Greg McKeown: An interview by Bob Morris

McKeown-1Greg McKeown is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. His writing has appeared or been covered by Fast Company, Fortune, HuffPost, Politico,Inc. Magazine and Harvard Business Review. He has also been interviewed on numerous television and radio shows including NPR and NBC. McKeown is the CEO of THIS, Inc. where his clients include Adobe, Apple, Airbnb, Google, Facebook, Pixar, Salesforce.com, Symantec, Twitter, VMware and Yahoo!.

McKeown is an accomplished public speaker. He has spoken to hundreds of audiences around the world including in Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, China, England, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States. Highlights include speaking at SXSW, interviewing Al Gore at the Annual Conference of the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland and receiving a personal invitation from Haakon, Crown Prince of Norway, to speak to his Annual Innovation Conference.

In 2012 he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Originally from London, McKeown now lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and their four children. He graduated with an MBA from Stanford University.

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Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

McKeown: It happened years ago, one day after our precious daughter was born, healthy and happy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces. What should have been one of most serene days of my life was filled with tension. Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife’s tired arms, I was on the phone and on email with work, and I was feeling pressure to go to a client meeting.

My colleague had written, “Friday between 1-2 would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to come be at this meeting with X.” It was now Friday and though I was pretty certain (or at least I hoped) the email had been written jest, I still felt pressure to attend.

Instinctively, I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and newborn child. So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster…

“Yes.”

To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to the meeting. Afterward, my colleague said, “The client will respect you for making the decision to be here.” But the look on the clients’ faces did not evince respect. Instead, they mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there?! I had said “yes” simply to please, and in doing so disrespected my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship.

As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. But even if it had, surely I would have made a fool’s bargain. In trying to keep everyone happy I had pleased no one and sacrificed what mattered most. On reflection I discovered this important lesson: If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

McKeown: My undergraduate was in journalism which is one of the only majors that teaches you how to ask the right questions. Almost all formal education teaches you how to find the right answer. That’s good as far as it goes. But to ask the right question is a higher and more valuable skill.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

McKeown: I love the film Gandhi. He is an Essentialist and the film captures this. With singleness of purpose—to achieve independence for the Indian people—he eliminated everything else from his life.

He called the process, “Reducing himself to zero.” He dressed in his own homespun cloth (khadi) and inspired his followers to do the same. He spent three years not reading any newspapers because he found that their contents added only nonessential confusion to his life. He spent 35 years experimenting with simplifying his diet. He spent a day each week without speaking. It would be an understatement to see he eschewed consumerism: when he died he owned less than ten items. He intentionally never held a political position of any kind and yet became, officially within India, the Father of the Nation.

And his contribution extended well beyond India. As General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State said on the occasion of Gandhi’s passing, “Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of mankind, a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires.” And Albert Einstein added, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” It is impossible to argue with the statement that Gandhi lived a life that really mattered or that his ability to focus on what was essential and eschew the nonessential was critical to his success.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

McKeown: Can I cheat and point to an essay rather than a book? It was written by Tennessee Williams and was first published in The New York Times and tells the story of his experience following the release of his widely acclaimed play The Glass Menagerie. The piece is called, and contains his thesis in the title, “The Catastrophe of Success.” He describes how his life changed after the success of the play and how he became distracted from the essentials that led to his success in the first place.

For more than 15 years I have been obsessed with a single question: “Why do otherwise capable people and teams not breakthrough to the next level?” The answer, as Williams beautifully captures, is success. It’s a counterintuitive answer: one that is hidden in plain sight. Success can become a catalyst for failure if it leads to what Jim Collins called “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” The key is to become successful at success. The antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less, but better.

Morris: Peter Drucker said: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Please comment.

McKeown: It’s Drucker’s brilliance on display. I concur completely. Most approaches to productivity are about fitting more in, more efficiently. The thrust of Essentialism is to eliminate everything other than what is most essential, because so much of what we are trying to get done ought not to be done at all.

Morris: You remind me of Einstein’s challenge to “maker everything as simple as possible…but no simpler.” Looking ahead 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

McKeown: I predict that the challenge will be the same challenge as now but it will be a pain point even more universally appreciated. Speaking of Drucker, he said: “In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time – literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.”

