Peter Sims is a best-selling coauthor, strategic adviser and keynote speaker specializing in leadership and innovation. He is the coauthor (with Bill George) of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, the BusinessWeek and Wall Street Journal best-selling book that New York Times called “one of the most important books on leadership to come along in years.”
Peter was kind enough to participate in our “In the Spotlight” interview series recently and he shared some enlightening insights on the True North book, authentic leadership, and his current work on the subject of leading innovation.
TSG: How did you and Bill George connect for True North?
Peter Sims: I met Bill after he gave a great speech at Stanford Business School. We got to know each other much better in the months that followed because he was starting a course on leadership at Harvard Business School that was very similar to a course I was establishing at Stanford with a group of classmates called “Leadership Perspectives.” Although we were not successful in luring Bill to teach at Stanford, he and I would speak once a week or so to trade ideas, insights, or best practices and, before long, we were collaborating on True North.
TSG: What was the experience of creating True North?
Peter Sims: I loved it – I have never learned so much, so quickly. I was initially drawn to the book in part because we could pick up where Jim Collins left off in Good to Great – how do individuals go from good to great leaders, or “authentic leaders”? Bill describes authentic leaders as those who stick to their values and lead with purpose to empower others, similar to Collins’ Level 5 leaders. Our research team conducted 125 one-on-one, in-person interviews, out of which I did about 50, including with Howard Schultz of Starbucks, long-time presidential advisor David Gergen, Charles Schwab, eBay CEO John Donahoe, and Donna Dubinsky. The interviewees did not know what they were going to be asked in advance, but we learned that, without exception, they believed they were more effective as leaders when they were authentic.
Much of the critical acclaim for True North has come from the fact that the book is based on revealing and oftentimes eye-opening research about the influences, experiences, and concrete development tactics that shape leaders. I use those lessons and insights everyday – the hardest part was determining the most important and relevant ones for the book.
TSG: Is there a particular story that you heard from an executive that you find yourself still thinking about today?
Peter Sims: John Donahoe, a great leader, summarized what we learned best, “It’s a process, not a destination.” He described how he grew through each stage of his career. Starting in his first job, he felt he had the world at his finger-tips – he didn’t know what he didn’t know. Soon, he had to begin to learn how to balance values tradeoffs between his personal and professional life and even signed a pledge to his wife on the back of a bank receipt, “I will not lead the life of a typical management consultant.” Then, in his 30s, mentors helped John understand how to overcome a fear of failure. He also experienced difficult setbacks or “crucibles” that helped him to develop perspective and self-awareness – to be more comfortable in his own skin. Lastly, he has refined his own effective leadership style, in which he has become a great leader and developer of people (which I know from speaking with those who work for him). He does all this while being the same person at home as he is at work, something that is not easy for anyone to achieve, and he shared a number of helpful tactics about how he does it. Getting there is indeed a process and everyone is at a different stage of their growth.
TSG: What was your role in co-authoring the book?
Peter Sims: Throughout the course of developing the book, I led the research, including managing our research team and making sense from the 3,000 pages of transcripts. Bill brought over 30 years of management and leadership expertise and we did a lot of concept-building and writing together. Then, Bill did the final edit before it went to press. What fueled me throughout was the desire to share the key lessons we learned as clearly and concisely as possible with our readers.
TSG: Your next chapter focuses around leading innovation. How has that evolved?
Peter Sims: Over the past few years, I developed a closely related interest: how do individuals and organizations better innovate? Like before, I started reading the relevant research and had hundreds of discussions with CEOs, managers, experts, and organizations like IDEO that specialize in innovation. Innovation has become almost a generic term, but the emerging field of design thinking provides some tested and insightful innovation processes and principles – ranging from customer need-finding techniques to rapid, low-cost approaches to experimentation – that will soon be required reading for every MBA, CEO, and corporate or nonprofit manager. A.G. Lafley, CEO of Proctor & Gamble, is one example of someone who leads innovation in this way, and with enormous success. The Stanford University Institute of Design (the d.school), is a remarkable place for innovation thinking, doing, companies, and experts.
TSG: The topic of innovation is not new, but what do you think are the keys to successful innovation today?
Peter Sims: There are many best practices designed to help make incremental innovations. However, the main question that CEOs ask me about is how to achieve breakthrough innovations, especially since the failure to do so will lead to irrelevance. Entrepreneurs are usually the best examples of executing this type of innovation because they don’t overanalyze – they act as quickly and inexpensively as possible to identify unique market opportunities. It’s a mindset. Similarly, Beethoven used countless experiments to gradually differentiate his music from Mozart’s established brand of classical music. Beethoven learned from small failures and built upon his successes such that he eventually built the movement toward a new era of classical music. Amazon executives have used a similar mindset to continuously use experiments to identify ground-breaking innovations such as the Kindle, just as Toyota has done with the Prius. That innovative mindset comes naturally for many entrepreneurs and pioneering leaders, but it doesn’t fit easily within traditional management or strategic thinking. Combining the rigor of strategic thinking with the dynamism of an innovative mindset is the future of leading innovation – a handful of insights and approaches will help guide the way.
More about Peter Sims:
While studying at Stanford Business School, Peter established “Leadership Perspectives,” which is now one of the school’s most sought-after classes. His work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and The Huffington Post and he has spoken at and advised organizations such as Eli Lilly, Molson Coors, Current TV, American Data Network, and Gallup. Previously, he was part of establishing and building the European Office of Summit Partners, a leading global investment company, where he worked with hundreds of the world’s most innovative companies and served as part of the Deloitte Touche Tomatsu Global Strategy Team.
To consider Peter as a speaker for your organization, contact The Speakers Group speakers bureau or visit Peter’s speaker profile page on The Speakers Group’s web site at http://www.thespeakersgroup.com/Peter_Sims.