Thinkers50 in 50 Seconds: Alex Hill

Alex Hill (@profalexhill) is the co-founder and director of The Centre for High Performance (a collaboration between senior faculty at the Universities of Oxford and Kingston) dedicated to helping high-performing organizations to develop a stronger and more robust UK economy, society and environment. The Centre has worked with organizations including British Boxing, Eton College, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Shakespeare Company, NASA and the New Zealand All Blacks. He was coauthor of the influential 2016 HBR article “How to turn round a failing school”.

What book are you currently reading?

I try to learn from people who can understand complex problems — and explain them in a simple, memorable way to others. So, I ask myself, “Who’s challenging, engaging and inspiring the world?” And then try to learn from them.

Books are one way to do this – but, other mediums are also important. I’m currently working my way through Stephen Hawking’s “Pocket Universe” app. It’s a great example of how to explain a complex problem, to a new audience – using a different medium.

How do you describe what you do?

Science shows we can learn more about water by studying ice and steam – than studying water itself. And, I think the same is true for people and organisations. We can learn more by studying the outliers – success or failure – than the bit in the middle.

That’s why we set up the Centre for High Performance. To study the outliers – and use these insights to help develop a stronger and more robust UK economy, society and environment.

Who or what is your biggest inspiration?

My family, my wife and my children are a constant inspiration for everything I do. They give it meaning and purpose. I’ve also had – and still have – some incredible mentors, who’ve provided constant challenge and support throughout my life.

But, my biggest inspiration is London – the city I’ve lived in, for the last 20 years. It’s a melting pot of ideas, cultures and opportunities. Constantly challenging, adapting and evolving. 

What does success look like?

I know it’s a cliche, but I believe happiness is the one thing we should all strive for. The challenge is working out how to do this! And, realising the answer changes over time.

Some people want to help the world – but, others just want to help their friends and family. Both make people happy, and are vital for society.

What is your competitive advantage?

I worked in industry for 10 years, before becoming an academic. When I made the move across, I thought to myself, “How can I help the world? What can I add?”

I decided that my interests, passions and experiences made me different from anyone else. They made me, me.

So, I tried to find a way to harness my love of the arts, business, education, science and sport. And, my desire to help people in the frontline – who are constantly trying to improve things.

The Centre for High Performance seemed the best way to do this. To help develop high performing organisations – who can transform our society, economy and environment.

How do you keep your thinking fresh?

I went to a lecture by the art director George Lois, a few years ago – and he talked about the importance of continually exposing yourself to new things. I try to do this as much as possible – visit new places, and make time to reflect on what I’ve seen, or heard.

The research we’ve conducted at the Centre over the last 7 years has given us access to some amazing people and organisations. People who are at the forefront of what they do – and ones in trouble, trying to turn things around.

Both are equally challenging and inspiring.

How much time do you spend travelling?

Too much! I’ve worked with some great people and organisations all over the world. And, it’s the true test of your ideas. As you find out: Do people like them? Can they use them? Do they help them?

But, you can’t spend all your time sharing ideas – you need to develop new ones too. The real breakthroughs come from trying to fix tomorrow’s problems, not today’s.

What is the secret of a great presentation?

That it creates impact! It’s not sufficient to simply change how someone thinks – you need to change how they behave too.

I find it useful to think about what people shouldn’t do – as well as what they should. To help them remove the distractions that get in the way.

And tell a good story, so they can remember your ideas and use them later on.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

First, work out who you want to help – and how you want to help them. I decided I wanted to help people in the frontline perform better.

Second, take your time – to learn your craft. I spent 10 years in the frontline – managing teams and organisations – to understand its challenges and opportunities. Then, 10 years in academia learning to teach, research and write. Before setting up the Centre for High Performance. This gave me time to learn my craft – before working out what to do with it.

And third, work out who to ignore – to make time for the things that really matter. You can’t, and shouldn’t try, to do everything – if you want to do something.

What is your next goal?

We’re currently working on two major projects at the Centre for High Performance.

The first, looks at how to turn around a failing school – and we’re working on a third article with Harvard Business Review looking at ‘How to become a transformational school leader.’

The second, looks at how to outperform your competitors for over 100 years – and we’re hoping to publish the model we’ve developed later this year.

After that, who knows! It’s been an organic process so far, and will – I’m sure – continue to be in the future.

Describe yourself in three words.


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