Q and A with Jim Collins: December 2009

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Jim Collins

Interview by Edward Smith

State Legislatures spoke to leadership guru Jim Collins about how the leadership principles he’s discussed in his books—including “Good to Great” and “How the Mighty Fall”—might apply to work by lawmakers. The former Stanford University business professor based in Boulder, Colo., has emerged as a top business leadership guru in the past 15 years.

State Legislatures: Education is an area many legislative leaders identified as a priority in these tough budget times. They also are trying to preserve the safety net for people who are really at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale and who end up often getting hurt the most when states cut back. Can you talk about leadership around these issues as legislators confront a very tough fiscal situation?

Jim Collins: A number of years ago the Center for the Future of Arizona approached me and one of the things they identified was the need to address the question of educational results for our poor Latino children.

They did a fabulous study using the “Good to Great” methodology. They found schools with a high percentage of poor Latino children who over performing in terms of how well they are doing on reading or math grade. And then compared them to other schools in the same difficult circumstances—the same budgetary constraints, same challenges of classroom sizes, same issues of parental involvement, same language issues.

There are multiple things that jump out in that study, but if I were a legislator what I would really want to know is you can throw all the money you want at education, but if you don’t have the right principals running the schools, it won't help. The leadership and the principal are critical. The principal of a public school can really change the culture and the performance standards of that school. So the question is really almost not so much how much more money does education need, but how do we make sure that we have a West Point for principals.

Another thing they found is that in a political environment, you often kind of get a sense of every three years we have a new educational program right. And you get this chronic sense of, “OK, we’ll try this program. We’ll try that program. We’ll try this program.”

And what they found was that the schools that did better didn’t keep searching for a silver bullet program. What they looked for was any one of half a dozen or more programs that could really work. By having the consistency to stay with something year after year after year making steady improvements they got better results.

So one of the things a legislator can do is focus on the who question, the principal of the school. But also how do we help them have consistency.

SL: But isn't the nature of government that things change because the next group of people comes into leadership?

Collins: The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change. The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency. And one of the great challenges of a multiparty or two-party democratic process is that it has built into it the an inherent kind of inconsistency. If you have a change in parties you are very rarely going to have people say what we really want to do is build upon the consistent program of the previous party’s. It will be to do the opposite.

Then how do we get the kind of consistent cumulative building of results that produces outstanding results when we also want to have elected politics and a free system?

I think part of the answer to that is in there’s the elected side and then you have the apparatus of city managers and county managers and military leaders and people who are running agencies, school superintendents and so forth. That is where we get the consistency.

Part of helping to ensure that our republic and our democracy have the consistency that leads to greatness is you have to let them have the runway. If somebody is doing something well let them continue to do it better. The political push and pull doesn’t necessarily mean the police or the military or the education or any of these really important functions have to be inconsistent.

SL: So that’s an argument for good oversight and granting a great deal of autonomy.

Collins: A great deal of autonomy with, first and foremost, the right people. One place where there is very clearly pockets of tremendous discipline of greatness in our in our government is in the military. Part of that is because the results are so stark. I mean if you are an ineffective field commander, the consequence is people can die. There are very, very real results that are even more consequential certainly than anything in the financial world or business or anything.

I’ve spent time with at West Point and the 82nd Airborne, which I had the privilege to do, and the United States Marine Corp. Man they are really well run.
Well part of it is they have very real results and they’ve got really good training programs. But a lot of it is they’ve got the consistency built over time. And they’ve got a tremendous emphasis on their leadership development.

All of our organs of government ought to have the same basic approach and philosophy, which is what are we doing to ensure that we are developing and retaining and putting in positions of governmental responsibility the best people. Just as you want the best possible field commander, you want the best possible school superintendents and you want the best possible head of department of transportation.

SL: You make this distinction between executive and legislative leadership. Can you discuss those differences?

Collins: I think what became very clear to me after struggling on the social sectors monograph [the follow up to “Good to Great”] is I had to get out of my business head and really try to get into understanding the realities people outside of business face.

What I realized is that is that business is the special case. It is the case of concentrated executive power. If Sam Walton wanted Wal-Mart to turn left, it would turn left. But when you step outside of business into the more general case of society you have a very different power map. In the case of a business corporation, you have concentrated executive power. Usually one person has enough power by himself or herself to make decisions and to put things in place to make those decisions happen. When you step outside of business very rarely does that exist. And usually what you have is a diffused power map and certainly legislators would have a very diffused power map.

So the question is not decision making. The question is how to assemble enough points of power to get the decisions to happen that if you had executive power you would just make. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a much more difficult.

You know we tend to think that real leadership is the single leader who sets the direction. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that the really difficult leadership is getting things done when you don’t have the power to. You have to do all the things that I as I imagine these people are really great at—the power of language, the power of shared interests, the power of coalition. All these things that ultimately add up to how many points of power do I need to get this one thing done?

That ability is why I think a lot of business people have trouble when they step outside the business. They’ve had the crutch of concentrated power and now they have to operate without it.

The other issue is what in the end are you really ambitious for? Is everything you’re doing just a means to advance yourself or is everything you are doing directed towards ambitions that are really bigger than yourself? The really great effective leaders over time, our research would suggest, are those ambitious for the actual goal, the actual work first.

SL: You talk about getting the right people “on the bus” and note that it is more challenging in the social sector than in business because you don’t have as much financial incentive to offer.

Collins: Part of it is you attach it to mission. The mission is a noble mission and it is getting real work done. You also should never forget that the most powerful motivational tool is an Excel spreadsheet. What I mean by that is data is enormously powerful. That notion of being able to show programs or to identify problems in a deeply empirical way and to allow momentum of actual database results is tremendous for getting people aligned behind what you are trying to do.

SL: In you r book “How the Mighty Fall,” you talk about the stages of failure in business and the notion that before you know you are failing you are failing. Is there an aspect of this that applies to government?

Collins: What’s so interesting to me is the number of people from different walks of life who have looked at those stages as not business stages. I had a conversation with a classics professor. He said what you are really writing about is the human journey, of the arc of self inflicted tragedy.

What struck me is how people have looked at these stages and said you know this may be a human journey. The achievers born of success leading to undisciplined overreaching. I don’t know if this applies to government. What I do know is that I don’t think it is just a business journey.

One thing that I would add just as an aside is the issue of where is America. I don’t see America as on some catastrophic decline. I think we have in our DNA an amazing capacity for self renewal.

What I worry about more is have we been in an era of nearly three decades of extraordinary growth and comfort. So the question is if the three decades that we just went through are more the aberration than the norm, how do we make society more productive and more humane, as Peter Drucker always put it. How do we do that with less? We have to be more productive and we have to figure out how to be more humane and we have to do it with fewer resources.

That means we have to realize that we can do a number of things very well, but we cannot do everything very well. And in the end that means that you have to have the discipline to decide what you fully fund and what you don’t fund at all. So 30 percent across the board cuts don’t work for companies. I don’t know if they work for government. But deciding where our three or four priorities are that really matter and make sure they are fully funded and then asking what are the things that we ought not to fund at all. That’s a more disciplined question.

Edward Smith is the managing editor of State Legislatures.

Photo by rayng.com.