Episode 368 – Centennials with Professor Alex Hill

Alex Hill‘What you leave behind is what you write… no one talks about the article that changed their life, and they’re not read for decades after they’ve been written. [Books are] foundational.’

Working at the intersection of research and application, Professor Alex Hill has learned that it’s not enough to have the ‘Ta Dah’ moment – you then need to have a good answer to the ‘So What?’ question. In this thoughtful conversation we talk about the principles of organizations that endure, the importance of naming ideas (and how to help people NOT misinterpret them), and the life-changing significance of finding out what it is you want to leave behind. 



Alex’s site: https://www.professoralexhill.com/

Radically Traditional site: https://www.radicallytraditional.org/

Alex on Twitter: https://twitter.com/profalexhill

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

Power Up Your Writing workshop at Gladstone’s Library: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/power-up-your-writing-workshop-tickets-600773689277

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I am here today with Professor Alex Hill, who is the co-founder and director of the Center for High Performance, which is dedicated to helping high performing organizations develop a stronger and more robust economy, society, and environment. He’s also a Professor at Kingston University, Educator at Duke Corporate Education and Visiting Professor at several international institutions and, more pertinently for this podcast, he’s the author of Centennials: The 12 habits of great enduring organizations.

So first of all, welcome Alex and congratulations on the new book.

Alex Hill: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me. Lovely to see you. Lovely be here.

Alison Jones: Very good to have you here and I particularly, let’s just start with the title because it’s a very resonant sort of august-sounding title, isn’t it? Centennials. Tell us a little bit about where it came from and what your sort of thinking was about longevity and its relevance today.

Alex Hill: Yes, I mean, I think the challenge of every researcher or writer is that your work is far more interesting to you than the reader. So how do you engage the reader, you know, and also you find this because, I obviously teach as well as research and write. So often you present your ideas in a classroom and the things that you think are really fascinating and really interesting, just sort of, you know, the tumbleweed goes through.

And then things which you just think are kind of almost like a throwaway comment, everyone seizes and grabs. And what you realize is sort of what gets played back to you. So when you have a cup of coffee particularly when you are sort of working with execs or senior leaders, is when you grab a cup of coffee and, just the words that come back to you. Or you ask them to actually go away and think about the work and then how it applies to what they do in their lives, and then present it back and the words that they use.

And so it’s always fascinating to see what comes back. And what you realize is that it has to be very simple. And it has to be sticky, it has to be memorable and some things stick and some things don’t. So I think it’s always the challenge when you do a big piece of work is you sort of go for a drink with your friends or you hang out and I’m not really friends with academics that’s not really my social circle. I love academia and I love research, but they’re not the people I hang out with.

So, they’re always like, okay, this is great. I know you’ve done like 13 years of research, but what’s the one thing I need to do differently? And so you are sort of being forced to distil and condense it down, which can be frustrating.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Alex Hill: But equally you start to realize that ultimately for your ideas to spread, people have to like them and engage with them. But they also have to be able to tell them to other people. And so you have to give them names. We did a piece of work that was running in parallel to this, that was around failing schools and how do you improve a failing school.

And we were given access to 160 schools, which we then tracked for eight years, and there was just over 400 leaders of those schools and we sort of tracked what they did, what they believed, and what ultimately the impact was. And had to come up with a typology because you have to, and then had to give them names because it’s the name that sticks and, you know, we had…

Alison Jones: You’re giving people a way of speaking about these issues. Yes, it makes complete sense.

Alex Hill: Completely. And so we come up with five names and then we got to present our work on Newsnight and they just picked three of the names, and then the articles that were written about our work picked two of the names. And then often when you talk to people, one of the names appears, you know, so everyone’s kind of reducing your work, and so you have to realize that that will happen.

Alison Jones: Can I just ask you, if I’d said that to you, if I’d said only one of these five will really gain traction, would you have guessed the right one?

Alex Hill: Well, there were two that were very obvious, so there are three that were really interesting. There were two that were very obvious. So we talked about the difference between architects, who ultimately believe that a school fails because it doesn’t serve its community. So they essentially redesign it and rebuild it, and they are in it for the long term. They’re in it for developing something that will serve future generations.

Alison Jones: They’re building the cathedral.

Alex Hill: Yes, exactly. So there is an element of design, there is an element of permanence.

