Five Lessons from World Changers

by John Coleman | http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/01/five_lessons_from_world_changers.html

Now is the time to change the world. The past decade has been one of remarkable transformation and seemingly endless crisis. We’ve seen hundreds of millions rise from poverty to the ranks of the middle class, but we face persistent and difficult problems like disease, economic recession, and financial turmoil. Correspondingly, we need leaders who are willing to address those challenges.

They exist. The Passion & Purpose MBA survey found that, among graduate business students at least, two of the top three reasons for choosing a workplace were “intellectual challenge” and “opportunity to impact the world,” and nearly 85% of those surveyed thought “business people are well-qualified to solve the most pressing problems in the world.”

But what would it take for us, as individuals, to be world changers? That’s the central question in John Byrne’s new book, World Changers.* In it, Byrne recounts discussions with 25 entrepreneurs who have changed the world — people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson. Byrne focuses on allowing those people to tell their stories, but in reading them, I found several valuable lessons for world changers in the making.

1. Start with purpose: Perhaps the greatest common denominator amongst great world changers is the centrality of purpose in their organizations. Google’s mission is to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Whole Foods’ motto is “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet.” And Facebook’s mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” This purpose is what serves as a compass for the company and its employees. Finding and articulating your purpose are critical to launching a world-changing enterprise.

2. You’re not too old: Too often, we view entrepreneurship as a young person’s game or something for which you must be uniquely suited. Rather, entrepreneurship is about having an idea and the courage to pursue it — no matter your age. Did you know that when Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank started Home Depot, they were 34 and 48 years old, respectively? Further, neither was an entrepreneur: Marcus was a former pharmacist, and both had just been fired from their jobs at Handy Dan Improvement Centers.

3. Seek advice: It’s difficult to start and grow a company in isolation, and mentorship and peer counseling are critical to maintaining your focus and direction. Find those who have been through your experience before and seek their guidance on the situation. Even great entrepreneurs like Howard Schultz seek advice when confronted with difficult situations. Schultz reassumed his leadership post at Starbucks, at least partially, as a result of a bicycle ride with Michael Dell. Schultz and Dell ran into each other vacationing in Hawaii, and during a three-hour ride along the Kona coast, Dell advised Schultz on how to handle Wall Street and the company if he resumed leadership at then struggling Starbucks.

4. Be the expert: Many MBAs, in particular, are tempted to launch businesses they know little about because they seem to have big “upside” — but to change the world it pays to be an expert. Find something you love, become an expert, and see what it would take to innovate in the space. Larry Page and Sergey Brin succeeded at Google at least partially because they were experts on search. To quote Page: “[W]e really benefited from being real experts…we understood all aspects of search. We talked to all the search companies. We really knew a lot about what was going on.” They didn’t know exactly how to bring their product to market or build a world-class organization, but they knew more about how to comb the web for useful information than anyone on the planet.

5. Start small: World-changing businesses are rarely world-changing from day one. Sometimes they’re not even fully formed concepts. Many groundbreaking entrepreneurs simply start with a small idea and grow with it as the idea evolves. If you’re waiting to launch your business because you can’t see the path to changing the world, you may be missing an opportunity to learn through experimentation. One of the most shocking lessons of World Changers was how few of these entrepreneurs started “big” or even with “big things” in mind. Oprah Winfrey launched her career as a TV reporter in Nashville and worked as a reporter of local talk show host until entertainment lawyer Jeff Jacobs encouraged her to create her own show and company. Richard Branson sold records out of the trunk of his car, and Michael Dell got into business for himself, upgrading personal computers from his college dorm room.

It’s a new year with new opportunities. Learning these five lessons is the first step to making an impact. How will you change the world?

*In the interest of full disclosure, John Byrne reviewed our book, Passion & Purpose, at his website, Poets & Quants.
This post is part of a series of blog posts by and about the new generation of purpose-driven leaders

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