Alumni Spotlight: Bill & Penny George on Philanthrophy, Leadership, and Health Care

Dec 19, 2016 | Atlanta, GA

Interview by Barbara Christopher

Bill George (BSIE 64, Honorary Ph.D. 08), former CEO of Medtronic, is Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School specializing in developing authentic leaders. His wife, Dr. Penny George, is a leader in the national movement to transform medicine and health care through the principles and practices of integrative medicine. Together, they founded the George Family Foundation in 1994 to support programs they are passionate about and that transform lives by changing the systems affecting those lives for the better. Their foundation focuses on three primary areas: Penny’s passion for integrative health and healing; Bill’s passion for authentic leadership, and a shared passion for community.

“To see a need, a need that connects with something we understand and can bring resources to make it happen brings us pure joy,” said Penny.

The Georges, who divide their time between Minneapolis, Minneapolis and Avon, Colorado, also support Georgia Tech at the Institute level through the William W. George International Study Abroad Scholarships, the George Family Foundation Women in Engineering Leadership Initiative in the College of Engineering, and several programs in the Stewart School of ISyE, including the George Family Fellowships, the William W. George Chair Endowment in Health Systems, and general program support for health systems.

What motivated you to start the George Family Foundation?

BILL: In 1994, I was with Medtronic, and I could see that our stock was going up and our future looked good. When Penny and I looked ahead at our income, we decided to set aside a significate amount to give back to society. We always believed in philanthropy, and creating the George Family Foundation enabled us to significantly increase our charitable giving well above what we were able to do before. However, it wasn’t until 1998 that we went from what you would call checkbook philanthropy into a well- managed family foundation. That’s when Penny took it over and put some focused leadership into it. At first, she hired an outside firm to support us. And then we moved to building our own foundation staff. We are really excited about the development and growth of this venture.

Bill, authentic leadership is currently your life’s work and one focus of your foundation. Why have you chosen to devote so much of your attention to this issue?

BILL: When I completed my time at Medtronic, I took some time off to take a hard look at what it means to be a good leader. I felt that the world was not being well-served by the current theories of leadership, and I wanted to look at the deeper side of leadership. During that examination, I realized we could empower many more leaders if we allowed and encouraged people to be themselves so that their leadership came from within.

This starts by examining your character, your values, your life stories, and especially your crucibles, which are the trials and tribulations you have faced. And that is the authentic you. In 2003, I wrote the book, Authentic Leadership. That led to new theories of leadership which were validated in 2007 with an in-depth leadership study we conducted at the Harvard Business School, the largest study ever done on leaders. I am very pleased with the progress that has been made in the last 13 years since I wrote Authentic Leadership.

What is one key area in the world of leadership that you hope will receive attention in the next two to five years?

BILL: I think it will be on how we gain self-awareness. The Oracle of Delphi told us four thousand years ago to “know thyself.” But very little work has been done on how to do this.

Our research at Harvard and my work shows that knowing yourself starts with your life story — especially the most difficult times you’ve had, because that is when you realize who the real you is. The key to emotional intelligence is self-awareness, which in turn can open up your capacity to be a good leader. Without a high level of emotional intelligence, one cannot become an authentic leader. But we have to learn how to do that.

There are wonderful opportunities for re- searchers to look at how we gain self-awareness. I’ve been working on this a lot, and I hope more scholars will start looking at how we become more self-aware. It is a life skill that can be developed.

What is one thing that we all could do to start becoming more self-aware?

BILL: I’ll give you three things. First, deeply explore your own life story — especially your crucibles — in order to understand who you are and where you have come from. Beyond that, adopt a daily introspective practice. In our 24/7 world with smartphones, social media, and so much going on, we need to take at least 20 minutes every day to do some form of reflective practice. I’ve meditated for the last 41 years, but there are many other ways to have a reflective practice. It can be through prayer, keeping a journal, sitting in a quiet place and reflecting, or going for a long walk, to name a few. And finally, I would add the importance of getting honest feedback from people you trust so you can understand how you are interacting with other people and the impact you are having on them.

