Endless Knots – Bill George’s Remarks at NACD

Originially posted in Endless Knots written by Jessica Lipnack

The kick-off speaker at the National Association of Corporate Directors Corporate Governance ConferenceBill George, had some very practical advice for board members. A former CEO and board chair of Medtronic, George now teaches at Harvard Business School, serves on several high profile boards, and writes books. Four in the past five years, to be exact, all published by Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons, publishers of four of Jeff Stamps’ and my books. Jossey-Bass has a reputation for publishing good leadership books, in particular, as well as some real classics in organizational theory.

Given the crisis in business, kicked off by the meltdown precipitated by Enron and the two hundred firms that fell with it, and sent into molten lava by the financial debacle of 2008, George’s advice is timely:

His points, from his new book, Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis:

1. Face reality: There’s been a loss of trust among shareholders and the public AND it needs to be addressed candidly.

2. Don’t be Atlas; get the world off your shoulders: CEOs can’t do “this” (resolve crises) by themselves. They need to build coalitions and recruit help from boards and their organizations.

3. Dig deep for root causes. “Short-termism,” George’s “term,” goes to the heart of this. Long-term thinking, including comprehensive succession planning, obviates some of the problems caused by only looking at the nearest hill. In thinking about succession, he favors internal candidates over external ones, who may not even know the industry of the company that they’re being brought in to rescue.

4. Get ready for the long haul. No matter how bad things are, George says, they could get a lot worse so…we need to put structures in place that will survive even more adverse times, including executive compensation. George favors a common-sense approach: long-term rewards for long-term performance rather than unnecessary perks and short-term rewards that engender mistrust.

5. Never waste a good crisis. I really like this one. Bad times open up the possibility of great transformations.

6. You’re in the spotlight so follow your “true north.” Those last two words are the title of one of his books and a phrase in another. In short, stay true to your principles. Simple. Direct. Makes sense. And, he says, boards have to push transparency even if it makes the executive team uncomfortable.

7. Go on offense; focus on winning now. Here he cited one of my favorite corporate experiments in turning around a culture: IBM CEO Sam Palmisano’s Values Jam, where more than 300,000 IBM employees were invited to participate in a several-day-long online conversation about IBM’s values. When people are looking for great examples of corporate communication, they should look at what IBM has done with this “technology,” very soft tech to be sure, very low tech in fact, mainly a facilitation technique for “massively parallel conversations,” as IBM’s Mike Wing has called them. I was delighted to hear George call this one out – as if it were commonly known. It should be.