Jim Collins “Good to Great and the Social Sectors” at EDUCAUSE 2009, Denver

About this post – Jim Collins delivered an outstanding talk at the EDUCAUSE 2009 Conference in Denver, CO this morning. Here’s my humble attempt to represent some of his key ideas. If a something is in quotes, it is a direct quote from Mr Collins’ talk today.

Location: Denver, CO

Event: EDUCAUSE Annual Conference 2009

Talk: Good to Great and the Social Sectors

Speaker: Jim Collins

CIOs and information professionals are in a perfect place to identify when organizations might be falling.

To be a truly great nation, a society cannot just have a great business sector. We need great governments, police, and educational institutions. Collins uses a “deeply empirical” approach to study “the contrasts” – what makes companies go from average to great? “Why did one make that lead and the others not make that leap?” A question: Why do some public schools in poor minority/Latino communities outperform others?

“6,695 years of data” – that’s how much cumulative data Collins and his team have collected when the total number of companies plus their years of operation are taken into account.

The Five Stages of Decline: It’s not about your circumstances

If circumstances are held constant, and some companies become great while others stay average, it can’t be due to circumstances. “Greatness is a function first and foremost of conscious choice and discipline”.

Decline is largely self-inflicted. Ascent is largely self-created.

The critical question is not the difference between “business and social” but the difference between “great and good”.

“A culture of discipline” – Examples include Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and Lance Armstrong’s cycling team. These are far from mediocrity.

How do the mighty fall?

Five Stages of Decline.

Stage 1 of decline – “the hubris borne of success”.

Leadership is the “great plug variable”. We don’t understand it. So we treat it the same way we treat a poorly understood factor in a mathematical formula. Collins is, in his words, a “leadership skeptic.” The type of leadership is what matters. Consider level 5 leaders and level 4 leaders. Jim and his team found that many of the level 5 leaders were “socially adept introverts.” Signature quality: humility. What made Level Five leaders so effective was this humility combined with an utterly stoic will to do what’s right for the institution.

“What is the difference between a great CIO and a good one?” Great CIOs are effective leaders who happen to have an IT background. A true level 5 CIO would find a way to anticipate and build what the institution needs before it knows it needs it.

Jim jokes “when the going gets weird, the weird become CEO.” He offers the example of Herb Kelleher showing up on front page of a news magazine dressed in a white Elvis suit. Some of these exceptional leaders can use weird approaches to get the results the company or institution needs.

Key point: Concentrated executive power makes leadership in a business different from other environments. The power map in a university is very diffuse.

Two types of level five leadership. The type found in business environments where power is concentrated. The more common pattern in social sectors – legislative level 5. Leadership in social sectors is much more difficult. “The exercise of power Is not leading.” True leadership: when people follow but have the freedom to not follow. (The entire room got completely quiet here as if everyone was reflecting deeply.)

“The great ones fall by overreaching.” Too much adventure is a problem. How would you know if you’re overreaching. What is the signature of level 2 decline. Packard’s law (David Packard) is mentioned by Jim.

Great leaders: they got the right people in place who were self motivated. They did not spend a lot of time motivating people. Think about those who put a glossy glow and things. They lose credibility. We must confront reality. Leaders must confront reality.

The Stockdale paradox. Named after Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was in a prison camp in Vietnam for years. He never got depressed. He decided he would use it as a transforming event. But he didn’t describe himself as an optimist. Optimists were always the ones who said “we’ll be out by Christmas.” Stockdale said the optimists died of a broken heart. Effective leaders have “an utterly stoic ability to confront the brutal facts” If we say it’ll all be better by Christmas, we may die of a broken heart. And may lose the faith to prevail.

“Stage 4 – grasping for salvation” – Question is, how do you respond (at this stage)? Do you respond by getting back to disciplined ways of operating that build momentum upward again? It takes years to recover.

Jim presented 3 circles from Good to Great. They are: “Passionate about”, “Can be best in the world” and “Economic denominator”.

In the social sector, money is a means to success but not the definition of success. The output is not about money but about (in higher ed) the students served. “Disciplined action isn’t about what we do. “ How many of you have a to do list? How many have a stop doing list? You need a stop doing list. It’s about what you stop doing.

