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Are Jim Collins’ Ideas Still Relevant for Higher Education Today

June 14, 2019
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University leaders are facing challenges on multiple fronts while pursuing their institutional missions—everything from uncertain finances, technological challenges, to departmental silos. Yet some higher education institutions remain timeless leaders. What are they doing that others are not? In his monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” Jim Collins outlines the attributes of “great leaders,” and provides a framework for achieving great institutions. It’s the accompaniment to his best-selling book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t,” which sold over four million copies, was translated into 35 languages and earned a following well beyond the business world, such as with football coaches, pastors, and school presidents.

This whitepaper will examine the enduring principles of Dr. Collins’ work as they relate to higher education and how leaders can confront the challenge of leveraging technology to enable institutional greatness – not to disrupt the institution’s mission. We will also explore how these principles relate to the increasingly diverse and multigenerational workforce.

Combining over 60 years of change management, technology, and higher education expertise, along with data-driven institutional research and the lessons from Jim Collins, the authors of this whitepaper will provide pragmatic insights on sustaining a culture of innovation and using change leadership to make technology a critical mechanism for institutional success.

Jim Collins’ Framework for Greatness

Jim Collins’ groundbreaking theories became known in the early 2000s when he described the four attributes of great organizations. While he originally applied his ideas to the business world, Collins also asserted that the social sectors can use the same toolkit. In “Good to Great,” Collins argues that good and great organizations exist in both business and social sectors, and all face the same recurring challenges.

Collins’ first tenet, “Defining ‘Great’ – Calibrating Success without Business Metrics” is implicit in this data-driven world. Data is abundant in the age of technology, with everything from website clicks to location apps providing analytics on everyday users. While data sources may be disparate, one of Educause’s Top Ten IT Trends of 2018 was “The Data-Enabled Institution.” It is increasingly important for institutions to effectively leverage their data to drive institutional missions.

And so, leaders must first formulate how they will measure greatness before embarking on a journey to achieve it. In the social sectors specifically, Collins encourages defining success as a product of outputs rather than inputs. Since higher education institutions are not profit driven, they must define success by their output – be that a well-prepared workforce, an increase in available nurses to support low-income areas in the state, improved graduation rates, or research that addresses a global problem. Even in the challenging higher education environment, schools can find ways to measure the impact of their programs and activity against their institutional goals.

So, let’s look at Collins’ four ideas to drive greatness in higher education.

  1. “Level 5” Leadership

Have you ever worked for someone who you would walk over a bed of hot coals for? Then you probably worked for a Level 5 leader.

“Level 5” leaders are those that drive teams to greatness, says Collins. They’re top-tier executives because, in addition to good management skills, they “build…enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will” (12). Above all, they strive to achieve the institutional mission and defer their professional ambitions to do so. This is not to say these leaders purely build consensus. Rather, Level 5 leaders ensure “the right decisions happen – no matter how difficult or painful – for the long-term greatness of the institution and achievement of its mission” (11).

While these attributes are critical for the success of the corporate CEO, they are equally important for college and university leadership. In higher education, this means making the institutional mission paramount in any team decision or action.

Being a Level 5 leader isn’t easy. Constantly changing institutional needs, personnel, market conditions and other demands of the job mean there’s no such thing as a status quo. Retaining a Level 5 leadership mindset means constantly reevaluating what people and teams need to be successful—what needs to be done, on the part of the leader, to help the team accomplish their goals.

  1. A Hedgehog Concept

A “hedgehog concept” says Collins, is an institution’s vision  defined by three criteria: what the institution is deeply passionate about, what the institution can be best in the world at, and what drives the institution’s resource engine.  Focusing on this single concept can guide key decisions, reject what does not align conceptually and drive overall organizational success. For higher education, we’ll refer to the hedgehog concept as the institutional mission.

When creating strategic plans, Collins says, it’s important to channel resources to support the hedgehog concept—or institutional mission. While straying from one’s hedgehog concept can occasionally be tempting for short-term gain, great organizations will home in on those concepts the institution can do competitively. Furthermore, as Collins notes, “focusing solely on what you can potentially do better than any other organization is the only path to greatness.”

At the 2018 Apogee Technology Seminar, