True North Groups offer approach to developing leaders

  • Article by: BILL GEORGE
  • Updated: September 3, 2011 - 9:59 PM

Former Medtronic CEO Bill George

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Minnesota companies like General Mills, 3M and Cargill have developed national reputations for their leadership development programs. As a result, they have developed many exceptional leaders, which has enabled them to sustain their performance for decades.

As these companies have expanded globally, they also have led the business world in the shift from hierarchical organizations to collaborative, horizontal ones. This is especially important with younger generations because the command-and-control model so prevalent in the 20th century has ceased to be effective. It fails to motivate front-line employees and take advantage of their knowledge and wisdom, especially in global organizations that require collaboration across different cultures.

IBM's CEO Sam Palmisano pioneered the notion of a globally collaborative organization in 2003 as he transformed IBM's hierarchy from functional and geographic silos into an integrated global network. He started with a "values jam" involving 300,000 employees over four days and articulated his ideas in a 2006 Foreign Affairs article, "The Integrated Global Enterprise."

The shift to collaborative organizations with flat structures is causing a reassessment of the ways that organizations develop leaders. Traditionally, organizations have focused on a select group of leaders who can assume the organization's top roles and have invested substantial sums on a few, while leaving others to rely on traditional management skills. Rather than just a few stars, global organizations will need many talented leaders -- hundreds, even thousands -- operating throughout the organization.

For the leaders of today, we are learning that emotional intelligence (or EQ) is more important than IQ. EQ is based more on authenticity and how well-grounded leaders are. In my experience leaders haven't failed for lack of IQ, but rather a lack of emotional intelligence.

In interviews with 125 authentic leaders for True North, we learned that EQ starts with self-awareness about your life story and the crucibles you have experienced. Becoming self-aware is hard to do on your own. People need safe places where they can share their experiences, challenges, frustrations and then get honest feedback. Such a place can be provided by True North Groups -- intimate peer groups where people talk openly in a confidential setting. These groups enable people to gain a deeper understanding of themselves by revealing hidden areas and blind spots.

In a True North Group, people feel comfortable in challenging members when they sense they are losing their bearings or deviating from their values. Members learn to accept others rather than judge them, and celebrate the differences of people with different life experiences. Groups provide support when people face challenges in their work or their lives. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote "Emotional Intelligence," says, "At a time when we need authentic leaders more than ever, True North Groups ... should be part of every leader's development."

Co-author Doug Baker Sr. and I first formed a True North Group back in 1975. Along with six other men, we have met weekly for the past 36 years. In 1983 we formed a monthly couples group with our spouses and two other couples. These groups have been a godsend in my life, helping me think through my decision to leave Honeywell to join Medtronic and later supporting my wife Penny and me when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

At Harvard Business School, 1,500 MBAs and executives have experienced these groups in our leadership development courses. Their evaluations have been uniformly positive. Many describe the experience as transformative. Unilever is asking its top 500 executives to participate in True North Groups.

Baker, a former executive at American Express Financial Advisors (now Ameriprise), and I have formed the True North Groups Institute to enable other companies to create similar groups. They have minimal cost and no professional leaders are required (although some organizations use facilitators to get them started). Only limited staff is needed to support them, making them scalable for organizations that need to develop large numbers of leaders.

I believe these groups can be instrumental in developing values-centered, collaborative leaders at all levels for large global organizations, and transforming leadership in the process.

Bill George is a former CEO of Medtronic.

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