And I must, you know, these names, I spent many sleepless nights waking up in the middle of the night, writing on bits of paper, falling back to sleep, you know, et cetera.

And there were lots of names, which you then test out with different people, and you kind of, it takes several months to get the names, you realize.

Alison Jones: And your point right at the beginning about how these things are emergent, and you can’t tell yourself from the research which are the things that are going to land: you have to work it out in conversation, when people see the relevance to their lives, their organizations.

Alex Hill: Yes, completely. And so we compared architects with surgeons. So surgeons come in and cut, and what happens is they get an immediate impact. And worryingly, you know, in our study, 30% of them got knighted for their services for education. But the way they improve the school is they get rid of kids basically. And you see it drop.

So, but it’s very precise and it’s what they do, and they believe that it’s the right thing for the school because the school does improve quickly and then they leave and they kind of ride off and help another school. So I mean, very much like you get in business actually.

Alison Jones: Troubleshooters.

Alex Hill: Yes, exactly. And they are shocked, surprised when the schools fail after they leave. You know, go back to where they were, because nothing’s changed. And what’s fascinating is sometimes the school will even get them back again.

Alison Jones: Of course, because while you were here, it was great. Yes. Yes

Alex Hill: So… and then the most common leader we found talked a good game but didn’t do anything. And we called them philosophers.

So they were the three that kind of got picked up, but then the whole debate became architects versus surgeons. And I guess that kind of is obvious. Although I did, because I’ve realized you do have to follow your work on Twitter to be aware of the conversations that are happening. They haven’t always been positive. And I did the other day, someone said, what was that thing about dentists? So even then, you know…

Alison Jones: …rather than surgeons.

Alex Hill: So it not always gets… but I think what you realize, because I have had this experience, is people misinterpret your work and it’s very easy to get upset with them for doing that.

But actually you sort of need to help them not misinterpret your work. So I think, you know, the Centennials is a challenge because sometimes people think Millennials, I’m stumbling over that one. So they think, you know, Generation Z, but actually its much more common use is to describe something that’s a hundred years old, or a celebration of a hundred years.

But again, you know, it took a long time to find that word and you kind of, I think what you ideally hope for is that you introduce a word that does have meaning and a deeper meaning, but is maybe not one that’s fully understood and then we give meaning to the word.

Alison Jones: Like a brownfield site to build on.

Alex Hill: Exactly. You know, I mean, I always think it’s like when you, I mean, we all do it.

We all take a lot of time to work out what to call our children, but ultimately the name becomes our child, that, they’re inseparable. So actually it doesn’t matter in many ways, long term, what name we give them because the child brings the name meaning, and hopefully your work brings the meaning to the word, but what you…

 I mean, it was lovely. I remember with that work around schools, my brother called me one night and said, well, I was out for dinner and suddenly everyone started talking about architects and surgeons. So, that’s what you hope, you hope that your work, your ideas spread.

And I guess you have to make a decision who you are writing for and who’s your audience. But for me, I’m not really writing for academics, that’s not of interest to me. I’m writing for people who are in the front line and who are running organizations or having to make difficult decisions.

And they’re very short of time and you need to give them sort of nice parcels of ideas and words that they kind of stick to, that they can then be talked about hopefully and spread.

Alison Jones: And the word carries the deeper concept, you hope, along with it. The thing that really struck me about Centennials, so you’re looking at organizations, not businesses in most cases actually, but organizations with real longevity and you’re doing a kind of ground-up assessment of: what are the elements of that and what can businesses learn from that?

It’s very Jim Collins and Good to Great and Built to Last and those sorts of things. So, and you explicitly address the kind of the different ways that you can draw lessons from, case studies, from looking at performance, from data. I’d love to just interrogate that a little bit because it’s obviously very much in your mind as you were doing it, as was Jim Collins.

So tell us about the context in which you put all that together.

Alex Hill: Yes, so I got halfway through my life. I hit 40. I followed in my dad’s footsteps. So I spent the first 10 years running companies and then moved into academia and then have since always worked with companies as well as being in academics. So, I’m from practice and I spend most of my time still in practice.

You know, I love the university but I see my role as to go out and find ideas and bring them back. So for me, and there’s lots of different ways of doing research for lots of different academics, but for me, the ideas come from sort of absorbing myself in practice. So hanging out with people, watching, observing, seeing, thinking, and then the ideas come and then you sort of extract yourself and try and make sense of what you found.


