Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

The World Business Forum

I have had the great pleasure of attending the World Business Forum several times in the last few years, but due to a very hectic travel schedule, I missed this year’s event. As always, it was packed with great speakers and about 3,000 very serious business “learners.”  Of course my friend Tom Peters was there, along with Jack Welch, Jim Collins, Charlene Li, and A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble.  The last time I attended the Forum I took nearly 4 legal pads worth of notes (200+ pages) and was able to spend some quality time talking to both Tom and Jim. I learned a ton and came back with some absolutely great new ideas.

This morning I was reading Tom’s blog and noticed a post on the key themes from this year’s Forum, which I thought you might find valuable. So here is an excerpt from Dispatches from the New World of Work  at on what these incredibly talented and experienced business thinkers see as some major trends in the business world today (with some comments from me… ).


The first day of the event seemed to have an underlying theme of talent. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, asked, “How many key seats are on your bus? How many have you filled with the right people?” Carlos Brito, CEO of Anheuser-Busch InBev, offered the equation, “Great people = Great companies.” He advocated for creating a culture of owners, avoiding the “don’t be gentle, it’s a rental” mindset (you’d do things in a rental car you wouldn’t dream of in one you own). Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, put it simply and definitively: “You get the best players, you win.”

(John: If there is one topic I have been jumping up and down about for the last few years it is: TALENT. It has long been my mantra that: “The quality of your company is directly proportional to the quality of the talent you can get and keep on your team,” perhaps more elegantly captured by Carlos Brito’s equation “Great people = Great companies.” Lots of organizations say they understand that “talent” is the engine that will drive the futue of their enterprise… but I see very, very few truly put this idea into action. Question: is your company a talent magnet?)


Welch went on to say that “you have to create entrepreneurial innovators within your business.” Renee Mauborgne, coauthor of Blue Ocean Strategy, went a bit more deeply into this argument. She said, “The more we benchmark, the more we become like the competition.” And that certainly isn’t going to inspire game-changing innovation. She emphasized the importance of shifting your focus from day-to-day productivity into creativity and thinking about the future. As A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter & Gamble said, “Great innovators constantly disrupt themselves.”

(John: although I loved the book Blue Ocean Strategy, I am not in total agreement with Renee. I do agree that mindless “benchmarking” (read: copying) is a terrible idea. But I do believe strongly that you need to look at lots and lots of “best-in-class” examples and “benchmarking” (from every imaginable industry other than your’s) in order to fill your mind with the fodder that will allow you to generate brilliant, creative and unique ideas that can differentiate your organization in the marketplace. Benchmarking is not a paint-by-the-numbers exercise – it is an exceedingly challenging strategic thinking exercise – that must then lead into actual strategic planning – and then to disciplined execution.)

Lafley encouraged the audience to co-create products with their customers. Charlene Li, coauthor of Groundswell, gave a specific example of how Starbucks co-created a new customer experience (self-serve drip coffee) using social media, and despite the failure of the feature, strengthened customer relationships by including them in the process, start to finish. Steve Levitt, coauthor of Freakonomics, also highlighted the importance of experimenting. “‘I don’t know’ is the least common phrase in business today. …Try to utter that phrase at least once a day.” But he cautioned to not forget to measure the results of your experiments, as this happens all too often.

(John: all good stuff here. I am in complete agreement with Lafley and Charlene. Another core Spence-ism: “Whoever owns the voice of the customer (VOC) – owns the marketplace.” Being close enough to your customer, and listing to them intently enough to “co-create” with them… alchemy…pure gold!)


Spending two days watching such an impressive lineup of speakers provides ample opportunity for comparison and critique. What makes for the most compelling speech? Whenever Tom is asked for advice regarding speeches, he never fails to mention the importance of storytelling. Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Influencer, spoke of this outright. Cool Friend Martin Lindstrom showed the power of brand storytelling. The slides that speech-veteran former Vice President Al Gore used were almost completely text-free and only served to enhance his case for action against the devastating effects of global warming. James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, described his journeys in storytelling and the techniques he used to make stories come to life. But it was a survivor of a plane crash in the Andes, Nando Parrado, that captured the audience’s full attention and garnered the only standing ovation when he took us on his incredible journey, providing a compelling reminder of what really matters in life.

