he moved. His father went to Philadelphia, and he was a janitor and never rose above that level. And Ken’s mother died when he was 12. And his father came in and said, son, your mother died this morning.

She is at peace today. It’s a good day. And he said, that is faith in action. And Ken never lost that sense of, OK, and I have a mission.

His father used to say, son, you have to be your own person. There’s drug gangs outside the door. You have to stay here and get your work done. There’s no daycare here. And he never lost sight of that.

He had a purpose in his life, and he followed that to the point he’s now CEO of Merck. And he’s just done a fantastic job. And he tried to represent the industry, keep prices down. But he’s revived the whole science about saving lives.

He said, I’m going to invest in products that may not come to market for 10, 30, 50 years. But he said, we’re making a difference in the lives of people. To me, that is a leader who has a real sense of who he is, his purpose.

I used to say to him, Ken– because he’s such a high level guy, you wouldn’t think anyone– hey, has anyone ever discriminated against you? He laughs. Yes, of course, all the time. But he said, if I get angry about that, I’m just playing into your own views. He said, I’m just going to ignore that. I’m going to do what I think is right, and I’m going to see if I can bring people together to get inspired to do it– a great leader.

KELLY KING: That was outstanding.

BILL GEORGE: Another leader I think is really outstanding is Mary Barra, who’s CEO of General Motors. She came to my classroom. Mary started to work on the production line at 18 General Motors. She didn’t go to school. And then they sent her to GM Tech, and I think eventually she went to Stanford Business School because they could see what an outstanding woman she was.

She’s a very modest person. But she’s got a really tough job. And she’s had to say, how do you navigate through everyone shifting from small cars to large cars? And we have a very complex supply chain. We’re having all these trade disputes.

She’s got a vision of where we’re going to go, and she’s going to stay the course and take the hard action, which she’s had to do. She’s had to lay off a lot of people. But on the other hand, she’s going to win in the marketplace to deliver cars people want. And it was all about quality.

And I remember that she went in front of Congress and was just getting beaten up because of their ignition switch situation that they had buried in the law department. They took their quality problems. They didn’t send them to the quality department. They sent them to the law department.

And so she didn’t know anything about this. She got beaten up by some female senators, which made my wife really mad and me too. But then finally they said to her, tell us about this switch problem. She said, look, we’ve got a much bigger problem here. We have a very unhealthy culture at General Motors, and we’ve got to fix that.

I’ll tell you today. I’ve met a lot of her people. That culture has changed dramatically, but all because she’s real. She owned the problem. She got to the root cause.

And I like that. In both cases, I like the fact people are really real, down to earth. Authentic, I call it.

KELLY KING: Authentic, for sure. So as we move towards wrapping up this video, Bill, I want to come back to something you alluded to earlier, because I think this is a message that needs to be more broadly shared. And that is the general obligation of business. There are some really good leaders beginning to talk about some changes that need to take place, even being bold enough to say capitalism maybe needs to be tweaked a bit, which I happen to agree with.

And so let’s talk a little bit about this notion of the broader role. Like at BB&T, we say our why is to make the world a better place to live. But a lot of companies have gone too far towards the pure profit, which ultimately never is the best long-term profit, is it?

BILL GEORGE: We’ve devolved down to maximizing short-term value. And a lot of those places blew up. I mean, that was the problem in 2008. Those are the short-term value producers.

So I’m a capitalist. I fervently believe in capitalism. [? Talking about ?] socialism, [? like ?] this is the best system ever created. It’s the greatest wealth system ever created. And frankly, if you’re in a community like, say, Winston-Salem, the wealth has come from business.

I love non-profits. I’ve served on the boards of a lot of them. But that money’s coming from the wealth created in business. Where does the government get its money? It gets its money from taxing people that make money in business whether they’re individuals or a corporation. That’s where it all comes from.

So if we look at creating value, that’s what it’s all about. So I like the notion of– and I’ve been writing about this lately– responsible capitalism. You have to have a sense of responsibility to your clients. You want them to do well. The best way for a bank to do well is to have a community where people are thriving and earning money and moving ahead and the companies are. And it’s a good place for small business to come.

And like Medtronic started out with two people. When I went there, it was 4,000. Now it’s 86,000. You’ve got to have a community that enables you to flourish.

And it creates a lot of jobs. That’s being a responsible capitalist. You can look yourself in the mirror and say, did we do the right thing by our clients, our employees, our shareholders, and our communities?

KELLY KING: I come back to the basics of this country was formed 250 or so years ago. And sometimes it’s helpful to me to remember, why was this country formed? It was formed by people who were brave enough to come here looking for opportunity and hope.

BILL GEORGE: Yes.

KELLY KING: They were trying to get away from being subdued and without opportunity and hope, coming here looking for that. And what we have to pay attention to, I think, as business leaders is, how can we make sure there is still opportunity and hope so there’s people that are willing to work hard and invest in the communities, take care of their shareholders and families and do all the things that are right? They can still have opportunity and hope in this country.

It’s not too late. We can still be– and I believe we are– the best country in the world. And we can even be better.

BILL GEORGE: Can you help people take that opportunity and turn it into a small business, a restaurant, a company that may grow up into something much bigger? Can you get behind me and kind of be the wind under my wings to get started? I think that is really key.

How do we give people that hope but then give them the capacity, the how, to get it done, to make it into something? And when you do that, then you have a thriving community, and everyone flourishes. That’s the way I look at it is you offer that.

KELLY KING: And if we go out every day and be authentic, self-aware, and be clear about where we’re going and what our true north is, we’ll be able to make a contribution.

BILL GEORGE: No doubt, absolutely.

KELLY KING: Bill George, thank you [? for the morning. ?]

BILL GEORGE: Thank you very much. You were terrific.

KELLY KING: [INAUDIBLE]

BILL GEORGE: Thank you. Thank you. That was terrific. Thank you very much. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]