I recently had an engaging discussion with Bill George, former Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and ex-Chairman and CEO of the medical device giant Medtronic. Bill is also the author of six best-selling books, and his latest book, True North: Emerging Leader Edition is creating a buzz with the next generations of leaders (Gen X to Gen Z).
Bill has spent over twenty years researching and studying some of the most successful senior leaders in the industry across ages. In this interview, he gives crucial insights into the changing expectations of next-gen leaders, the power of authentic leadership, and the CEO-CFO dynamics.
What differentiates baby boomers and Gen X from the millennials or Gen Z in terms of leadership?
Over the years, there has been a massive change in leadership expectations. The baby boomers followed a chain-of-command leadership style influenced by World War II. Those days it was all about maximizing shareholder value. Moreover, jobs were limited in the 60s, and securing financial independence and the necessities of life was the priority.
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Fast forward to today, and Millennials and Gen Z are passionate about working for a purpose. They want a workplace that offers diversity and inclusion, supports climate plans, and makes the world better for everyone. The fact that there are 11 million unfilled jobs in the US alone gives the workforce an upper hand. Although the current workforce is infamous for job-hopping and stirring the Great Resignation, it’s because they are constantly reevaluating life’s purpose.
To tap into today’s current generation, an organization must think beyond money. At the end of the day, money-making should be just an outcome, while creating value for employees and customers should take center stage.
In Discover Your True North, you stressed the importance of authentic leadership. While authenticity and ethics are defining characteristic of CFOs, does the same apply across the entire C-suite? Also, how is authenticity and effective leadership interrelated?
I was the CEO at Medtronic during the 90s. In those days, leaders always wore a shield or a mask around their authentic selves to work. There was a general belief that leadership style or charisma was more critical than competence or integrity. However, I strongly felt that organizations needed a new kind of leader—an authentic leader. In today’s world of multiple, intersecting crises, CFOs need to lead their enterprises with contingency plans and by rapidly adapting to changing conditions, to be prepared for all possibilities
To me, an authentic leader is someone with a sense of purpose who believes in genuine relationships and plays with their hearts, not just their heads. In 2003 I wrote a book around the same lines called Authentic Leadership. Currently, the newer generations embody the traits of an authentic leader, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Can leadership be taught, or is it an intrinsic quality?
The first step in leadership is to figure out who you are. Highly self-aware people are comfortable in their skin and always trying to be the best version of themselves. I have learned from 100s of interviews with industry-best leaders that most consider difficult times, such as divorces, layoffs, or illnesses, as their biggest learning phase. Challenging times push people to look deeper into themselves and build resilience and emotional intelligence.
In short, before leading others, you must know how to lead yourself. You grow from a manager to a leader when you know your true sense of purpose. That’s also the basis of Discover Your True North, enabling leaders to identify their values and core beliefs.
What’s your take on the trending work-from-home culture, and any advice for upcoming Gen Z leaders?
Get back into the office. While I am a big supporter of workplace flexibility, working permanently online cannot match the dynamism of in-person collaboration. Young leaders need to learn at the ground level and interact face-to-face with senior mentors. For instance, shadow a Controller or build interpersonal relationships with your CFO. As a CEO, I learned a lot more by visiting factories and operating rooms instead of confining myself to my office. Connecting with people and understanding their ideas, needs, and challenges always leads to the best kind of innovation.
For Gen Z, my advice is not to get stuck in the reel world and be more part of the real world. Instead, I encourage them to gather more hands-on experience and not just read balance sheets. Figure out how things work and create genuine human connections at work.
How do you see the role of leaders and CFOs going forward?
As a CEO, I always leaned heavily on my CFO to offer verified data-backed information and predict what was coming. In every organization, the finance team is the pragmatist, and they helped me make the best decisions. I look at CFOs as the true partner to CEOs who often have solutions to all organizational problems, including change management and strategy. For me, a CFO should always follow the three Ts: tell the truth, be transparent, and build trust.