Gillian Zoe Segal:

020 – Innovative Thinking and What We Can Learn From The Worlds Greatest Entrepreneurs with Gillian Zoe Segal

Gillian Zoe Segal:

020 – Innovative Thinking and What We Can Learn From The Worlds Greatest Entrepreneurs with Gillian Zoe Segal

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Gillian Zoe Segal is the author of Getting There: A Book of Mentors. In the book, Gillian interviews incredibly successful entrepreneurs, mentors and people like Warren Buffett, to discover their secrets to success and innovative thinking. On today’s show, she discusses some of the insights into the lives of these successful and driven people and talks on what truly makes them tick.

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Gillian Zoe Segal is the author of Getting There: A Book of Mentors. In the book, Gillian interviews incredibly successful entrepreneurs, mentors and people like Warren Buffett, to discover their secrets to success and innovative thinking. On today’s show, she discusses some of the insights into the lives of these successful and driven people and talks on what truly makes them tick.

Gillian Zoe Segal

Gillian Zoe Segal is the author of “GETTING THERE: A Book of Mentors” and “New York Characters.” In GETTING THERE, thirty leaders in diverse fields share their secrets to navigating the rocky road to success. In an honest, direct, and engaging way, these role models describe the obstacles they faced, the setbacks they endured, and the vital lessons they learned. They dispense not only essential and practical career advice, but also priceless wisdom applicable to life in general. Getting There is for everyone—from students contemplating their futures to the vast majority of us facing challenges or seeking to reach our potential.

What Was Covered

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Welcome to the Innovation Ecosystem podcast. Today’s guest, Gillian Zoe Segal is the author of “Getting There“, a book of mentors in which 30 leaders in diverse fields, many of whom are household names around the world, share their secrets to innovative thinking and navigating the rocky road to the top. One review by Robert Kaplan of Harvard Business School, wrote that the book helps clarify many of the key challenges you must face in building a successful professional life. She’s spoken at companies like Google, LexisNexis and Royal Bank of Scotland of Canada, and written for Fortune. Forbes, and Business Insider, amongst others. So welcome to the show, Gillian.

Thank you so much for having me.

So Gillian, I’m curious. What led you to spend five years of your life on this book?

Growing up, I never really had a mentor, and I always used to look at highly successful people, and wonder, how did he figure his career path out, what sort of innovative thinking do they do, and what does she have that other people don’t have, and that kind of thing. So one day, I just decided to do a book and that would be a good excuse to ask these highly successful people everything I was curious about knowing.

As you went into it and got into it, what were your assumptions that turned out to be completely wrong, if indeed there were any?

One thing that I realized is that you really do not need to know where you’re headed when you start out. You have to just start doing something and then keep your eyes open for new opportunities and to not be rigid. So a lot of people had no idea where they were headed, but they just had some innovative thinking and the right mindset.

How would you characterize that innovative thinking and mindset?

To be fluid and open to change.

There’s a lot of fantastic stories of people in the book. Any that really resonate to making that point, to illustrate that point on innovative thinking about being fluid and ready for change?

There are so many. There are so many. Almost everybody has one of those stories. So Les Moonves who’s the president and the CEO of CBS, he wanted to be an actor, and he eventually realized that he didn’t really have what it took to get to the top, and so he realized that he would be better off on the other side of the camera. He was able to rise to the top. So sometimes you’re going for something and it’s not the right fit, so Warren Buffett explains that knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to focus on. So you have to have this innovative thinking to  sort of know your strengths and weaknesses and go for something that’s within your circle of competence, as he puts it.

Right. So you mentioned a couple of folks. I was gonna ask you a question around in the book there’s a mixture of sort of entrepreneurs like Sara Blakely, like Laird Hamilton. Then there’s also the executives like Warren and Les Moonves. I’m interested. Do you see any difference between these types of, these groups of individuals in terms of how they built out their businesses in their careers and had innovative thinking? Or do they take a very similar approach?

I think they all have a very similar approach. I think that everybody in my book is an entrepreneur, whether you wanna call them that or an intrapreneur. They all have innovative thinking. They’re all leaders and trailblazers, whether they’re doing it within a company or whether it’s their own company, but they are all blazing new trails.

