Nothing Is Impossible

October 16, 2001

Presentation Summary

A speech to Waikato University Management School. What do you believe in? What will you never do? Advice from the edge on business as a career choice. Six fast tracks into the engine room of human progress – a world where nothing is impossible.

Nothing Is Impossible

Choices. We face them everyday.

The number one choice you face in life is to figure out who you are. What do you stand for?

Remember – if you stand for nothing you fall for everything.

What do you believe in? What will you never do? These are questions for you, and only you to figure out.

I am here to help you figure out the next most important choice, the choice about what comes next; that choice is about whether you want to be the best you can be, or whether you want to be average.

Being average can get really boring later on. Being the best you can be, in your mind not in anybody else’s, is a cool thing. It means you don’t get frustrated, you don’t get bitter, you don’t get cynical and you don’t get jealous.

If you know you’re giving it all you can give it feels great. No-one can ask for more. You feel upbeat, positive, optimistic and seriously happy. I’ve wanted to be the best I can be ever since I was a kid. I chose business as my vehicle to express myself so that’s what I’ll be talking about today.

Not bullshit theory just personal experience. My comments are geared for those of you who are embarking on the journey your teachers and parents optimistically call your career.

To me Bill Shankly, the ex-Manager of Liverpool Football Club summed it up when he said: “football’s not a matter of life and death; it’s much more important than that” – so I’m not talking about your career; it’s much more important than that.

A fundamental truth I’ve lived and breathed all my life is that the only limits people face are the limits they impose on themselves.

I believed this growing up poor in a small working class town in the North of England, living in a council house sharing a bedroom with my brother, no money, no options, surrounded by petty violence and poverty.

I still believe this now living in somewhat more salubrious circumstances in Auckland – at least I have my own room now!

When I was 11 I won a scholarship to Lancaster Royal Grammar School; the other kids laughed at me when I told them that I’d be a millionaire by the time I was thirty.

I’m going back to my old school next month for the first time in 35 years to be guest speaker at their prize giving.

How cool is that!

The one critical thing to have is attitude. It cuts you loose. I’m not just talking about a positive attitude. I’m talking about an off the edge, heart-soaring, world-changing attitude.

I’m talking about an uncut belief that nothing is impossible – a belief in who you really are and what you really can achieve. I know that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things.

At Saatchi & Saatchi, the nothing is impossible spirit has burned as an inspirational torch for over 25 years.

We believe in one team one dream; we live nothing is impossible. It’s hardwired into our business and our people.

The ‘nothing is impossible’ spirit fires our unswerving purpose to transform our client’s brands and reputations through world changing creative ideas. Whatever the obstacles. Whatever the setbacks.

A certain rugby gladiator from around these parts is a walking metaphor for nothing is impossible. He should be the chrome-dome talking to you tonight – not me.

The nothing is impossible spirit is my overarching message. It underpins everything I say tonight and everything I’ll ever do in the future.

I hope you’re here because you’re interested in business. Forget the cynics. Business is important.

The role of business in my mind is to make the world a better place for everyone – creating wealth, prosperity, jobs and choices. If you believe that, you’re in the right place. Business is a fantastic career choice. It gets you into the engine room of human progress.

Ideas fuel that engine – always have – from the industrial to the information revolution – from the wheel to the silicon chip – ideas have been the true currency of success. Everyone has them. The successful people are the ones who act on them.

We’re in the transformation revolution. The information revolution is over. We’re saturated with the stuff. The only competitive advantage left is sorting out the valuable information from the dross.

What matters from here on in is what we do with information. How we use ideas to innovate and create value. This is the greatest imaginable challenge New Zealand faces – to turn a poor performing business sector into a peak performing business sector.

Big business in New Zealand has destroyed over 50 billion dollars of economic value over the last 20 years. The challenge for your generation is to haul that 50 billion in.

The great thing about a career in business is that it gives you the positioning and the resources to influence the big picture – to shape it – and if you believe nothing is impossible, to reconfigure it.

New Zealand’s future will be built on entrepreneurial talent. In geo-sporting terms, we’re located round the back of the scrum.

