Cathie Anderson

Cathie Anderson: Fortune 500 execs look to Colfax High alum for inspiration

Cathie Anderson
Cathie Anderson

Best-selling author and thought leader Peter Sims regularly advises key personnel at Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon and General Electric, but Monday found him back home speaking to students at his alma mater, rural Colfax High School.

“I was just at Symantec the other day,” Sims said. “They were bringing together their product developers from all around the world. They want them to think differently. They want to be doing more experimentation, more innovation, so they wanted someone to come in to help them with new ideas, new insights. That’s what I really get paid for – insights and inspiration.”

Sims, 38, is the author of “Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries,” a book that explains through empirical data, neurological research and plenty of real-life examples why it’s crucial to start small when you’re undertaking creative work. Sims interviewed or observed the work of comedian Chris Rock, architect Frank Gehry, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and dozens of others whose successes or failures taught them how to experiment.

Although Sims is hired to inspire these days, he told me that there was a time in his life when he needed the inspiration. He had been an academic and athletic success in the tiny pond at Colfax High, leading the tennis team to a section championship, helping his Nordic ski team win a state title and finishing as valedictorian. But when it came time for the college entrance exam, Sims’ scores were too low to get into the colleges that his parents had attended: Third District Court of Appeal Judge Rick Sims, now retired, went to Amherst College for his undergraduate degree; mom, Gigi Sims, to UC Berkeley.

Sims did get a nod from a top 10 liberal arts school, Bowdoin College, where his SAT scores didn’t matter as much. In the midst of his freshman year, however, he wondered whether he could do the one thing his father had asked of him: “Just don’t fail out.” Students talked differently there. They didn’t get his jokes. They even walked faster than he did. And, academically, Sims said, “I was getting my butt kicked.”

When spring break rolled around in 1995, a disheartened Sims received an unexpected invitation from family friends, journalists Tim Russert and Maureen Orth, who asked him to come visit them at their homes in New York and Washington. Russert invited Sims to come and watch him tape an episode of “Meet the Press.” Afterward, Russert gave him a lift to the train station and asked him how school was going. Sims unloaded, and Russert listened. When the storm was over, the Buffalo, N.Y., native gave Sims a bit of advice that had been passed to him by Sen. Daniel Moynihan: “Just remember this: What they know, you can learn. What you know, they can never learn.”

It stopped Sims in his tracks, he said, because he felt to his core that Moynihan and Russert were right. His classmates might have taken SAT prep courses or attended summer enrichment camps, he said, but at the end of the day, what really mattered in life is what mattered in Colfax: character, authenticity, empathy. In his talk with students at Colfax, Sims told them these are the traits they’ll need to roll with life’s challenges. He also told them not to fear failure.

That portion of his talk left an impression on Colfax High senior Sarah Bianchi, 17: “He talked about how you need to fail a lot in order to succeed. At Starbucks, they originally had no chairs. They played nonstop Italian opera, and their menu was mostly in Italian. Obviously, that didn’t fly too well in America, but they learned, and now everywhere there’s a Starbucks. It’s a great franchise. That was a great point to hear, knowing that you have to fail, that it’s good to fail because then you learn how to succeed.”

Sims said the values he learned in Colfax gave him the grounding to turn things around at Bowdoin. He honed his analytical thinking and his writing style, winning the praise of his professors. His classmates elected him as president in his senior year. He served on several committees with the board of trustees.

“If there was an issue that needed to get done at Bowdoin, they came to me,” Sims said. “I could push it and get it done. I had learned so much about how the community of Bowdoin worked and how the ecosystem of Bowdoin worked.”

After leaving Bowdoin, he went into venture capital and helped Summit Partners establish its European office in London, Sims said, but he didn’t find a sense of meaning in the work. Later, while pursuing his master’s degree in business administration at Stanford University, he discovered his true calling as he worked with other students to develop a class on leadership values. While researching the class, he met Harvard University professor Bill George, the former CEO and chairman of Medtronic. George so appreciated Sims’ observations and analysis that he asked him to collaborate with him on a follow-up to his bestseller, “Authentic Leadership.”

Together, they wrote “True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership,” based on more than 125 interviews with business leaders. After completing that project, Sims found he was in demand on the lecture circuit, and then “Little Bets” cemented his role as an adviser to business teams. His books even get good reviews from Colfax High students like Bianchi.