Most ISyE graduates end up in leadership positions of one kind or another. What advice can you offer them on how to become the best leaders they can aspire to be?

BILL: Find an environment that is nourishing, and then jump in and ask for leadership opportunities. Get into a leadership role as soon as possible. Don’t wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder. Start leading where you are with your peers, and become that informal leader who makes things happen. Executives are always looking for people like that who show promise. And just as important, learn how to collaborate with your teammates because this is an essential skill in leadership.

I recently learned that you have both a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old mentor. Could you speak to having such young mentors, and to the importance of being a mentor as well as a mentee throughout life?

BILL: I believe in reverse mentoring. That means having mentors that are considerably younger than you are who can help you understand the younger generation/employees. My 30-year- old mentor helps me with all my social media. He also worked with me on my newest book, Discover Your True North. My 20-year-old mentor is a young man from Harvard. He and I have worked together for a little over a year, and I have learned a lot about millennials from him. I also have a couple dozen millennial mentees, but to have someone mentor me on digital media and to learn the hopes, dreams, and passions of millennials has given me a deeper understanding of this generation.

Penny, integrative health is one focus of the George Family Foundation. What is it about this area that captured your attention?

PENNY: I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996. It was through this personal experience that I became interested in different approaches to healing. At that time in medicine, the focus was on the disease and the body part. As I went through the process, I thought that seemed misguided. We come into a disease state, as with anything else, as a whole human being— connected in mind, body, and spirit. Not to acknowledge that we can call on all those resources to heal seemed shortsighted to me. I realized I needed to do something. I’m a doctor’s kid, and I’m accustomed to taking responsibility for myself. Something contributed to me getting cancer — it did not just come out of the blue. What could I do to prevent this from potentially coming back again? And if I couldn’t prevent it, how could I make my life such that I could feel that this life was a good one, and the illness served me in some way?

Those were my personal objectives as I went through my own healing process which included assembling a team of healing professionals — what was referred to then as alternative approaches. Now it is referred to as integrative medicine. People don’t want just traditional medicine or just the alternative approaches, they want the best of both. They want the integrative approach — something that would give you the chance to have optimal wellness and well-being.

My family was loaded with cancer, but no one had ever talked to me in my medical appointments about what could be done to prevent it because people did not believe you could. Now we know 80 percent of cancer is largely preventable; it is lifestyle related. That is the gist of how I became so passionate about integrative health care.

What is one key area of health care that you hope will receive attention in the next two to five years, and why?

PENNY: I would like to see health care institutions partner with individuals/patients wherever they are in their health journey and start focusing on the benefits of self-care, which is the true primary care. What we do for ourselves is just as important as what the health care system has to offer. Medicine certainly has something to offer, but the primary thing is what we are doing for ourselves to live optimally.

Is self-care the same as preventive care?

PENNY: In medicine, preventive care is getting the colonoscopy, mammogram, etc. It’s more about looking for disease. My notion of self-care is all those things that an individual can do for themselves — eating well, exercising, reducing stress. For example, if someone has gastrointestinal issues, what if the first approach was to try an elimination diet as they waited to come in for their appointment to see if their diet was causing inflammation — instead of going in for an appointment and being prescribed pharmaceuticals without further investigation into why?

As Greg Plotnikoff, one of my heroes in integrative medicine, said, “Fundamentals first, pharmaceuticals second.” Don’t go straight to a drug; figure out what is going on underneath first. We are too quick to jump to drugs. The worst case of this is the opioid epidemic in the country.

What word of advice can you offer to our students and young alumni who are heading into the world of health care?

PENNY: I would encourage them to consider researching integrative medicine and health and the challenges this poses for the current system. Our health care is moving in that direction already. We need to find optimal ways for a team-based approach that looks at the whole person to work in today’s system. Also, consider researching how we introduce a shift in consciousness so the patient/individual steps up and starts practicing self-care.

As part of your philanthropic endeavors, you have funded an endowed chair position in the Stewart School of ISyE, as well as student fellowships. Why?