Alison Jones: The whole cycle writ large, isn’t it?

Alex Hill: Yes, it is, but it doesn’t often start with a theory. It starts with practice and that’s different.

Alison Jones: Which is very different from the academic sort of hypothesis, and then you go and test it, which is the scientific method, isn’t it?

Alex Hill: Yes, it is, and I think it comes from the fact that I worked in practice first. So my motivation always was to try and help the people that I’d kind of worked with, that were my community, my tribe, whatever you want to say, but realized that it’s so full on when you work in a really high performing environment because you know, high performance is high stress.

That’s the one thing that you realize, whether it’s the military, it’s surgery, it’s the arts, it’s sports or whatever, the one common thread is that the impact of your decisions matters. So if you get it right, it’s significant. If you get it wrong, it’s significant and that brings a level of stress with it.

So, actually, when you are working in that environment where time is often tight and you’re having to make decisions and you’re feeling stressed and your brain’s doing weird things, how do you make the right decisions and how do you make good decisions and how do you ultimately get better? So, my motivation really is to help people in those moments by helping them realize that actually there’s a pattern, that those moments aren’t just unique. And there’s a pattern through the moments they’ll experience. But there’s also a pattern in those moments in lots of different contexts and lots of different environments. So, come from practice, went into academia, sort of basically learned how to research and write and teach. And then sort of went, okay, I’m halfway through, I’ve hit 40, what do I want to leave behind?

And my dad has always asked me those sorts of questions. You know, he’s always said remember what you leave behind is what you write, okay? So that was something he said a lot. You know, you can teach and have a really brilliant impact on people in the moment, but your impact is quite limited. You know, you can only teach so many people at once. And often it’s in the moment and not all of it is retained or used, et cetera.

So, whereas a book, and again, this is sort of where I’m slightly non-academic, articles I think are short term. I think that they are great for stimulating ideas, but no one talks about the article that changed their life and they’re not read for decades after they’ve been written. And they’re not as foundational in the same way as books are.

So what do you want to leave behind? And I realized that actually I love being around people who are performing at a high level whether it’s making a meal in a kitchen, or whether it’s performing sport or acting or music or science or medicine or whatever it is, people who love performing at a really high level, and around that time so, this is something I’ve found is that as soon as you know the question you want to answer, the world helps you answer it. That’s my experience.

Alison Jones: I’m sure there’s some good neurology behind that as well. In terms of your, was it reticular activation system or whatever it is, you start noticing things and you start, because you’re talking about it, people talk back to you and opportunities open up.

Alex Hill: Exactly and it’s the power of a good question, you realize.

And so I sort of started to, a friend of mine at the time was working with the coaches of the Olympic teams and it was sort of mid-cycle before the London Games. So it was sort of around 2010 ish. And he said there’s something really interesting going on at UK Sport, that funds the Olympic teams, shall we see if we can find out what it is.

And at this point you’re kind of grappling, I don’t really know, I know that I’m interested in high performance. I don’t really know what I’m interested in about it. But that environment seems interesting. The Olympics seem interesting because that’s obviously, you know, pushing and trying to develop and we met a guy called Peter Keen.

So Peter started the transformation of British Cycling. He was the original psychologist who worked with Chris Boardman and had got the original, spotted the lottery money was coming, wrote the first business plan, sort of set cycling on its path. And then UK Sports said, look, could you come and replicate what you’ve done in cycling with our other teams?

And he, incredibly thoughtful person, very nervous, very unassuming, the kind of person that everyone in UK Sport knows, but the rest of the world doesn’t know. You know, you sort of often find that in these incredible organizations, the real person behind the organization is very humble. And actually just like the architects in our school’s work, was it one architect said to me once, you know, nobody should notice when I leave the room and that sort of humility. But anyway, we had a day with Peter and he just talked through his entire journey and he went to this huge whiteboard and wrote Cult at one end and then wrote Sustainable System at the other end. And he just said, too many of our sports are cults.

They’re too reliant on one or two individuals, and if they leave, what will happen? So I said, well…

Alison Jones: …oh, that moment, schools, businesses,

Alex Hill: Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Alex Hill: And it was sort of, oh, that’s interesting. And then, and I said, you know, well what does keep you awake at night? And he said, well, is it sustainable? We’ve done some brilliant work. And I said, well, who could you learn from? And he’s like, the arts, they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. And so that was the moment when it was like, okay, actually, what I think would be really interesting is how do you create something that is sustainable, that doesn’t just last for a long time, but can perform at a high level for a long time and can sort of revitalize, rejuvenate, et cetera, itself as you go along. So that really, I guess was when it suddenly went, okay, that’s interesting.

