The University of Texas at Austin
  • On leadership: A Q&A with Roy Spence

    By Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
    Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
    Published: Nov. 3, 2010
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    The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Leadership Lecture Series will feature Roy Spence, co-founder and chairman of GSD&M Idea City and co-founder and CEO of The Purpose Institute. On Nov. 4, Spence will discuss his purpose-based leadership philosophy and what businesses can do to survive the “economic winter.”

    Q: Give us a preview of what your Leadership Lecture Series will be about?

    A: I’ve been on this journey since attending The University of Texas at Austin when I met my partners of 40 years. I got on this journey of purpose and didn’t even know I was on it. I’m going to share examples of the stories and lessons learned on the road to purpose since my time at The University of Texas at Austin. I’ll include stories of the leadership of Sam Walton, Herb Kelleher, Bill Clinton and all the amazing people I’ve worked with in the trenches.

    Q: In your new book, “It’s Not What You Sell. It’s What You Stand For,” you say that companies with a purpose beyond making money are the companies with the best products. Why is that?

    A: Jim Collins, who wrote the best-selling books “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” first made the premise that the companies with a purpose beyond making money will make more money. Consumers want to do business with people who share their values and their purpose.

    When the economic winter is over and the spring comes, I think the survivors and thrivers are going to be those whose whole purpose is the life improvement business. The CEO of Proctor & Gamble, the largest company of consumer products in the world, said they are not going to have any brand in their portfolio that doesn’t improve people’s lives. They are in the child development business. Every time you buy a package of Pampers, P&G will give a tetanus shot to a woman in any part of the world so her babies will be healthy. I think the ones who are really going to thrive in the next 20 years are the ones who really understand purpose.

    Q: Given that there is so much negativity surrounding talk of today’s leaders, does the term “leader” itself need a rebranding?

    A: Actually, I think we need a re-purposing. I think that we have to get people, especially those in politics, out of the re-election business and into the business of making a difference for the common good. We need to get back and celebrate the purpose of this country and why we exist on this earth. Purpose is nothing more than what Aristotle said: “Where your talent and the needs of the world intersect, therein lies your purpose.” So do what you love to do, and use your talents. This is not a dress rehearsal. This thing is called life. You might as well follow your dreams and passion and be kind to one another at the same time.

    Q: What is the difference between a manager and a leader?

    A: A true visionary leader can see the mountaintop and not necessarily know how to get up it. A manager -– if not led by a visionary — will climb all the wrong mountains perfectly. So you have to marry the doers and dreamers, the leaders and the managers. They both have their roles. Leaders need awesome managers, and managers need visionary leaders who can articulate the vision and the dream. In my business, I say put the doers and the dreamers together and get the in-betweeners out of the way.

    Q: Is there one thing that has happened over the course of your career that has been a game changer in terms of developing your leadership philosophy?

    A: I would say starting my business while in school at The University of Texas at Austin. I ended up in the creative, marketing, advertising and communications business, and I took no courses in those fields. I was a liberal arts major. But all of the original partners, including me, wanted to do film, we wanted to stay in Austin, we wanted to stay together and we wanted to make a difference. I think the biggest impact on my life besides my family was that we believed what Walt Disney thought, “If you can dream it you should be able to do it.” I think my life-changing influence was that The University of Texas at Austin gave me a level playing field and the chance to be all that I can be with my partners.

    Roy Spence will be the fourth speaker in the Leadership Lecture Series on Nov. 4 from 12:15-1:15 p.m. in Bass Lecture Hall, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, 2315 Red River St.

    Learn more about this and other Leadership Lecture Series events.

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