BILL: I think the next big frontier for ISyE lies in health care. By applying systems theory and application to the U.S. health care system, Georgia Tech can make breakthroughs in the health care delivery system and in improving patient outcomes more efficiently.

Pinar Keskinocak is the perfect leader to hold the William W. George Chair in Health Systems. She is a real star, and we are fortunate to have her at Georgia Tech and particularly in ISyE. She really knows how to take an operations research and management science approach and apply it to health and humanitarian systems. This is exactly what is needed in the area of health care, and we are so pleased to support her work. We have an enormous opportunity at Georgia Tech to do breakthrough work in the field of health. I hope other alumni will continue to support these kinds of activities so we can make Georgia Tech a global leader in the health systems approach.

PENNY: The student fellowships we support enable ISyE students to work on these difficult health care challenges with Pinar and her team. We are thrilled to be associated with that and putting some wind under their wings.

Sheereen Brown (BSIE 12, MSHS 14) and Monica Villarreal (Ph.D. IE 15) were both George Fellows. Villarreal helped develop a workforce allocation tool that enables developing countries to deploy their health care workers in the most optimal manner. Brown is now working with the Task Force for Global Health to implement it in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. What is it like hearing about some of the students you have supported?

BILL: They have done some amazing work. We need more health care workers in the developing world to come up with approaches to get and maintain health care workers in these areas.

Someone told me once that I get a vicarious pleasure from the accomplishment of others, and indeed I do. It is a great pleasure to hear what our graduates are doing and to read about this kind of work. It inspires me to work with more of them. But I hope it also inspires younger students to work on projects that can make a difference in the world as well.

You also have funded the William W. George Family International Study Abroad Scholarships at the Institute level. What motivated you to make this gift, and what do you think the impact is on the students who go abroad as a result of to your generosity?

BILL: Many Tech undergrads cannot afford to participate in study abroad programs, which would open their eyes to the world and broaden their education. That’s why we created the William W. George International Study Abroad Scholarships to enable 50-plus Tech students to travel and study abroad each year. Meeting with them each year after they return and hearing their stories brings home just how transformative these experiences are in their lives.

If you had a crystal ball in which you could see the future, what problems do you think industrial engineers will be working on five to 10 years from now?

BILL: The future in solving any problem will be collaborative, bringing in people across disciplinary lines. We need to look at problems from a systems point of view. The great thinkers of the world will be systems thinkers. We are in great need of that systems mentality. Health care, in particular, is crying out for a systems approach. The Stewart School of ISyE is uniquely positioned to bring this capability of systems thinking into the health care arena. Health care is one of the most pressing challenges we have.

Speed Round

What are you currently reading?

PENNY: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodward.

BILL: The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self by Karissa Thacker.

What is one of the best meals you’ve ever had?

BILL: Enjoying a grilled leg of lamb, some vegetables, and wine with friends while sitting in our garden overlooking the lake and watching the full moon come up. This was the perfect evening and a perfect meal.

PENNY: I had a seafood stew the other night at Chimborazo, an Ecuadorian restaurant in Minneapolis, and it was just wonderful.

What is one of your favorite travel spots?

PENNY: Africa. I love going to Africa. The first time I traveled to Africa was 1967. I went with my parents on a photographic safari to Uganda and Kenya. Seeing the vast plain and the herd of animals was something that blew my mind.

BILL: I have many favorite travel spots. If I had to say one, I would say going to Colorado where we have a second home and go hiking in the mountains. The most challenging and rugged hike is Mount of the Holy Cross, which is just over 14,000 feet, and a very spiritual place for me.

What is your favorite leisure activity?

BILL: It would be a tie among skiing, hiking, and horseback riding.

PENNY: Horseback riding in wide open spaces.

Describe a perfect Sunday morning.

PENNY: Reading the New York Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune with a latte, and then going to church.

BILL: A perfect Sunday morning would be going for a walk around the lake by our house, reading the New York Times, and then going to church for a nice service with beautiful music and spiritual uplift.

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  • Bill and Penny George

    Bill and Penny George

For More Information Contact

Shelley Wunder-Smith

Stewart School of Industrial & Systems Engineering

404.385.4745