Interesting. So when you say blazing new trails, I guess, at the heart of that is innovation and innovative thinking. They are changing how they do things, they’re developing new products, they’re looking at the world differently. Your background you’ve been a lawyer but you also went into this, and your first book was a photographic book, so you’re clearly a creative individual. So what struck you about how innovation really happens on this, Gillian?

Well, I think that one of the key elements of innovative thinking is knowing that just because something has been done one way for years, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to do it, and it doesn’t mean that another way won’t work. Everybody in my book questions things, they question everything, and they don’t blindly follow others. They think on their own, and I think that’s essential for success and for innovation.

Warren is someone who a lot of people know about his story and his success. What does that look like for Warren in terms of questioning and challenging? Any examples from your conversation with him or your research into how he did it?

He doesn’t think that big groups of people are ever going to make such a great decision. So meaning, if you ask for everyone’s consensus before you make an investment, you’re not going to have the best track record. He has to think on his own, and he might decide that he wants to buy a company that other people didn’t want to, but he has to sort of follow his gut and that’s how he’s been able to rise above what everybody else is doing.

Interesting. So one of our mutual friends, Guy Spier has a very similar approach I think, doesn’t he? Which is one of the reasons why he relocated from New York to Zurich.

Yes. He really admires Warren Buffett and he sort of lives his life in a similar way. So Warren is not a herd follower and so much so that he doesn’t live in anywhere near the herd in his field. He doesn’t live near New York and he’s out in Nebraska.

Yeah but once year of course the herd comes to him doesn’t it?

Yes, so here I’m going to read you something that he says from the book. He says, “An important quality in my field is emotional stability. You have to be able to think independently. If I take a poll on every investment decision I make, I’m going to be doing exactly what everyone else is, and I usually don’t think much of that. As your company gets larger and you have larger groups making decisions, the decisions get more homogenized. I don’t think you’ll ever get a brilliant investment decision out of a large committee. I must have a temperament that lets me think for myself. When I come to a conclusion, I can’t be bothered if others disagree with me. That’s tough for a lot of people, but as long as I feel that I know the facts, I’m okay with it.” So that sums it up for Warren Buffett.

So one of the things that reading through a number of these essays of the mentors that struck me is the kind of the role of serendipity and of good fortune combined with innovative thinking. There’s a few in here which just to call out. Bloomberg talks about this wonderful quote from Warren Buffett about, 80 percent of success in life is showing up. Sara Blakely, she tried on some white trousers and had the epiphany to cut off the pantyhose, which for those of us who speak English English, if you like, these are tights. Jim Koch, he discovered a load of old beer recipes in his attic, and then went on to found that fantastic business. So how important do you think is luck in success?

I think luck is out there, but I don’t think any of those examples that you just gave were luck. I think of couple of things. I think number one, the harder you work the luckier you get. I didn’t make that up. That’s a saying, but I believe in it.

I think it’s a golfer. He says “The more I practice, the luckier I get”, which is very true.

Innovative thinking comes from practice not luck.

So the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get. The more you put yourselves out there, the more good opportunities you might notice. Calling Sara Blakely trying on the white trousers luck isn’t true, because how many other women have put on the white trousers? People are doing that all day long. So it’s not luck. She sort of spent a lifetime preparing herself for her success. She actually talks about that in getting there. She was selling fax machines door-to-door for eight years, and that helped get her immune to the word ‘no’, which is important in any business, because no matter what you do, things aren’t always gonna go your way. If you let yourself get derailed when something doesn’t go your way, you’re in trouble, because no matter what it is.

When Warren Buffett started out, there were people who didn’t put their money with him. There are people who didn’t invest in every successful company. So basically she spent a lot of time doing a lot of things. She talks about all the different little things in her essay, but preparing herself for the time when she finally had her aha idea, she was prepared to see it through in a way that many people wouldn’t be.

This idea of getting immune to the word ‘no’, I mean, resilience you talk about. It’s a huge theme in the lives of many of your subjects and I guess it’s also a theme in terms of how you created the book, because you got a lot of people who said no, and you were pretty immune to that by the end. I suppose I’m curious. Where do you think this kind of resilience comes from for your mentors but also for you, because you exhibit it in the process of creating this book.

