Thoughts on “Good to Great” by Jim Collins

I recently read Good to Great by Jim Collins. Actually, I’m a busy person so I read Good to Great Summarized for Busy People by Wilson Publishers.

Here are some of the highlights that I thought were interesting:

  • Successful businesses have leaders who “combine extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”
  • What do successful leaders do?
    • Set up successors who will continue to do great after they leave.
    • They are compellingly modest and share the attention instead of seeking it for themselves.
    • They have unwavering resolve toward a goal.
    • “First Who… Then What” – they pick the best people for the team FIRST then with the team pick the goal. “If you have the right people … the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away.”
    • They’re not afraid to say “I don’t know.” Instead, they get the best people and hash out the question to find the answer.
    • They hire the best people (self-disciplined people who don’t need to be managed) then give them freedom and autonomy within a framework.
    • “Good to great companies tend to have rigorous cultures, cultures in which leadership consistently applies exacting standards at all time and at all levels, especially upper management.”
    • “The moment you feel you need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.”
    • The world changes. Successful businesses change and adapt or they die off.
    • Great companies encourage debate and dialogue and genuinely take advantage of it. “It is used to engage people in the search for the best answers.”
    • Hedgehogs and Foxes: Foxes “pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity” whereas Hedgehogs “simplify a complex world into a single idea or principle that unifies and guides everything.” In terms of successful businesses, Hedgehogs win and Foxes do not.
    • Find out what you’re best at and focus on that strength. Don’t expend energy trying to become something that you’re not going to be best at.
    • Slow and steady gains are more important than infrequent but flashy gains. The slow and steady gains will speak for themselves and motivate the organization to continue to excel. “Spend little energy trying to motivate or align people; the momentum of the flywheel is infectious.”

Here are some of my thoughts and ruminations on these ideas, specifically in regards to how these principles might apply in the context of higher education:

  • Higher education has an embarrassment of riches in terms of self-disciplined, motivated people to have in an organization. There’s a strong self-selection effect at work: most people become professional academics because they’re self-disciplined and motivated and they would not survive graduate school if they weren’t. In my limited experience, finding the “right people” is not often difficult in higher education settings.
  • Higher education contexts do not do well at encouraging Hedgehog leadership over Fox leadership. By their very nature, academics approach the world like Foxes: they see everything in terms of nuance and complexity and often have multiple goals and frameworks that they perceive the world through. They’re also asked to juggle fifty things at once between their various teaching, service, and research obligations. Expecting a group of academics to “simplify a complex world into a single idea or principle that unifies and guides everything” is borderline insanity.
  • The incentives of the higher education context do not often reward leaders who are “compellingly modest.” Oftentimes, the career success for academics depends a great deal on self-promotion and justifying one’s continued existence (i.e. the tenure and promotion system). Often, the more “headlines” an academic receives, the better his or her career prospects and opportunities for advancement. This seems to be in conflict with the goal of seeking out leaders that are “compellingly humble.”
  • I tend to agree with the “adapt or die” idea promoted in this book. I see many examples of that in higher education. College faculty sometimes seem to be especially resistant to change (or even the idea of change) in a world where change can often be the price required to avoid irrelevancy. 

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