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Interview with John Hofmeister

Learn more about John’s most popular keynote themes and how he works with you to deliver the most appropriate and useful presentation. Read the interview below.

What were some of the big lessons you learnt while working at Shell?

Several major lessons:

  1. what size and scale mean in the larger scheme of things;
  2. how time matters for systems change: political time (determined by elections) is totally inconsistent with energy time (extended through decades);
  3. how relationships of persons impact geopolitics and progress;
  4. how cultures matter in the conduct of business and politics and how little most people appreciate the importance of cultures;
  5. how the degradation of the environment and biosphere is progressing rapidly, despite the best efforts of many, but not enough, to do something meaningful to address the issues;
  6. how little trust exists in organizations and among people;
  7. how much leadership matters to integrity, consistency, commitment and direction and how fickle leadership can be among self-serving leaders;
  8. the importance of stakeholder and community awareness and participation in outcomes along with the critical importance of transparency and engagement;
  9. how important it is to turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom;
  10. the utter importance of talent, human capacity and organization coherency.

 

How did you become a public speaker?

My public speaking training began actually in high school, with four years of Speech classes, led by the same teacher who progressively stepped up the requirements for effective public speaking across the range of potential speaking possibilities.  It was then enhanced in my early professional career at GE when it was necessary for participants in the management development program of which I was a part to pass a tough, practical Effective Presentation class instructed by career communicators.  I subsequently became an instructor of the class in later years.

During my GE career it was required to get professional, studio-based instruction in media engagement and large audience speaking skills utilizing career media professionals as instructors.  As executives we were nonetheless required to take the training periodically so that skills were enhanced over time.

Upon becoming Shell Oil President in a period of public consternation regarding oil prices and much political controversy of oil company profits I re-visited the lessons learned in prior years with specific executive communications training via Edelman.  I went through extensive practice sessions for congressional testimony, Sunday morning national media talk programs, stand up appearances with media of all types: network, cable, radio and print media, and led the industry in accepting major public address speaking engagements, including visits to some 50 major U.S. cities to important and recognized venues across the nation.  Since retiring from Shell five years ago I’ve continued the outreach and engagement process, accepting upwards of 50-75 public addresses per year, along with upwards of 150+ media engagements per year over this period.  As a result my public speaking skills are both well learned and well honed, while being continuously scrutinized.

 

Can you give 3 tips for achieving success in the world of business?

  1. listen to inputs from all levels of the organization and from multiple external sources without pre-judgment while recognizing your own limitations and biases;
  2. learn how to assess talent and surround yourself with people who augment your weaknesses and strengthen your strengths while distancing yourself from cronies who flatter you with their attention;
  3. see each day as an opportunity to learn and to better satisfy your curiosity, recognizing that there is more you don’t know than you know.

 

How do you work with clients when preparing for a keynote?

  1. ask them specifically what they are attempting to accomplish as a result of the meeting they are conducting and the topic they are requesting that I address;
  2. ask for the context in which the meeting is taking place, for example, why this meeting now? Why this topic now? How does this fit in the broader scheme of things relative to their organization’s direction and purpose;
  3. ask about the audience, their interests, the demographics, the size, the opportunity for engagement with the audience before and after the speech;
  4. ask about other speakers and the topics they are addressing and also ask for a description of the entirety of the conference or set of events that are creating the audience and venue in the first place.

 

What types of changes do you hope will be made in order to protect the environment?

The 20th century energy system was primarily based upon the extraction of natural resources to produce energy, both electrons from power generation and liquid fuels for transportation.  The extraction of natural resources is fundamentally a dirty, destructive business and set of activities and the natural resources consumed are also basically dirty hydrocarbons or ultimately radioactive waste from uranium.  Throughout the 20th century there was limited understanding (initially) and prolonged lack of management of waste from the energy producing processes.  In addition there was a sense that the environment could tolerate the waste produced and that the costs of waste were negligible and pollution was free.  However over time the buildup of physical, liquid and gaseous waste has become an ever larger problem to manage and more people began to see it as unsustainable and inevitably leading the world to waste management crises.  Now we’re about there, where waste is indeed reaching crisis proportions as more of the world depends upon 20th century energy technology to power their economies and transportation systems.

So it is necessary to re-direct the energy future of the world from waste producing to waste conserving, to shift from fundamentally dirty sources to cleaner sources, and to focus on sustainability along with availability and affordability.  What is needed is a fundamental re-direct in what sources of energy we develop and how we transition to those sources from existing sources over a multi-decade time frame.  In order to make the transition we have to re-invent the governance models that determine the future of energy in the first instance.  The existing governance models around the world operate primarily to sustain the status quo, not re-direct the basics of the energy system and its needs for environmental protections.  It is unlikely that the world will suddenly embrace the re-direction I’m describing, especially when most of the world still aspires to the energy availability that the OECD countries have enjoyed for half a century.  Therefore nations must lead the way individually and set a new example for the world.  The re-direction cannot come too quickly, yet it will not happen as quickly as some would think necessary.  The best way to proceed is planfully, yet no plans exist.  This is why the governance of energy must follow the type of governance utilized for the global/national monetary systems, where legal structures exist so that fundamental decisions can be made and implemented without the dysfunction of the politics of the moment overwhelming important decisions that take time to implement.  The world is headed for environmental crisis if key nations cannot find the way to modify the governance of energy so that steps can be taken to re-direct the energy production of the future from where it is today to cleaner sources and technologically advanced systems which clean dirty energy in the process of producing energy.

 

What is your most popular keynote?

There are two major themes that I address that have attracted many audiences, including requests for return appearances.  The first theme presents the opportunity to build 21st Century prosperity by utilizing private investments to re-vamp aging 20th Century energy systems  into 21st Century systems, from the sources of energy to the technologies that produce and distribute it.  It takes trillions of dollars coming from primarily the private sector where returns on investments are meaningful and sustainable, and the economic multiplier of such investments continues to create economic value for decades.   The basic title for the talk:  “Energy is the Only Stimulus We Need.

The second major theme is the subject of my new book (in progress) called The Coherent Leader: A Leadership Framework for the 21st Century.  The talk decries the current state of global leadership in the public, corporate, and institutional sectors, where political leaders fail their constituents on the promises they make, corporate leaders are taken out of office at increasing frequency, and institutional leaders fail to grasp what it takes to build legitimacy for the future (think Catholic Church and multiple universities as well as governmental agencies led by appointees).  My point is that leadership today is still holding onto 20th century leadership models built by the major business schools, military ranks and corporate education.  They are outdated.  My talk describes seven basic building blocks for 21st Century leadership that are essential and required to reclaim and sustain leadership credibility.  The outcome of all seven building blocks working together results in Coherency, the essential requirement for 21st Century success.  The basic title for the talk: “Today’s Leadership in Crisis: the Requirement for a 21st Century Leadership Model.”

 

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