Number one, it’s good to consciously know that resilience is key for success and that everyone is going to fail, everybody is going to get rejected, but the trick is to get yourself to stand back up when that happens. Try again or learn from your mistake and try something new. Now I could give you many, many, many examples from by book of people who failed and failed and then were success. Every single person in my book has failed at things and then gotten themselves back up but it is a lot easier to do this if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing if you really believe in it. So if you’re doing something, if you’re pursuing something ’cause you think you should or whatever, just for the money. You’re going to have a hard time getting yourself back up when you fall, but if you’re passionate about it, it’s a lot easier. It’s never easy, but it’s a lot easier.

So with my book, I loved the material I was getting from each of my subjects, and I was so into it that if someone said they didn’t like one of the essays I would think “Oh my god you’re crazy!” I can’t imagine anyone not liking this. So I was so into it, I was so sure that people would love the book. I was so sure that everybody in the book would be happy that they had said yes to me, that I had the fuel to keep on going and to pursue people for five years, and put up a lot of rejections and a lot of times where it would be very easy to say I’m just going to get in bed and never get up.

You were able to tap into this kind of this core sense of passion and purpose that what you’re doing was creating something that would have be of value essentially.

Yes. I was passionate about what I was doing. I knew I was going to do it well. It was within my circle of competence. So I knew that each person who is in it would be happy with the end-product, and that readers would really benefit from it. So that’s what I felt. So no matter what your business is, if you’re creating a product or providing a service, whatever it is, you’ve got to really sort of believe in it.

One of my subjects, John Paul DeJoria. He’s a billionaire. He’s a cofounder of the Patrón Spirits Company and John Paul Mitchell hair systems, that he says that when he is selling anything, it needs to be something where he really thinks that he’s helping people if they buy it, like whether be a shampoo or helping them discover the best tequila. It doesn’t really need to be healthy, but he thinks like “Try this, you’re gonna thank me for it.”

So it’s essentially I don’t know where I heard it but it means sales the sales process being a transfer of enthusiasm essentially.

Yeah, so it’s important to really be enthusiastic. If you’re selling a shampoo that you don’t even love, then you’re not going to be the best sales person, but if you could say, “You have to try this, it is the best shampoo ever!” Don’t you want that shampoo?

A lot of our audience are either people in large organizations struggling to make stuff happen, to have an impact beyond their role if you like or of increase in the people thinking about do they want to, what do they want, people starting out in their career, if you like. What would you say to those sorts of individuals? What advice would you give if they would to look to you, Gillian, as their mentor? What would be the couple of things that you’d say are actually fundamental that they need to do as they start on this journey of making a change or building that professional career, if you like?

Okay. I’ll run through a few, a few of the best advice I’ve got on innovative thinking. So understand your circle of competence. So basically, focus on what you do best. Know what you’re good at, know what you’re not good at. So we’ve already discussed that, but if you’re not a numbers person, don’t do something where you got to be crunching numbers all the time. You’ve gotta know. The guy who’s the dean of Harvard Business School was trying to be an engineer, and he really wasn’t great at it, and he eventually accepted that and moved into a less quantitative field and rose right to the top.

For those who are just starting out, if they don’t have that level of self-awareness about their technical skills, I love this quote from this woman Kathy, who gave a commencement speech about making a backup disk. Let me read it because it’s really based on that, “Take the classes of friends and the family that have inspired you the most. Save them in your permanent memory and make a backup disk. When you remember what you loved, you will remember who you are. If you remember who you are, you can do anything.”

Yes, that sort of put me on the course of getting into photography, which led to my first book which was more photography-oriented. Then that led to my “Getting There” book which is a lot more text-oriented, even though I did photograph each of the subjects.

That was the first piece of advice but I interrupted you. What’s the next piece?

Innovative thinking requires you to take the bull by the horns.

Okay, so you understand your circle of competence, then harness your passions. Do something that you’re passionate about. Be fluid and open to change, so don’t be stuck in one way because the world changes, opportunities changes, so keep your eyes open. You’ve got to create your own opportunities. So no-one in my book waited around for someone to recognize a talent in them and offer them a break. So it would be great if the world worked that way but unfortunately, it rarely does. So if you want something, you’ve got to figure out a way to make it happen. You’ve got to take the bull by the horns.

A great example of that is Anderson Cooper. He couldn’t even get an entry-level job at any of the major networks. He ended up as a fact checker. I don’t want to spend too much time telling his story but it’s a great story. He finally had to quit his job as a fact checker and borrowed a friend’s video camera and went overseas to shoot stories by himself. He lived on 5 dollars a day and that’s how he showed the world that he could be on-air, because no one was gonna come up to the fact checker and say, “We think you should be on-air”. That’s like a Cinderella story that rarely happens.

