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Thinkers50 in 50 Seconds: Dave Ulrich

All 50 Second Q&As

Dave Ulrich, shortlisted for the Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award, is short but never snappy in a quick fire interview.

What book are you currently reading?

I don’t really read books, I read authors.

I often read fun authors for escape and for passing treadmill time (Lee Child, John Sanford, Jonathan Kellerman, John Grisham, Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, and so forth).

I read thought leaders for ideas … Gary Hamel, Ed Lawler, Henry Mintzberg, Lynda Gratton, Roger Martin, Ram Charan, and so forth.

I read scripture for personal renewal.

Do you describe yourself as a thinker?

I probably would describe myself more as a learner than thinker. I like the tag line for our Organization Learning Capability book — “Ideas with impact” — which captures a passion for learning that delivers value.

Who or what is your biggest inspiration?

My dad taught me to be the best I can be. My mother taught me to serve others by her example. My wife teaches me to be aware of how my intent should match my behavior and to invest in relationships. Our kids and grandkids teach me to play more and obsess less.

What does success look like?

A lot of people judge success by creating value for themselves. I try to judge success by creating value for others. And also remembering to charge my cell phone at night, do my 10,000 steps a day, and remember what city I am in when I wake up in the morning.

What is your next goal?

To observe what others don’t see.

To simplify complex problems.

To learn from mistakes.

To serve someone else each day

To renew myself through even with a bad diet and well intended exercise.

When did you last say ‘Eureka!’!?

My word is “whowser” and I said it when I heard we had a new grandchild coming!

Why is the Thinkers50 important to you?

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If we have ideas, but no one uses them or finds value in them, do they matter? Thinkers50 is a validation that ideas are at least heard by and maybe help others.

What is your competitive advantage?

When young, I read the Agony and the Ecstasy and realized that Michelangelo’s success was partly genius and insight and partly longevity. Now that I am older, I hope I have enough grit and passion for continued learning that gives me a little insight for what is next.

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Committed to learning, service, adding value, and trouble counting to three.

How do you keep your thinking fresh?

I keep it in the refrigerator. Just kidding. I try to …

  • Think big by observing and asking unanswerable questions
  • Test small by experimenting, never doing the same talk twice, and changing at least 25% of my ideas every year
  • Fail fast by being brutally honest about what works and what does not
  • Learn always by pondering and improving

How do you divide your time?


How much time do you spend travelling?

Too much.

What is the secret of a great presentation?

A great presentation solves problems of others more than telling them what I know.

A great presentation is one that someone remembers a week (or at least 24 hours) later.

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

Don’t go where you don’t want to go.

Ponder and find your answer to the questions: What do I want? Whom do I serve? How do I build?

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