Notes & Quotes from Jim Collins at the 2016 ASUGSV Summit

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.

A Distinguishing Trait in High-Performance Leaders

There are likely many traits of high-performance leaders. Over the past several months, I’ve met with, visited and/or had conversations with over a dozen leaders of learning organizations or high-performance units in education companies and schools. Among those that seem to be doing some of the most innovative and high-impact work, I noticed a single consistent trait.

It is a trait that is especially suitable for learning organizations. The research supports the value of this trait in a variety of contexts. You will find it in literature about peak performance. You will find it in the leadership books. It is in the literature about quality in every industry and sector. You will even find it in the literature about how to be an effective learner.

It is easy to identify when you see you. In fact, many great leaders draw your attention to it. They can’t help but do it because it is at the core of what helps them achieve great results. It shows up in how they think and talk, and you can almost instantly tell if it is genuine.

Leaders who do not have a large measure of this trait are equally noticeable. This too shows up in their words, how they think and their actions. You can see it in how they treat people who visit or seek to learn from their organizations. It is evident in what they give and seek from people in their organization and those who are observing from the outside.

It can take on different shapes and styles from one leader to the next, but it is always there. The higher performance the organization, the more this trait shines in these special types of leaders. The more these leaders wear it like a badge of honor. Sometimes it is accompanied with an impressive measure of humility, but it always seems to be paired with confidence as well. In fact, it seems to require confidence to wield this trait.

Yet, knowledge about the trait is not enough. It is something that a person has to own and embody. It can’t be faked, but it can be learned. For it to make a difference, you have to practice it persistently and relentlessly, even in situations when it is uncommonly difficult.

At the same time, I’ve also noticed that the trait is contextual. There are some people who seem to embody it in all parts of their lives (at least the parts visible to us). Still others seem to only embody it in one aspect of their life, seeming not ready or committed to it in another part.

The trait that I’m talking about is craving feedback. When you meet a high-performance leader, you can be sure that this person is constantly trying to figure out what is working, what is not, how to improve, how to take things to the next level. They want to know their organizational blind spots and address them. They want to understand things from multiple angles and perspectives, always looking for a useful or important insight.

People who are not ready for this level of leadership are sometimes more interested in paying attention to what is going well, drawing other people’s attention to those things. They might even be included to overlooking or sometimes even try to hide what is not going as well. They are interested in image over substance. We can all be tempted to to that in different parts of our lives, but it isn’t going to help us achieve the greatest results. We might get some recognition, maybe even promotions or a great job out of it. However, if you are one of those people who wants to know deep down inside what you did mattered, that it neared world-class, then that takes becoming a person who craves feedback.

It can be painful to look at sub-par or mediocre performance. Yet, the high-performance leader understands that the only way to really work though that pain is to face it and remedy the cause. The cause is not that it is seen but that it exists. As such, if you want to reach the next level, then you need to know and do something about the aspects of the organization that are not meeting and exceeding your goals and standards.

Scan people the insights from leaders across sectors and you will see this show up consistently. Winston Churchill once explained, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Elon Musk noted, “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.” Ken Blanchard said it succinctly when he wrote, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

Do you want to grow as a person, leader and organization? Seek honest, candid, raw, feedback. Create ways to generate it from different people and perspectives. Be confident in your mission, vision, values and goals; but crave feedback as well. Value each of them so much that you want to know as much as you can about them. Then use that feedback to grow and improve. That is a distinguishing trait of high-performance leaders.

How to Maximize the Impact of an Edupreneur in Your School

There is a good chance that you have at least a couple of them in your school. The question is whether they will soon be leaving your school or if they are helping them make their greatest impact on the students, school, community and world. I’m referring to edupreneurs, the sometimes eccentric, but always passionate and driven teachers who want to create, innovate and conjure the spirit of a startup in education. Many edupreneurs started by identifying a problem, need or opportunity and doing something about it. They are action-oriented and want to see tangible results. Does this sound like the type of educator who might have something to offer to your school and students? Is is the type of person that you might want to keep around? If so, here are ten tips to doing just that.