So, question everything; we already discussed that. Don’t blindly follow others. Think outside the box. A huge one in terms of innovative thinking is don’t let the fear of failure deter you. I love this quote. It’s from Kathy Ireland who was She started out as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and as she was getting older, she wanted to do something that wasn’t dependent on her looks. So she’d tried for years at starting her own brand in sales, for years. She tried it all these different things. Finally, she hit it with a pair of socks, and now she runs a 2-billion-dollar enterprise. So here’s the quote. She says, “If you never fail, it means you’re not trying hard enough.” So next time when you’re doing whatever it is, your entrepreneurial venture or intrapreneurial venture, whatever it is, and if something you tried doesn’t work, give yourself a pat on the back and say, “I’m doing my job; I’m trying.” Then get up.

Trying and failing is part of innovative thinking.

This is what I’m saying to my kids when they’re in ski camp. I said, “If you’re not falling over, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Exactly. I said that to a kid last night actually who had skied for the first time and he was saying that he fell. I said, “If you are not falling you’re not learning.” You’ve got to.

Yeah, and I think in an organization, I used to get in trouble when I was running my team. I used to say to people, “If you don’t wanna quit, at least once a month, you’re not trying hard enough.” That’s the challenge of innovating in a large organization is the resistance can be overwhelming. So having that innovative thinking mindset of just doing whatever it takes, actually does make a it’s a bit of a game-changer,in many respects.

Yes, and that’s my best advice on innovative thinking.

Okay, it’s pretty good stuff. So in terms of mindset, I was struck by your great story of meeting with Warren Buffett or being with the same room with him and trying to figure out how you’re gonna get close to him. You essentially I’m putting words in your mouth here a little bit, Gillian, but I guess you ask yourself the question what would Sara do, right? I mean you —

Yes. I channeled Sara Blakely, and I said to myself, in order to get myself to go over to him when I really wasn’t supposed to. I wasn’t supposed to go propose something but I said, “Sara would never let him leave this building without going up to him.” Then I went right up and asked him to be in my book, and he said yes, and it’s had a huge impact on my life. That’s how I know the guy because I’ve sort of stayed in touch with Warren and met a lot of incredible people through going to some events of his.

So I’m curious because you talk about the subtitle of the book is a book of mentors. Do any of the 30, would they consider themselves as your mentor or would you or vice versa or have you..

 Vice versa? Like am I their mentor? [laughs]

Would you consider them as their mentor?

It’s called a “Book of Mentors” because they’re virtual mentors for everybody, and I have kept in touch with a number of them, but calling them – I don’t think I’d formally call anybody, my mentor, but I have kept in touch with them, several of the people in my book. That’s really nice and they continue to inspire me.

Because a lot of the lessons are a lifelong and they’re enduring, so I guess yeah, now I can understand that. The book came out last year. If you’re gonna start the book again, so start this five year journey again although it’d probably be much shorter now, ’cause you know how to do it? Is there anyone else who you would put in the book as or you’d like to include who wasn’t on your radar screen six or seven years ago?

There’s like a lot of people who could be in the book. There’s no one who might needed to have in the book, because I think that once you get sort of a critical mass, you’ve got all the bases covered. If I kept going on and on, it would get repetitive. So I tried to keep it not so repetitive, but I wish I had more women in the book. That’s a challenge. There wasn’t as big of a pool to pick from, to fish from or whatever. Not like I got to pick, but I would have loved to have more women in the book.

Yeah. Okay. Just changing gears a little bit, Gillian. You do some speaking on innovative thinking. So as we said at the intro, you’ve spoken at companies like Google, Royal Bank of Canada, LexisNexis. What kind of topics do you get called in to talk about, and I suppose more importantly, what really resonates in individuals in these, these are very large organizations? Not, all of them. I’m just interested in what do you talk to them about, what resonates, and what kind of conversation are you having with them as a result of your stories to them?