The great challenge for CEOs will, therefore, be how to empower their whole organizations to focus on what’s really essential in the face of so many choices. The best CEOs will be the one’s who can create clarity of purpose and strategy from the 30,000-foot level down to the 3-foot level and inspire people to be unified around that focus. It sounds simple but it takes an Essentialist who can empower everyone in an organization to become Essentialists and to do it in practice.

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Essentialism?

McKeown: As I mentioned earlier, I have spent years obsessed by one overarching question: “Why don’t successful people and companies breakthrough to the next level?” It is a matter of record they tend to plateau, but why is that?

It’s an oddity. If you and I were to run a race and you won, (which you likely would by the way!), and then we started the second race from the place we ended the first one, what are the chances you would win again? Surely, the chances are close to 100 percent. You would start the second race with a greater advantage than the first one with the same competitive advantage. But this is not what happens.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

McKeown: The insight that most rocked me was one that was hidden in plain sight.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

McKeown: Many years ago the book was called, “Accomplish More by Doing Less: From the Trivial Many to the Vital Few.”  The essence of that runs right through the book still. But the language of “Essentialism” and being an “Essentialist” came much later.

I now see these words as, perhaps, the primary contribution of the book. Giving people language for what was once nameless is game changing because we can’t discuss, and therefore can’t change, what we don’t have language for.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many people have such a difficult time determining what is essential and what is not?

McKeown: A leader at Twitter once asked me, “Do you remember what it was like to be bored?” If a flight was late we had to be bored: we were forced to sit there and wait and think. But now every moment anyone has, they check their phones. How ironic that it was someone at Twitter who asked the question because they are the ones who did it to us! But this is what is so hard these days when attempting to discern what is essential and what is not. We have to deliberately create space to be bored.

Specifically, I recommend people schedule a personal quarterly offsite. It is one day every 90 days to explore the BIG questions and to get perspective about what really matters at the end of your life, over the next five years, over the next year and over the next 90 days.

Morris: Each year, it seems (at least to me) that there are more choices, options, etc. to consider when making a choice. Any advice?

McKeown: The greater the number of choices, the more selective we need to be. What I see is that the number of choices is expanding faster than our selectivity. The result is predictable: our stress will go up and the quality of our work and of our lives will go down.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a business leader who is a world-class essentialist?

McKeown: They have the maturity to balance courage and compassion. The courage to pursue what is essential even when it is unpopular and the compassion to be as graceful as possible in doing it.

Morris: In the spirit of “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,” I am convinced that, if everything is important, nothing is. What do you think?

McKeown: The etymology of the word “priority” says it all. It came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. What did it mean? It meant, very sensibly, the very first or prior thing. Also sensibly, it stayed singular for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start speaking of priorities. But what does the word even mean in a plural form? How can you have five or ten very first or prior things? Of course, it’s not just a grammatical point here’ it’s a practical one.

Just the other week I heard a new mayor interviewed on NPR and he said, “People have been asking me what my three or five priorities are. Well, I will tell you: I have two dozen priorities!” And then to make sure to emphasize the point he added, “And not one of them is more or less important than any other.”

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Essentialism and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

McKeown: I learned a lot from the CEO of a major Silicon Valley company who read Essentialism and now wants his whole company to adopt this thinking. He wants the company to be lean and entrepreneurial as it scales and he thinks leading as Essentialists is the key to it. So what is he doing about it?

He had his whole executive team read the book, then sent an email to the whole company where he introduced a year-long theme for the company that he called, “Your one big thing.” At the company-wide event he had a whole day focusing on living and leading as an Essentialist. They announced a no-meetings Wednesday.

Have everyone read the book. If only the CEO reads it and then starts operating as an Essentialist, people won’t know what’s hit them. It’s too countercultural. So you need everyone, literally, to be on the same page.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Essentialism, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

McKeown: They need to define their Essential Intent: the one thing that, if achieved, will take them to the next level in the marketplace. It’s better to go for a single, 10X objective than an incremental one because you know you can’t achieve it simply by working a little harder. You know you have to think differently. You know you have to say no to many of the things you are currently doing.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

McKeown: What is one thing you would never do? And the answer is “Listen to The Stones.” I am a Beatles man to the core!

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Greg cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website and LinkedIn.

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