And I then spoke to everyone I could think of who I respect, and I just said, who do you think has sustained their success for a long time? And sort of gathered together all of those views, people who sort of work in this area you know, who’s interesting, who do you think we could learn from?

And then sort of distilled that down. Now, the challenge was that no one said a business. So that was, you know, interesting.

Alison Jones: Interesting in itself. Yes.

Alex Hill: Yes, and actually it was the Royal Shakespeare Company, it was the Olympic teams, it was NASA, it was the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. It was you know, Eton School, it was these sort of, you know, it was actually different areas and then, sort of said, well, why is that? And then started to dig deeper into the research around business and then discovered that they are dying earlier and earlier. And so that was okay. So that’s interesting. They are dying earlier and earlier. Often the ones that have been around for a long time aren’t that inspirational. You know, they’re sort of old, but maybe not, you don’t think of them as being really cutting edge still.

But when you move into other environments and other sort of walks of life, you do get this sort of, you know, long old and cutting edge and that’s interesting. So it was incredibly sort of, you know, you’re stumbling from one thing to next and I just guessed people’s email addresses. So, you know this organization looks interesting, what might their email address be? Let’s send it a few times until it stops bouncing.

Alison Jones: I love that.

Alex Hill: You know, and then again,

Alison Jones: The journalistic streak in you.

Alex Hill: And the power of the good question.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Alex Hill: And what was fascinating…

Alison Jones: … and you’re engaged in something which is interesting to them, why would they not want to talk to you about this? Yes.

Alex Hill: Yes, and you know, we had a pretty good hit rate, to be honest. I think there was one or two that said we’re very busy. But like, you know, the All Blacks, the CEO responded in 15 minutes and went, ‘This sounds interesting’.

Alison Jones: Exactly.

Alex Hill: So that was a really, coming back to your point earlier, that power of that question and then suddenly people are engaging with you and then you’re like, oh, maybe I’m onto something here.

Alison Jones: And I’m so conscious of the time, but I want to talk about writing as well, but I guess I’m going to do it with the question, knowing about the question, I mean, you have that interesting mix of academia and business expertise. You are writing, with all that academic background, but you’re writing very clearly for a business audience.

What one tip would you give someone who is sitting down to write a business book, who’s at the beginning of the journey that you’ve just finished?

Alex Hill: So I think you do need to work out who you’re writing for. I know that’s pretty obvious. But most academics write for academics. And I’m not interested in that. I think they’re sort of well served by other academics and I think what they do is great. But I’m writing for people who are short of time. Who, generally, I think business people do read quite a lot of books. I remember a brilliant leader I once worked with, he just said, they’re cheap ideas. He goes, it’s £20. If I get one idea for 20 quid, that’s great.


Alison Jones: …just, the £20 isn’t the spend, the spend is your time isn’t it, your attention, isn’t it? Those

are much more scarce resources.

Alex Hill: Exactly. Yes, very good points.

So, you are writing for people who are short of time, who make quick judgements and who will judge your work quite quickly. And I think often what needs to be there is a framework that sits underneath that’s incredibly robust, but you never really show that off.

You know, that kind of just sits underneath quietly and then you have to ultimately find some really interesting stories and that’s a journey in itself. So I think most academics find an idea and publish it and think, okay, it’s done, now I’ll move on to next thing.

If you want to write for practice, business, whatever, that’s step one. And then the question is, okay, how do I write for my audience? And that’s a whole other journey. I mean, I think the ideas in the book, it took probably three to four years to then bring them to life.

Alison Jones: I think you could almost call those steps the sort of the Ta Dah and the So What, couldn’t you? The Ta Dah is a sort of necessary, but not a sufficient condition for someone to actually be able to use it in practice.

Alex Hill: Yes, and I guess for me, as an academic, I’m always trying to rip apart my story. So you are telling a story that you hope is interesting. And again, you find out pretty quickly when you try and tell that story verbally to someone else, you know, whether it’s interesting or not. And friends are great for that because you know,

Alison Jones: They’ll tell you.

