On the second day of the ASU/GSV Summit, a keynote from Jim Collins got us started right. I’ve read all of his books, some more than once, but this is the first time that I’ve heard him in person, and he did not disappoint. Even though I didn’t hear many new ideas, something sunk in a little more this time as I listened and considered the implications for my current and future leadership in education. Whether you were at the live event and want a recap or you are looking for a glimpse from a distance, I put together the following notes and quotes that stuck with me. Perhaps you will find them useful as well.
“We can’t settle for good schools in any sector of education…and not just for some kids.”
This was his opening statement. Our students deserve and need better than good. With this quote Collins launched us into a review of key tenets from his work, but with the context of education in mind. Not only did he challenge us to pursue great in our schools but to do it for all kids, not just those who are fortunate enough to live in the right zip codes.
Building a great organization is not merely a function of circumstance. It is a matter of conscious choice and disciplined leadership. [paraphrase]
For those who want to think that the great organizations just got lucky, Collins has a body of research to indicate otherwise. This is something that happens by choice.
Even though my original work was drawing from the business sector, I am not saying that we should run education just like a business. [paraphrase] “The key distinction is not between business and education but between great and good…This is not a business idea. It is a greatness idea.”
Some are critical when people start trying to use principles of business and apply them to the world of schools and education. Yet, Collins has research from businesses and schools, and he argues that this is not about business versus school. This is about good versus great. Do we care about the mission of our schools enough to pursue greatness?
With this, Collins took us through twelve questions that a leader can ask or an organization can ask to pursue greatness. These questions are drawn from the key ideas in his books, and a handy PDF version is available here. I already have it saved on my computer and started to scribble down thoughts to explore with my teams.
“Are we willing to strive for level 5 leaders?”
Leadership is not personality. In fact, many of the greatest leaders seemed to have, what Collins called, a charisma bypass. Instead, it is not a charismatic person that matters but a compelling mission. In the words of Collins, “If you have a charismatic cause, you do not need to be a charismatic leader.”
This type of leadership includes, “a mixture of personal humility combined with an indomitable will.” Level 5 leadership is tied to the idea of service. These leaders have plenty of ambition. It is just that the ambition is funneled into the cause, not self-promotion. This is because level 4 leaders inspire people to follow them, but level 5 leaders inspire people to follow a cause.
In looking at schools, Collins noted that it isn’t just the top leader. We need exceptional leadership at the unit level. “That is where really great things get done.” This is where we need to to find, train, hire, and raise up level 5 leaders if we are going to achieve greatness in our learning organizations. The unit leader is the key to exceptional results. “The unit leader is a huge swing variable. The unit leader makes a huge difference on what happens to those kids. We need legions of level 5 leaders in our schools.”
Another way that Collins framed it is with the following challenge. “Assume you are dead in five years. What is on your plate?” Do the things that matter to you, that resonate with your deepest passions.
Do we have the right people on the bus and in the right seats?
People on our teams matter. In fact, they matter so much that Collins encouraged us think about who to get on the bus and which seats to put each person in before trying to figure out where to drive the bus. “What are my key seats? How to I ensure that at least 90% of my seats are filled with the right people?” This isn’t just hiring the right people. “The one thing to really get at is figuring out how to get the right people in the key seats. Every leader who figured out how to do this, they eventually built out a core set of people on their bus that created the results.”
What are the brutal facts and how can we better live the Stockdale paradox?
Collins draws this from Admiral Jim Stockdale’s survival of torture and imprisonment. As Stockdale explained to him once, “I never capitulated in despair, because I never waivered on the idea that I would get out and that I would turn it into the defining part of my life… Yet, Stockdale wanted to make an important distinction. I was not optimistic. I just never capitulated to despair. You must never every confuse the need for unwavering faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to face the most brutal facts as they are.” This is not about having some Pollyanna perspective. It is facing the facts and reality of the situation but maintaining hope.
What is our hedgehog concept?
“The way great organizations get built is a fairly organic and cumulative process that looks like a breakthrough.” He used a missile analogy to explain this. Imagine that you see a missile come out of the water. It didn’t just come into existence. It has been under the water for a long time before we notice it.
We need to figure this hedgehog concept out. This one big idea, doing what we are truly passionate about, doing what we can do better than anyone else in the world, and making a distinctive impact. To get at this, ask this question. If your organization disappeared, who would miss you?
From there we get to the flywheel effect. With a fly wheel, you eep pushing and pushing and pushing in a logical direction and then it hits breakthrough momentum. And in education, there is the organizational flywheel, but then what Collins called the “uber flywheel” of the larger education sector. We have to be about both our organization and the larger flywheel.
How can we accelerate clicks on the Flywheel by committing to a 20-Mile March?
This is about being all in and all in for the long haul. It is about doing your homework, settting your goals, staying focused, and making solid, steady progress. It is about hold backing from getting overzealous or burnt out, but also pushing through on the difficult days. Southwest Airlines said, “we will be profitable every year no matter what.” Then they made it happen. There has to be a “no matter what” mindset to this. What is your 20-mile march? “This is about long-term, consecutive, consistent performance.”
