Q&A With Jim Collins

The best-selling author talks about moving schools from good to great by Carlotta Mast

As an award-winning physics teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo., Roger Briggs knew it wasn’t acceptable for his science department to settle with being good. So when he was named department chair 15 years ago, he began taking steps to move the department toward greatness.

"If I’m going to do something, I’m going to give it my best," says Briggs, who during his time managing the department focused heavily on hiring only the right teachers and making sure they stayed focused on the department’s core purpose: educating students.

It is Briggs' "visceral reaction to being a part of anything that is only good," as Collins puts it, that made the longtime educator a perfect focal point for the author and researcher’s presentation at the AASA Suburban School System Leaders Conference.

“Roger created perhaps the best high school science department in Colorado,” Collins told superintendents at the AASA conference in Vail, Colo., in July. “And he did it because he was the right person in the right seat on the bus.”

Briggs’ work at Fairview High School was just one example Collins used of how greatness can be achieved in public education. In fact, the meat of Collins’ talk in Vail, Colo., focused on applying the lessons from his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t to the public school sector.

Collins will be a keynote presenter at the AASA Annual Conference and Exposition on Feb. 20 in San Francisco.

Working out of his Boulder-based research laboratory (which just happens to be located in the old red-brick building where Collins attended elementary school), the former Stanford Business School faculty member and his research associates spent five years analyzing 11 publicly traded companies that had been good performers for long periods before soaring to greatness.

Level 5 Leaders
Good to Great, which was published in 2001 and sat on numerous bestseller lists for more than a year, compares these 11 transformational companies to other firms that were in the same industries and faced similar situations but were not able to make the leap. The result is a series of principles that begin to explain why some organizations become great and others do not.

One principle, for example, states that greatness is never caused by a single event or program. Rather an organization is able to achieve greatness only by pushing in an intelligent and consistent direction for years and even decades. Collins calls this cumulative process the “flywheel” effect.

Another Good to Great principle states that those who build great organizations are characterized by what Collins calls “Level 5” leadership. “The essence of a Level 5 is someone who is ambitious first and foremost for the cause or the organization, not for themselves, and has the stoic will to make good on that ambition,” Collins says.

Yet another of Collins’ principles states that great institutions understand the difference between the values that should never change and the practices and strategies that can. Using an example from the world of education, Collins says freedom of inquiry is a core value that must always be preserved while tenure is a practice that must be open to change.

It’s these and other Good to Great principles that have caught the attention of public school leaders nationwide. According to Education Week, a number of superintendents have made the book required reading for district staff members.

Education Analysis
Motivated by the findings from their Good to Great studies and the reception the work has received from leaders from all walks of life, Collins and his research team are now working to extend their matched-pairs analysis into other parts of society, including public education.

“Education is such an important cornerstone of our world,” Collins says. “It is not an option for us to accept our schools being good. They must be great.”

The following excerpts are from a recent interview Collins granted The School Administrator. The excerpts include answers to questions superintendents posed to the author during his presentation in Vail.

Q: Why do you think there has been such interest in the Good to Great research among public school leaders and teachers?
One of the main reasons we are getting a reception from the whole K-12 world is the research method. I am surprised at how far-reaching the research method has taken the work, but I generally believe that if we had had the exact same findings and concepts but they didn’t have the same research behind them, they wouldn’t be making the crossover very well. People have an intuitive resonance with the notion of matched pairs, change variables and the whole Good to Great rigorous method.

A second reason has to do with the ideas ringing true for people in education. Education has been through a lot of different programs and fads. Therefore the idea of the flywheel hits home particularly well. I think people who have been in education really yearn for consistency of momentum rather than each two years starting all over again with a new education program.

Q: How would you like to see school leaders using your research?
The objective of our work is to find principles that people can use--not just best practices but principles. I want to be very clear, however, that I don’t think we have all the answers. I would love to be able to tell school leaders, “If you would just take the principles that we have learned and apply them with discipline, great results will happen.”

But I can’t promise that for a couple of reasons--the primary one being that, while I am very confident in the principles we have found, I believe they are incomplete. So the research continues. We still need to learn more about the application of the ideas in the education sector, which is much more complex than the corporate sector. I genuinely believe that being superintendent of a large school district is more difficult than being CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation.

Second, luck is a variable. The fact of the matter is a school leader could do absolutely everything right and there could be some renegade political thing that happens that absolutely blows him or her out of the water.

Defining Greatness
Q: How would you go about helping a school district define “greatness” in the context of public education? What characteristics or metrics would you examine when determining the quality of a public school?
Collins: If I were trying to identify output variables of greatness, which are different from input variables, I would always go back to the generic definition I use of a great institution. A great institution has four basic pieces. One, it has to have outstanding performance. Two, it has to have a significant impact on the world that it touches and preferably a unique and significant impact, such that if that particular institution went away, it would leave behind a hole that would be very hard to fill. Three, it has to have resiliency, meaning that it has gone through challenges and maybe even some very difficult times and has bounced back from them and maybe used those difficult times as a defining point to make themselves even stronger. Fourth, it has to have longevity, meaning it has been able to perform well for not just two or three years but for at least 15 or more.