Alex Hill: They’ll tell you and you’ll lose them super fast if it’s not or you’ll stumble over it, as you try to tell it, it becomes confusing, so you realize.

But then what I always wanted to go, okay, well what is the neuroscience beneath that? Or what is the psychology beneath that? Or what is the, can I find a data set of thousands that actually explains that?

Alison Jones: That it’s not just anecdotal.

Alex Hill: Yes, and then you sort of move between the two, because the story, I think you have to be able to understand and explain the story so it makes sense. But then you jump to the bigger thousands sample that sits beneath and say, well, what is really going on here? What is happening? And then you jump back to the story with that new knowledge and rewrite it.

But each chapter was a process of finding probably four or five key stories and then you are looking for patterns between them and often it is the failures that shine the light on the success. You know, it’s the absence of something that is more compelling and I think when you tell those stories to others, the failures are often what convinces them a lot more than the success. So…

Alison Jones: The negative data.

Alex Hill: Yes, completely. And also it is the feeling of, you know, human nature. That ultimately we are trying to protect our children, avoid risks, stop bad things happening. So I think you become more alert when you think, oh, maybe this could all go wrong.

Alison Jones: I also always ask my guests, as you know, and I know you’ve been dreading this, to recommend a book that they think everybody should read. Now you’re not allowed to recommend Centennials, obviously. What would you recommend to listeners?

Alex Hill: So yes, I don’t know the answer to this. I think, can I give two answers please?

Alison Jones: Only if you do it briefly.

Alex Hill: So first answer is a book that’s full of brilliant ideas that’s incredibly ambitious, which I think every book should be, is Why Nations Fail. And I love it for its ambition. And I think that you are wrestling with a really big, interesting question and the ideas are relevant to anything failing or not failing. It could be shorter, it could be simpler, it could be more engaging, but it’s brilliant.

And then I think the second book is how do you make your books engaging. And I once remember a physicist saying to me that every academic should read Harry Potter regularly. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

And as I’ve written, as I’ve been writing, I only read simple books, now because I have younger children, I don’t know how many times I’ve read Harry Potter, or heard Stephen Fry read it to me. But there’s a lot of simplicity, you know, and when you talk to children, you realize they work in black and white, right, wrong, fast, slow, et cetera. And Harry Potter is like that. It’s very simplistic. Coming back to names, every name is thoughtfully considered, to present an idea, you know the characters. And I think that the thing I found most useful when I’m writing is to read really simple books that ultimately have sold millions because they’re simple, but their ideas are still very core and fundamental and transcend to all different environments and situations.

So I always read simple books when I’m writing and hope that it sort of translates into my writing.

Alison Jones: I love that. And that point, actually, going right back to the beginning and you know, the idea of coining a word that people can use. JK Rowling is amazing at that, isn’t she? That’s one of the reasons that there’s those, not just the names, but the spell words, the words she coins for the apparatus of the wizarding world is… they’re just fantastic. Yes.

Alex Hill: She’s created a whole world that, you know, you watch something like sort of the later ones God, my minds gone, has slipped my mind completely, the ones with Eddie Redmayne in.

Alison Jones: Oh yes. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and that kind of thing. Yes.

Alex Hill: And what you notice as soon as you start watching that film is you just slip into a world

that you know.

Alison Jones: And it’s completely consistent. You totally believe in it. Yes.

Alex Hill: It doesn’t have to be explained because I know it all immediately, and so I think again, if you want your ideas to spread, then you almost have to help the reader do that.

Alison Jones: Yes, to enter your world.

Alex Hill: Yes, completely.

Alison Jones: Brilliant, great recommendations. Genuinely, in how many years has this podcast been going now, six, seven years. The first time anybody’s ever recommended Harry Potter, and I can’t believe it’s taken this long.

Alex, it was fantastic to talk to you. Thank you so much. If people want to find out more about you, more about Centennials and the work that you do, where should they go?

Alex Hill: So I have a website, which is professoralexhill.com and that’s a good place to go, that’s got sort of like the big projects that we’ve been working on. And then we also have a website called radicallytraditional.org, which is very specifically around the sort of how do you sustain success and that has sort of tips and sort of models and self-assessments and things you can use there too.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. Well, I’ll put both those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, as always.

Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been absolutely fascinating.

Alex Hill: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Real pleasure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.