“An enduring passionately held set of vales”. In the university, freedom of inquiry is a value. Tenure is a practice.

Both parties in recent presidential election had the mantra of change. But the word change is weak and ambiguous. Those who are disciplined enough to be consistent are the best levers for change. Teach for America is an example. Does the leader of Teach for America (Wendy Kopp) change her approach from year to year? No. The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change but “chronic inconsistency”. Chronic inconsistency leads to mediocrity and failed leadership.

Blend a set of values …. To create a (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) BHAG

Jim presents a story about the great rock climber who is a friend of Jim’s. After cutting off his index finger in an accident at home, he was laying in the hospital bed and, before long, started planning his next great climbs. He would have the strongest pinky finger in the world. He accomplished some major feats after that accident.

In the audience Q&A portion of the talk, one attendee asked Jim, what keeps you motivated? Jim said “I am afflicted with the disease of curiosity.”

Another attendee asked a question about the makeup of the bus. How to get not just the right people on the bus but also get the wrong people off the bus. Jim responded that those of us who are socially adept introverts don’t really like emotional confrontation. Great leaders they studied spent about 50% of their time on the “who” issues. Maybe create a culture where those who don’t belong in your organization decide to leave on their own. Level five leaders are rigorous but not ruthless in the way they treat people. Remember: if they are the wrong person for the seat, and you don’t want to confront it, you are essentially stealing their life. Might be a “seat issue” or a “bus issue”. Key seats. The right people will fit with your core values a priori. Right people don’t need to be managed or motivated – they are self motivated. Right people understand they don’t have a job – they have responsibilities. Right people – maturity to credit things outside themselves but then also take responsibilitiy when things go bad. Right people come to work with tremendous passion for what the institution does.

One attendee asked about leading from middle management. How to do it when you’re not in charge of the big picture? Over 90% of the good to great CEOs came from inside the company. Over 2/3 of comparison companies that failed to make the leap used the “savior from outside” approach. The good to great leaders often came from “less glitzy” activities – operations, acccounting, legal. They were often shy, not charismatic. “I am going to turn this into a pocket of greatness.” The pocket grows. Could the IT function in higher ed become a pocket of greatness?

1. Do your diagnostics. Download a Good to Great diagnostic tool to assess team Socratically.

2. Disciplined people – how many seats do we have on our mini bus? What are you plans for getting to 100%?

3. Build a personal board of directors made up of people you admire for their character.

4. Get young people in your face. This new generation is very unique: we may be cultivating a level 5 generation right now.

5. Turn off your electronic gadgets. Put white space on your calendar. You cannot engage in disciplined though if your cell phone is going off and if you’re checking your email. Do this glorious thing called thinking.

6. What is your questions-to-statements ratio, and can you double it in the next year?

7. Start your “stop-doing list”. What we decide to not do is the critical question.

8. Ask everyone on your team to answer: I am the one person ultimately responsible for X, Y and Z.

9. Sustaining excellence – discover your waterline risks and take them away. Risks below the water line – where are they? Take them away.

10. Set a big hairy audacious goal, a BHAG. Keeps us young. Keeps us moving.


Greatness is not a function of circumstance but of choice and discipline. We are not imprisoned by our environment, our endowment, the economy, our setbacks, our mistakes, the cards we are dealt, or by staggering defeats along the way. It is about our choices. Many of you are in roles where most people will never see much of what you do. Jim tells a story about why this one sculptor made the backs of the statues as beautiful as the fronts of his statues. He acknowledged that no one will see them – but the Gods will see them. Much of the work you do will never be seen by others but, to paraphrase Jim, you do it with excellence anyway.

In closing, don’t worry about your survival. Don’t’ worry about your success. Don’t worry about your careers. Put your time into this: how to be useful.

Many thanks to Jim Collins for an inspirational talk.

Note: Jim has excerpts from his monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors” on his website.


One response to “Jim Collins “Good to Great and the Social Sectors” at EDUCAUSE 2009, Denver

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