(John: absolutely, great storytelling IS the magic behind truly engaging and inspirational speakers. However, I will add a second element necessary to be a great leader: Symbol Management. This is doing small things that send a big message. For example, picking up trash in the parking lot, answering your phone on the second ring to demonstrate how important responsiveness is, staying late and getting pizza for the marketing team that is pulling an all-nighter. A simple quote sums up the meaning of “symbol management” nicely: “What you are speaks so loudly, that I cannot hear what you say.” The story MUST match the actions.)


Tom frequently asks, “If not Excellence, what?” Several of the speakers shared this message of aspiration. Vijay Govindarajan of the Tuck School of Business and Renee Mauborgne presented clear arguments for lifting your focus from the daily churn so that you can take the essential step of plotting strategy for the future. Carlos Brito used the example of a high jump when discussing leadership. He said you must set the bar high, because like athletes training for the high jump who only just make it over the bar, people will only jump as high as is required to achieve the goal. And to leave you with the words of the last speaker of the World Business Forum 2010, James Cameron said, “The biggest risk is not to be bold.”

(John: hard to argue with any of this, after all it was Tom’s “if not excellence, what?” that pretty much ignited my aspiration to run and own businesses. And although I think James Cameron’s quote is wonderful, I personally care for a slightly different version, “The biggest risk is to take no risks at all.” Hope you enjoyed this blog post and found it of value. Take good care – John)

Shelley Dolley posted this today at — to read the entire post click HERE



  1. Hi John,
    As usual some great info. The event sounds like THE place to go and learn.
    Story telling is something I struggle with a little, what stories do I have to tell?
    I have really started to pay attention each day to what has happened and make notes. You will be surprised what comes out of your day that can be interesting if you pay attention.

    Like yesterday, in this modern age, I could not transfere a large amount of money electronically (they do it on the movies…). Get this, the bank asked me to FAX my request over! Lucky I still have a fax! How absurd is that?

    Keep up the great work John.

    • johnspen says:

      Thank you so much for the comments Linda. As a professional speaker I absolutely know the value of storytelling and have a practice of specifically looking for great stories that I can add to my collection – so that I always have just the right story to make my point. I learned this from an interview I heard with the famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld. The interviewer asked Jerry how he became so incredibly funny, to which he basically replied, “I am not really that funny naturally. I simply get up every morning and during the day whatever I’ doing I keep asking myself… What is funny about this? Tying my shoes, eating breakfast, meeting with friends, making the phone call, interacting with the store clerk… What is funny about this? If you keep asking that over and over again eventually you come up with some pretty funny stuff.” So why o the same sort of thing – I keep asking myself: “where is the story in this situation? How can I use this in turn it into great story that would fit perfectly in one of my speeches?” After doing that for nearly 15 years… I have some pretty good stories!

  2. Jim Trunick says:

    Loved the report on Business World Forum. I digress a minute and say I also loved your recommendation of Tom Peters 161 Little Big Things – loved it.

    I tried to capture Tom Peters in one word, after this article and 161 – and it for me would be ……..”IT”

    Having IT… Moving IT…. Creating IT… Being IT…. Owning IT…. IT… Admitting it, revealing IT…….. sharing/supporting IT.

    People. Products, Performance. Having IT in all those metrics.

    Great synopsis and perspective of these events and books, John !!!
    please keep ’em coming !!!!!!!!!! Thank-you

  3. Tony Heath says:

    Thank you John and friends. Let’s have lunch sometime.
    A couple days ago I found, in the GN – graphic novel – section of my library, Johnny Bunko, the “last career guide you’ll ever need” by Daniel Pink.
    I carried it into my team meeting and by the next day, half of my staff had read it.
    This clever little book teaches, by story, most of the core business ideas you’ve mentioned above.
    Pretty cool. Well worth reading.
    This is not a paid advertisement. Just a coincidence.

  4. Good one John. Great read and blog.

  5. Hi John,

    Thank you once again for the practical applicable info. Occasionally, iy becomes difficult to “take your mind off of the daily churn, so that you can take the essential step of plotting strategy for the future”. Love it! Live it!

    Keep up your inspiring/important work!


  1. […] some great thoughts about a variety of topics in his work with top executives all over the world:  John and I frequent the same restaurant for breakfast when we are in town and often bounce books […]