True North Groups: A Conversation With Bill George

Bill George is best-known as the former CEO of Medtronic, where the company’s market cap grew from $1.1 billion to $60 billion during his tenure. Upon his retirement in 2002, Bill invented a new life and purpose (by making little bets, I might add shamelessly) to write and to teach. His books, Authentic Leadership and True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership (which I collaborated with Bill on) have become leadership classics, all while Bill has created and taught thousands of Harvard Business School students a set of processes and practices for helping people develop themselves in an authentic way, consistent with their values, intrinsic motivations, and a broader sense of purpose.

One of the areas where I think Bill has unique insight has to do with how leaders and entrepreneurs can build support structures. This serves as the basis for his new book, True North Groups, coauthored with Doug Baker, who led HR at Medtronic. The new book is about how to create a great personal board of directors or tribe, along with all the norms, practices, and feedback mechanisms to support your leadership (and life). Bill and Doug should know; they’ve been meeting and working with a small group weekly since 1975.

It is a very timely book. In True North Groups, Bill and Doug provide an extremely insightful and practical roadmap for how you can create your own ecosystem for mutual support, feedback, development, and, ultimately, lifelong learning collaborators. Here are Bill’s responses to my questions about the book, and their top lessons learned through their experiences and three years of research for this book:

What is a True North Group and how do you select the right people to be in it?

A True North Group is a small, intimate group of peers who talk openly about personal and professional issues as well as their beliefs, values, and principles in a confidential setting. The idea for these groups grew out of the growing movement to form small affinity groups to deal with everything from chemical dependency, religious study, and personal grief to book and cooking groups. The big difference with True North Groups is that they provide forums for diverse sets of people to share highly personal issues and beliefs without requiring any specific affinity like chemical dependency or religious belief.

These groups provide a safe, confidential place where people can share their experiences, challenges, and frustrations and get honest feedback. At various times a True North Group functions as a nurturer, a grounding rod, a truth teller, and a mirror. At their best, members serve each other as caring coaches and thoughtful mentors.

To form a True North Group, gather together a small group of people who are compatible and respectful of each other. In selecting members, it is essential to hold to rigorous standards. Don’t compromise; one or two ill-fitting members can easily reduce the feelings of trust and openness. Solid members lead to better, deeper discussions of significant topics.

How is a True North Group similar to or different than a personal board of directors?

Typically, a personal board of directors is formed to help an individual with professional issues. In contrast, a True North Group is a two-way street, in which members help each other and become both givers and receivers of constructive feedback and ideas. There are no limits to the issues raised in a True North Group, as long as they enable the members to discuss more personal issues.

Who is in your True North Group and what do they add to your life?

I formed my first True North Group with Doug Baker and two other men in 1975. Over the years the group has expanded to eight men, including five business people, two lawyers, and an architect. This group has helped me become more self-aware and open, and enabled me to understand my blind spots. Their support has given me the courage to take risks with significant challenges, and learn how to give and receive feedback in a non-judgmental way.

When my wife Penny was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, they helped me see that I was in denial that her disease could be fatal, which in turn was preventing me from giving her the emotional support she needed to get through this very difficult time in her life. They knew that both my mother and my fiancée died of cancer and that my fears were blocking me from being a good support person to her. Their help enabled me to stop trying to “fix” her disease — which of course I couldn’t — and just be there for her.

How and when did you decide to put the group together in the first place? Did you start with a formal structure or was it more informal at first?

The original four members of the group attended a three-day retreat; it built some strong bonds that we wanted to continue. We decided to get together each week to carry on our discussions. Believe it or not, we have met every Wednesday morning from 7:15-8:30 a.m. for the past 36 years.

Fearing that we could drift off into social or political discussions, we agreed upon a format of substantive programs that one of us would bring the group for two consecutive sessions on a rotating basis. We began by discussing our life stories, the early events in our lives that helped shape and influence us. We learned that often these earlier events, especially in relationship to our parents, were getting in our way of being fully present and comfortable with ourselves. These discussions were unique in our lives, so we wanted to continue them regularly.

How did your group help you think through the decision of leaving Honeywell to go back to Medtronic?

In 1989, after long periods of denial, I finally acknowledged that I wasn’t happy in my work at Honeywell, although I was one of two candidates to become CEO. So I took the issue to my True North Group. They were the ones who helped me acknowledge that I was moving away from being a values-centered leader to engaging in a contest to become CEO of Honeywell, while I wasn’t passionate about the business I was responsible for. They gave me the encouragement to go back to Medtronic, where I had turned down three times the opportunity to become president and chief operating officer. I got very excited about the company’s mission of restoring people to full life and health, and felt that this mission was something that I could align with. My 13 years with Medtronic became the most important of my career.

During the first few meetings with your group, how should the conversation go and what should members leave with?

In the book, Doug Baker and I outline a program for the first 12 sessions of your group, as well as more than 30 ideas for additional program topics. We recommend starting by sharing your life stories and the people and experiences that have had the greatest impact on your lives, so that people can get to know each other on a personal basis. In the following session, people should share times they have lost their way or deviated from their values and their True North. In the third session, which may be the most important of all, people share the greatest crucibles in their lives, what they learned from them, and how those earlier life experiences may be impacting their lives today. Members come away from the session with a deep sense of acceptance by others and the realization that they are not alone in facing great challenges.

What other resources have you found useful in developing this system?

Doug Baker and I spent three years researching small groups, talking to scholars like Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone (which our group studied and discussed for several weeks) and American Grace, Dr. Daniel Goleman, creator of emotional intelligence (EQ), religious leader Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, leaders of the Forum of the Young Presidents Organization, 12-step group leaders, and other experts in small groups. With the help of researcher Jane Cavanaugh, we conducted formal interviews with 52 members of True North Groups.

The group norms of trust, confidentiality, openness, and non-judgmental feedback emanated naturally from our original group. When I was creating my course on “Authentic Leadership Development” at Harvard Business School, which also used peer facilitators rather than faculty to lead the groups, I decided to codify the important norms of the group and have all participants sign the Members Contract at their first meeting. This contract is included in our new book because we believe it is essential for group members to agree upon the group’s norms at the outset. Over the past seven years, more than 1,500 MBAs and executives at Harvard Business School have participated in True North Groups through the 12-week course. For many of them, the experience has been transformative.

Harvard Business Review – September 13, 2011