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Business Officer Magazine

When Disciplined Action Meets the Creative Spark

Bestselling author Jim Collins continues to dig deeply into the reasons organizations succeed or fail and the role of executive leadership in the trajectory. In his keynote comments at the opening general session, Collins acknowledged that it took him some time to recognize that the social sector is very different from the business sector.

"Those of us with business backgrounds," he explained, "think it's those corporate principles that make for better social sector achievement. But, most businesses are just average. Why would you want to apply something that only gets you that far?" Instead of focusing on the differences between corporate and social sectors, Collins suggested that the critical difference is between good and great, the subject of one of his several well-known books, Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001).

For the social sector—in which he includes higher education institutions—Collins suggested that organizational greatness comes from "gathering the right people; recognizing that success or failure depends on what you decide, not what happens to you; and holding dear to your values while you practice your progressive adventurous side. That's when the fire is born."

It's Not Just Charisma

A long-time consultant to corporate and social-sector executives, Collins explained that in observing great leaders, he's concluded that "the signature characteristic of a highly effective leader is humility." Describing the magnetic personality of Anne Mulcahy of Xerox; the eccentric style of Darwin Smith, who did his best strategic thinking as CEO of Kimberly-Clark on his tractor moving rocks; and the quirky character of Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, Collins saw very different personalities but one common theme: "Each of these leaders had an unquenchable passion for the cause—and not for themselves."

At the same time, Collins contended that organizational greatness—or decline and demise—is not primarily circumstantial nor totally dependent on the chief executive officer. Instead, he said, "It is the result of deliberate choices and discipline. And not those you accomplish at the critical moment, but what you do way before the storm comes."

Slippery Slope for the Social Sector

Collins pointed out that, in the nonprofit world, the path to decline has many more possibilities. "In business," he noted, "money is part of both inputs and outputs. Profits generate more money to invest and they also measure success. In the social sector, money is only an input—but not an output or a definition of 'great.' So it's much more difficult to evaluate performance."

Nonetheless, Collins advised the audience that "especially in higher education right now, the most durable substance is values. Hold the core values constant and stimulate progress consistent with those values." He also advised that leaders separate values from practice. "When people want to resist change," said Collins, "they cloak a practice as a value and say that we must not change it." One example in higher education, he said, might be academic tenure. "Is that really a core value? Therein lies a big question for you."

Immediate Actions

As an audience takeaway, Collins offered a concise list of ideas that could be addressed in short order, including these:

  • On your staff roster, calculate the percentage of key seats that are unfilled and commit to filling as many as you can by year's end.
  • Start practicing humility by asking more questions. Make it a goal to double your questions-to-statements ratio.
  • Start a "stop-doing" list for yourself and for the institution.
  • Don't let electronic tools rule. "You must have pockets of quietude so that you can think deeply."
  • Review your mission rigorously and separate its elements from its practices.

In closing, Collins suggested that the audience consider some advice he received from the late management consultant Peter Drucker. At the time when Collins was leaving Stanford and wasn't sure what he'd be doing next, Drucker said, "Don't worry, you'll do well. But, why don't you spend more time thinking about how to be useful?"

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