1. Differentiate

We get the idea of differentiated instruction for students, but what about for teachers, staff and administrators? Sometimes doing the same thing for every person is the least fair, or it is a certain way to make sure you don’t help everyone perform at their maximum capacity. Instead, consider what each teacher and staff member needs to not only survive the day, but to thrive. Make it your goal to offer differentiated leadership.

2. Leave Space for Innovation

Sometimes school leaders establish policies and procedures that verge on micro-managing. Some employees thrive on very detailed and prescribed activities, but many do not, especially not the edupreneurs. They need room to experiment, explore and innovate; and that means finding ways to loosen up on the reigns a bit. In fact, there may even be times when you want to give them the freedom and flexibility to work beyond the standard policies and procedures to launch something new. Just be aware of the impact on the overall culture and be prepared to manage perceptions.

3. Affirm The Innovators

Find ways to affirm the innovative work of the edupreneurs. Make sure they know that you value their contributions and appreciate their distinct gifts and abilities.

4. Help Them Find the Time and Resources

Innovation takes both. When possible and proper, look for creative ways to give a bit of financial support and especially time for them to work on a new project. If that means calling something a pilot and making them the official lead for it, then give it a try.

5. Redefine Failure

A highly risk-averse context is not a place where an edupreneur will thrive. If you want to reap the benefits of such people in your school, then it means celebrating failure as an education that helps with future endeavors. Of course, you want to manage the risk and make sure it doesn’t compromise other organizational priorities, but given that you have those things in check, give them room to fail and don’t treat it like a character flaw. The goal is positive impact more than polished perfectionism.

6. Accept The Value of the Lopsided Edupreneur

Some of the most innovative and entrepreneurial people are wonderfully lopsided. In other words, they don’t necessarily have a perfectly balanced set of skills, knowledge and abilities. However, they may have a few amazing and well-refined skills and abilities, and that is where they can have the greatest impact. Those annual reviews need to happen and it is important to help them work on growth areas that might hurt them (or others) or hold them back from being successful. It is equally or even more important to encourage them to build on their strengths. In other words, if they are excelling in an area, don’t necessarily think that the goal is to then help them excel in an area of weakness. Instead think about how you can help them build on their strengths.

7. Be Open to New Titles, Structures and Processes

Innovation is, by nature, about doing things that are not being done. So, there is unlikely to be a set of policies, rules and job descriptions that fit what an edupreneur may be trying to do. Be open to creating new positions, new job descriptions, and new structures that give them what they need to flourish.

8. Trust Them But Stay True to Your Convictions

You are not going to see or understand everything they are trying or thinking. Some may even seem downright silly. You will need to find a balance between trusting them to innovate in ways that you don’t understand and staying true to your values and convictions for the school. Make your expectations clear, but also be willing to give them the freedom to do things that you don’t get…at least not yet.

9. Keep the Students First

These innovators have wonderful gifts to offer, but your first priority is to the well-being and education of the students. In the frenzy of creating and innovating, some edupreneurs may occasionally lose sight of certain elements that are critical. They may often be willing to take risk that you are not willing to take, not when other key priorities are at stake. With that in mind, you can support them, but do so within the boundaries that you consider important, and communicate those boundaries clearly, explaining why they are important to you. Sometimes you will set boundaries in the wrong place, so be humble enough to see that and change. Other times, the edupreneur may decide that she needs more freedom and flexibility than is possible in your school. That is okay.

10. Let Them Go

Some edupreneurs will be delighted to spend a long career in your school, but that is not necessarily the calling for all of them. Some will benefit your school, develop new skills while there, and then be called to something else. Accept that. Don’t try to guilt them into staying. Make sure they know that they are valued and supported as long as they want to stay, but also be the first to give them your blessing and support as they go to start the next big education business, start a new school, or apply their gifts in a new context.