What this country needs is a new breed of world-class management half backs – nimble, bold, super-innovative kiwis who take on international markets from the blind side.

Our challenge is to drive off our agricultural production base with innovative export-dedicated ideas. Export or bust. Export or we fall off the productivity radar. It’s that simple. It feels great saying that here in the heartland of the New Zealand export economy.

The people spearheading the New Zealand renaissance are young and dynamic like you. There’s a new generation of leaders in the frame – Craig Norgate, Chris Liddell, Theresa Gattung, Lloyd Morrison are just a few. I’d add John Mitchell to this list.

These innovators are your career reference point. They’ve come from where you are now. They’re today’s leaders. You’re tomorrow’s.

You’re the people who hold the key to the future. Doubly so since September 11.

I was 1000 meters north of the twin towers when the terrorists struck. The terror in America has moved all of us into uncharted territory.

Overnight, the world has become a smaller and more complex place. Many people are afraid. Togetherness is the new order. Family has new meaning. Consumers everywhere are looking for security. They’re seeking the familiar. They’re reaching out for emotional connections.

This is the new business landscape we occupy. It’s a place of great challenge and enormous opportunity for young business minds. By choosing business, you’ve got yourself a stake in the big game.

Knowing what field you want to pursue is the first step. Deciding where to pursue it is the second. It’s an important decision.

I’m associated with two world-class universities – Cambridge University Judge Institute of Management in England and the Waikato Management School.

Here in the southern hemisphere, I’m with this management school because it takes on the world from the same place that New Zealand needs to – the edge.

The edge is exciting. It’s where the action is. You can see things clearer out here on the margins and react faster.

People who catapult to the top are edge-driven. They’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things – people who believe that nothing is impossible.

I’ve helped create a website around the New Zealand edge concept. Check us out at

It’s the edge vision that earned the Waikato Management School the title: Harvard of the Southern Hemisphere. Those words last year from the British Daily Telegraph.

Waikato Management School drove off the edge over quarter of a century ago when it offered the first four-year Bachelor of Management degree in the country.

The degree’s fourth year practical investigation – the 499 – and its Harvard-style case studies have won the Management school an international reputation.

Wherever you meet people in the world who’ve done the 499 you sit up and take notice. The BMS is enormously respected.

I’ll talk a little more about the Waikato Management School edge – but I’d like to do it in the context of six ideas that’ll get you from 0 to 100 while the high rollers are still idling on the starting grid.

Idea No.1 is figure out your inspirational dream and get on with it. Dreams let you play your wildcard. They take you higher.

At Saatchi & Saatchi, our inspirational dream is to be revered as the hothouse for world-changing creative ideas. We’re chasing it down.

The inspirational dream of NZ Edge is to win the world from the edge.

Your dream could be anything from being the head of a biotech company to a world-class number cruncher to an inspirational teacher to being CEO of the biggest company in New Zealand.

A friend of mine who did the BMS here at Waikato realised that dream. She believed nothing is impossible and followed her dream. Theresa Gattung, Telecom CEO.

Idea No.2 is recruit a mentor. People are heart-driven. We need heroes to inspire us – successful people we can model ourselves on.

Identify one you think is awesome, one whose values you love, one who inspires you – then use all your ideas, your imagination and your unique personality to persuade theme to mentor you!

New Zealand has heroes from all walks of life – ordinary people who’ve changed the world doing extraordinary things.

From suffragette Kate Sheppard and atom man Ernest Rutherford through to Lucy Lawless and Peter Jackson.

You’ll find a host of New Zealand heroes on the nzedge website.

New Zealand business heroes emerge from the engine room of the economy – small and medium businesses.

Hamilton inventor and innovator Peter Witehira is an inspirational example. Peter dreamed the impossible and then built it – from a self-watering pot plant and the never-run-flat battery to the Actual Depth double-skinned 3-D display screen.

His attitude rocks. He’s taken the knocks. He’s experienced failure. And he’s always come back with something bigger. Somewhere along the way he must have had a mentor!