Collins gave the example of a several thousand mile bike ride -The key was that they made all the hotel reservations in advance. They didn’t have a choice but to keep pedaling until they got to the next stop. That is the spirit of the 20-mile march.
“What will you commit to with fanatic discipline?” On the flip side, the signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency. We can’t be changing every 2-3 years or being inconsistent. We need cumulative momentum. Pick something good and then stay with it for the long haul.
This isn’t about getting the perfect idea. Find something good and then persist. As he explained, “Better to polish a lead bullet to silver than to search endlessly for the perfect silver bullet.”
“Lots of people get clobbered because it is rational to ignore trends in the short run. The 20-mile march can help. Ask this question. “What are we highly confident will have changed by 15-20 years from now?” When we get that, starting marching in that direction and persist because great leaders manage for the quarter century.
Where should we place our big bets, based on the principle “Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs”—blending creativity and discipline to scale innovation?
In his research, Collins learned that 10x leaders didn’t innovate more than their competitors. They innovated in a different way. They engaged in what he called “empirical innovation.” Fire small bullets…small innovations until you know that you are on target. Then you can pull out the big guns.
When people don’t succeed, they either didn’t fire enough bullets. Or, they fired bullets, got calibration, but didn’t fire a cannonball. Or, to look bold, they skipped the bullets and just fired big, uncalibrated cannonballs.
Do we show any signs of How the Mighty Fall, and do we have enough Productive Paranoia to stay far above the Death Line?
“The only mistakes you can learn from are the ones you survive… This is why great companies carry 3-10x the cash assets than the competition even when they were small.”
How can we do a better job at Clock Building, not just Time Telling?
People make the mistake of putting all their trust in a solitary genius or leader. Sometimes they stop being geniuses, they die or leave. “If your company can’t be great without you, it is not a truly great company.”
Do we embrace the Genius of the AND—especially the fundamental dynamic of “Preserve the Core AND Stimulate Progress”?
“Preserve the core and stimulate progress…A core value is something that you would hold even if it hurt you to hold.” We want this balance. We are uncompromising on our core values, but then stimulate progress. The trick is that people confuse values and practices. Values are what we don’t want to change. Yet, when we change a practice, sometimes people accuse us of changing the values. We need to help people avoid confusing the two.
What is our Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)?
This is about giving yourself over to some gigantic obsession that dwarfs you, something that takes over your life. A good “BHAG suspends all existential angst” because you are so absorbed in it. “Get great people and give them really big things to do.” This is in contrast with the mistake some make of putting their best people on their biggest problems instead of their greatest opportunities.
However, you want to choose your BHAGs well because you will create cynicism in your organization if you change them too much.
How can we increase our Return on Luck (ROL), making the most of our good luck and bad?
What if a lot of this just comes down to luck? He asked this question and found that the great organizations were not more or less lucky. They just had a great ROL (return on luck). In other words, they made use of the luck better than others when it came along.
In addition, Collins noted that “luck favors the persistent.” “True creators stay in the game.” “If we believe that life comes down to a single hand we can lose, but if we see it as a series of hands and we play every hand as best as we can…” good things will happen. What really matters is how you play each hand you are dealt over the long haul. No enterprise or great body of work comes from a single hand of work.”
What should be on our Stop Doing list?
First, Collins warned that if you have more than 3 priorities, you have 0 prioriteis. In addition, it is not just about making a to-do list. We need to decide what we will no longer do. What do we need to stop doing in education?
A Few More Quotes and Notes
Then there were a few more quotables and nuggets during the wonderful and extended Q&A time.
- “Be disciplined in daily routine so I can be violent and outrageous in my work.” (quoting someone…can’t remember who)
- Jim Collins, “sits down every year and starts with the ‘dead in 5’ premise and build a not-to-do list. If it can’t pass the 5-year plan, I can’t do it.
- “Stop unnecessary fire drills.” Lots of the emotional stuff is very unproductive.
- Amid a field with lots of outside regulation and policies…. policies, don’t pull them down. Say… “Okay, so what is in our control and then focus on that.”
- Collins’ BHAG for education? – “There is no statistically significant difference and there is no significant difference in the quality of education across all zip codes.”
- “We need a West Point for school leaders.”
- A key piece of advice in his earlier years was from John Gardner. “Jim it occurs to me that you spend way too much time being interesting. Why don’t you spend more time being interested?”
- Real creativity very much accelerates after 50. Peter Drucker – at age 65 – he was 1/3rd of the way through the books that he wrote.
- “Forever banish the question of preparing for retirement. Replace it with preparing for renewal.”
As I said, much of this might be familiar, but this is the sort of stuff worth reviewing and returning to time and time again. Or, if we haven’t thought about how to apply it to education, now is our chance.