It depends on the group of people. There’s a lot in my book. I also speak at schools and different things so it depends on the group of people. I’ve spoke to sales forces, so I focus on one thing on innovative thinking. If I’m speaking to people who are just beginning their career there’s another focus, but in general, I’ll run through the main themes that I’ve come across in the book. A lot of that was in the advice that I gave earlier. I’ll tell specific stories of different people, but it depends who the group is. The biggest question I get asked or the most common question that I get asked is how did I get all these people to participate in the book, because it’s not easy? Basically, the answer to that is it took a lot of polite persistence, not taking no for an answer. I say when I was approaching somebody, I would say, “If the front door is locked, I’m gonna try the back door. If that is locked, I’ll try the side door. If that doesn’t work let me try climbing in a window.”

So basically I would have to try different avenues, because every single person out there has gatekeepers whose job it is to bounce you. I’m not Oprah calling to do an interview. I was pretty much a no-name, so I had to be persistent without being totally annoying, to get my foot in the door.

Yeah. Today, one of the beauties of this project of yours is that you understand how one of the characteristics of these individuals. This is also about proximity isn’t it? Surrounding yourself with people, what is it, the expression? If you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room. How does that look in your life today? Do you still continue to do this and connect with these kinds of individuals? If so, why do you do it?

Okay, back to Warren Buffett, who I just love. He says, “One of the best things you can do in life is to surround yourself with people who are better than you are, high-grade people. You’ll end up behaving more like them and they in-turn would get it back from you.” It’s like a planetary system. If you hang around with people who behave worse than you, pretty soon you’ll start being pulled in that direction. That’s just the way it seems to work. Who you choose to associate with matters. So I love that theory. It’s good for everybody to know at any age or stage in your life. So I continually try to hang out with people who I admire.

Brilliant. In our last conversation you said you’re going back to Omaha, but you also had a clash with an event I think called The Happy Conference in Portugal. What have you decided to do, Gillian?

Yes I’m going to Omaha.

Okay. Its hard to trump, so The Happy Conference.


Beginning to wrap this up on innovative thinking, I sent through a couple of questions for you. The first one Gillian is what are your morning rituals?

I like to check out the news as soon as I check my phone. I get my daughter out the door. I read some news and I like to exercise.

Excellent. Great. Second question, what have you changed your mind about recently?

That is a tough question. One of the big realizations during the book, and if I could call that recently, is that you really don’t have to know where you’re going. It’s the idea of just being fluid and open to change, because I sort of thought at one point that you had to know a lot more in the beginning where you wanted to be headed. Some people are lucky enough to know that, but very few people are. Most people sort of learn as they go along and have a fluid path.

Yup. Okay. That was a big insight from this journey. The risk of this question being duplicative. but what advice would you have for 25-year-old self?

Okay. I will not duplicate anything I’ve said. I think a big problem that people run into and it’s something I personally have run into is getting knocked off course at the early stages of some kind of a business idea. In her getting there, as Sara Blakely says that it’s best to keep your young idea secret from anyone who can’t directly help it move forward. She explains that because ideas are the most vulnerable, the moment you have them. When you hear discouraging remarks early on, it will take you off course.

Right when you have an idea that’s when you’re sort of tempted to talk to your friends and family and say what about this? It’s so easy for people to say why anything won’t work, why Facebook won’t work or the internet won’t work or whatever it is. Why send an email if you could just make a phone call? Whatever it is, so I think I would remind myself to stay focused if I believe in something and not let all the naysayers out there affect me.

Good advice. Yup. Okay. I’m curious. What are you working on now? Having done this book which was clearly a big undertaking, how do you take the lessons in innovative thinking because you started off this to understand what courage rise courage arises these kinds of people. You’ve got the lessons from an extraordinary group of individuals. What are you doing with them? What’s your next project?

So they’ve inspired me to do something entrepreneurial, and I’m working on several things, three actually, three things right now. I’ll have to keep this secret as Sara Blakely says. You can’t read getting there and then not want to sort of shoot for the stars and harness your passions and that kind of a thing.

When are you going to start sharing some of these projects? Is it imminent or are we is it a case of-

No, it could be imminent.

Okay, but clearly you’ve got your you’re obviously passionate about them, and you’re harnessing all the lessons in service of these projects.


Great. So where can people get in touch with you, Gillian?

The best way is LinkedIn. If you have a photo, I’ll accept you and then you could message me or, is an email address.

So Gillian, it’s been a great pleasure having you on the show to talk about innovative thinking. I’m sorry we’re not going to be able to meet this time round in Omaha, but perhaps next time. I’m sure our audience enjoyed it as much as I did, and thanks very much for your time today.

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Innovative thinking illustration based on Segal’s book: Getting There.

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