Idea No. 3 is pursue failure. The world is a tough place.

You’re going to need emotional stamina to stay on course.

You need to be very clear about who you want to be and what you want to achieve.

Above all take risks. Caution is a killer. Fear strangles ideas. Experience failure and bounce back harder and smarter. Failure is the ultimate reality check. Be in over your head. Don’t be afraid to lose because then and only then will you know what you’re made of.

I’ve always pursued failure. When I took over as CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi I was 47 years old and I’d never worked in advertising before.

Pursuing failure is an integral part of success. The most successful people in the world pursue and experience failure.

Idea No. 4 is learn to unlearn.
 Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. That’s why a brilliant question is better than a good answer – it transports you to the brilliant answer.

Waikato Management School understands this well. It doesn’t teach people. It involves them. By challenging every assumption – by asking dumb as well as smart questions – people learn. They become big thinkers.

My job is to ask big questions. The No.1 requirement of my organisation is to be original. That calls for unlearning every single day. I’m responsible for unlearning 7000 people in 92 countries on the planet – 7000 people who believe nothing is impossible.

Bob Jones has an angle on unlearning. He recently called for more philosophy and arts students – insisting that philosophers can actually think.

Waikato flips that coin. We develop management minds that can do philosophy. Below doctorate level, we don’t teach philosophy. We perform it through critical conversation.

I tell you, if Aristotle were alive today, he’d have a talk show.
At Waikato, we’d prefer you turn up in roller blades and ray bans than a pinstripe if it helps you think around corners.

Idea No. 5 is reinvent yourself. Constantly! Forget job security. Forget job descriptions. Those days are toast. In fast-changing turbulent environments, companies need people who can reinvent themselves on a daily basis.

Reinvention takes you to the cutting edge of business service.

It involves fantastic anticipation and visualisation of stakeholder and client needs.

It enables you to exceed all expectations and to win enormous respect. That’s why women are excelling like never before.

Business scenarios are increasingly complex, fluid and ambiguous. Multi-tasking, intuition and emotional connections are in. Jobs for the staunch heavies are out.

To reinvent yourself, you need to integrate and cross-fertilise knowledge streams in the mind – another reason I’m associated with Waikato Management School.

The School’s inter-disciplinary approach to management delivers the most comprehensive management learning opportunities in New Zealand.

This university was set up on a liberal American arts model that was radical and controversial for its time. To this day the University has been true to its dream of offering a wide range of courses and formats.

Management, economics, tourism, number crunching, law, communications, electronic commerce – you pick your combination.

If you want, you can expand your horizons with languages or other disciplines.

Theresa Gattung did – she got a double major in economics and marketing and threw politics and Japanese into the mix.

The university’s longtime liberal approach to integrated learning is a winner.

Idea No.6 is commit to Peak Performance.
 What is Peak Performance? Peak Performance is a cultural framework for sustained success in organisations.

I helped develop the theory of Peak Performance with my colleagues Mike Pratt, Clive Gilson and Ed Weymes here at the Waikato Management School.

I teach Peak Performance at Cambridge. It’s now being taught at the very highest levels of global companies like Procter & Gamble and Toyota.

Peak Performance outstrips all the tiresome management orthodoxies that lacerate my soul: restructuring; reengineering; centralising; decentralising – the endless -ing list.

It’s relevant to you because the core of peak performance is the commitment to surpass past achievements – even when you’ve reached the top.

Rob Waddell is one of our peak performers. He graduated in 1998 with a BMS. Rob got first class honours with a double major in marketing and Japanese.

The key to Peak Performance is inspiration.

If you want to build your business to Peak Performance, you’re going to have to be an inspirational player.

You’re going to have to give a damn when others give up.

Be open to inspiration. It’s the great motivator. It mainlines into your human potential.

Cultivate inspiration and you can achieve Peak Performance.

Forget management – doing things right, forget leadership – doing the right things – it’s all about inspiration. Inspiring everyone to be the best they can be!

I believe you’ll find here at Waikato the inspiration you need to be the best you can be.

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