When I look at those, longevity is easy to measure. Resiliency is pretty easy, too, because you basically look for organizations that have had a couple of desperately difficult years or are located in difficult neighborhoods and yet have come back really strong. A unique and significant impact is maybe not easy to measure, but you know it when you see it. There are some schools that you can take a look at and say, “This school is so good at what it does that if it were to go away, the community would lose something really important.”

Then you get to the variable of performance. I would not presume to say, “Gee, this is what you should measure as performance.” Rather, I would ask the question: “What are the things you would like to see your schools improve upon?” It is vitally important, especially in the social sector, for people to wrestle with the question of what do they mean by performance? What do they define as being important variables of performance? Is it graduation rates? Test scores? The number of kids who go to college? If they happen to be in a very diverse community, do they do just as well with Latino kids and black kids and Asian kids as they do with white kids?

Because there are no readily available definitions of success for schools, school leaders have to be creative and think about what matters to them. This is one key aspect that sets schools apart from corporations.

I would emphasize that school leaders must be able to stick with their performance measures for a long enough period of time. The real problem is that people decide every two years they are going to measure or examine a different category, and they never get to see an actual trend line and build that flywheel momentum.

Q: Speaking of flywheel momentum, you write in Good to Great that achieving greatness is a cumulative process that takes years and even decades. How can school leaders stay focused on the long-term work of moving their school districts toward greatness when they must answer to students, parents, school board members and other constituents who often demand instant results? How can they avoid being distracted by the latest fad or program?
Collins: I get the same question from CEOs of companies. They ask, “How do we create a system that maintains the momentum of the flywheel when people are demanding of us quarterly results that continue to go up?” Every sector has its irrational constituents. Corporations, for example, have to deal with short-term speculators and Wall Street, which can be highly irrational.

That said, the neatest part of the session we did in Vail was the matched-pairs analysis. What I was really struck by was the insight that the schools that had made the leap from good to great or had been great for a long time in the participants’ matched-pairs analysis were not necessarily schools that came from the best communities. Half seemed to come from nice Boulder-type communities and some came from very difficult communities.

But what was consistent was the existence of a very functional chain of relationships from the community to the school board to the superintendent to the principals to the faculty. This consistency existed through multiple generations of superintendents and boards. Now I don’t know if this would have been borne out in all of the data because we didn’t systematically collect it, but it seemed to be the schools [that maintained this functional chain of relationships] were focused on basic, bread-and-butter academics done really well rather than something flashier.

Second, the beginning of the consistency seemed to come about 50 percent of the time from superintendents. But the other 50 percent of the time it seemed to come from a group of people in the community or on the board or sometimes from faculty. The real key for superintendents, then, is to focus on trying to create that consistency over time with their successors and the principals they put in place. They also need to show some results so that the school board doesn’t want to mess things up too much and then work with that school board to maintain consistency over time. So superintendents have to be very politically adept.

Of course, it could be that superintendents can’t control it all. They could have a wacko school board, and if that is the case, maybe they can never achieve greatness because they can’t create that set of functional relationships from the community all the way down to the faculty. It may be that there is a little bit of serendipity involved.

My perception after looking at lots of types of organizations and institutions is that the job of a school superintendent, particularly in a complicated community, is one of the hardest jobs in America. The complex system aspect makes it like trying to be a senator. And it is very tough. What that means is that the successful superintendents are really some of the most successful executives in all of America, in any sector.

Identifying Talent
Q: You told the school leaders attending the Vail conference that a superintendent’s No. 1 responsibility is to ensure that every principal in his or her school system has Level 5 potential. How can a superintendent identify this potential?
What you have to be careful of is to not look too much at external traits. Yes, charismatic leadership probably shows up as inversely proportionate to Level 5 leadership, but there are charismatic Level 5 leaders. Sam Walton of Wal-Mart was a Level 5 leader, and I don’t think anyone would say he was a wall flower. Sam overcame his charisma because first and foremost he cared about Wal-Mart.

I believe in data. What data would you look at? What piece of evidence would tell you more about somebody’s pure motivation than how well what they previously held responsibility for did once they left? We have all seen high school sports programs where there was a coach who won a bunch of state championships and then when that coach retired the program fell apart. Then there are the coaches who when they retire or move on to other schools, their programs continue to do well. That is the true sign of a Level 5.

There are lots of other things to look for, of course. I always like to look at the extent to which people instinctively look out the window to give credit to others for success and how they look in the mirror to accept full responsibility for failures.

Q: Can a person evolve to become a Level 5?
Yes. Not all people but a lot of people. First, I think there is Level 5 everywhere. The problem in our society is not a lack of Level 5 but rather the lack of Level 5 at the top of our institutions. We keep giving the keys to the wrong people. But there are lots of people with Level 5 potential. Furthermore, we can’t all be Level 5 in all situations. We actually have to be responsible for something that we care enough about to endure the pain of being Level 5 because being Level 5 is demanding and requires sacrifice.

Q: During your presentation last summer, you said it is critical for schools to get “the right people in the right seats on the bus.” How can school leaders accomplish this given the existence of job contracts and tenure systems?
The reality is it does take longer in an academic institution than it would in a corporation to get the wrong people off the bus. That is a brutal fact. So superintendents must focus on getting the right people on the bus and the right people in the right seats over a long period of time.

While it is very hard to get the wrong faculty off the bus, that is not true with principals. They can be changed. And as a principal of a school, you can choose department chairs and those people are really key. You may not be able to adjust who is on your faculty in the short term, but you can probably have a big influence on who are department chairs and who gets resources.

Q: How do you motivate the people on the bus to want to strive for greatness?
The right people don’t need to be motivated. The right people won’t allow themselves to just be good. When people come to me and say, “The thing we need to do is motivate our people to do the right thing,” what they are really saying is, “We don’t have the right people” or “I have de-motivated the previously motivated right people.”

One of the things that education has as a great advantage is that I have yet to meet anyone who said they went into public education for the stock options. It is by and large a field that attracts people who are in it for the cause because they believe in teaching our young people and that public education is the cornerstone of our greatness as a society.

Economic Engines
Q: In determining the crystalline concept--or, as you call it, the “Hedgehog Concept”--that will guide an organization’s every effort, you write that a leader must understand what drives his or her organization’s economic engine and then figure out how to effectively generate sustained and robust cash flow and profitability. How can superintendents address this issue when the economics are often beyond their control?
When you think about the economic engine in any kind of system, you have to think about multiple pieces of that engine. But the two main pieces are allocation of resources, which involves costs, and the increase of resources. Now in the schools what you currently have is more control over the allocation and very little control over the amount. So the brutal fact of reality might be that in a school district--unlike in a corporation or even a university, which can raise tuition--leaders are going to be more constrained. And it may be that the true way a school district’s economics fit with the other circles in its Hedgehog Concept has more to do with absolutely rigorous discipline about the allocation of resources than with increasing resources.

That said, I often have wondered the following: Why, just because you are a public school, do you have to assume that your funding comes exclusively from public sources? Might there be ways for very creative superintendents and principals of schools to increase the resources they have through their relationships with the community? This already happens with sports. Really good sports programs such as a football team can get lots of money through the boosters and there is nothing stopping them from doing that. Why can’t that happen on the academic side?

Q. You noted during your Vail presentation that “those who build greatness roll around like pigs in slop in the brutal facts.” Based on your work with superintendents and other school leaders across the country, what do you see as the most daunting “brutal facts” facing public educators and school leaders today?
I am not an expert on public education but, as I have listened and as I have watched, I would say there are two that stand out to me. No. 1 is the underfunding of public education, particularly as that then translates into the undercompensating of faculty. When I look at the incredibly hardworking, intelligent, dedicated people who are teaching in the public schools and what they get paid relative to the burden of responsibility they have in our society, the mismatch is shocking. People basically don’t want to pay to attain great faculty, and that creates the challenge of how do you get and retain enough of the right teachers on the bus. What it means is that superintendents have to have faith that they can still get and keep great teachers on the bus by coming up with more creative ways to do it.

The second brutal fact is the societal expectation that schools are there to do all things for all kids. Schools are supposed to be providing social services, shaping values, offering sports and providing social activities. Basically they are expected to be surrogate parents. Well, schools aren’t surrogate parents. They are not social services. They are schools. The good news is, this is one brutal fact that school leaders have more control over. I think a strong superintendent can say, “We choose not to be social services. This is a school and we do what a school does. We educate.” A superintendent may have less control over the funding but he or she may have more control over how that funding is spent.

Q. How can superintendents prevent themselves from losing hope that greatness can be achieved despite these brutal facts?
In the Good to Great study, one thing that jumped out was that a lot of the companies that made the leap from good to great were in very tough industries with immense constraints. One of the things we learned is that greatness is not a function of circumstance or constraints or the lack thereof. It is largely a matter of conscious choice. All leaders and institutions face constraints and difficulties, yet some break out.
The only way to deal with the brutal facts is to confront them dead on with absolute unwavering faith that you can build greatness in the face of and despite the brutal facts.

Carlotta Mast is a business and education free-lance writer in Boulder, Colo. E-mail: clmast@earthlink.net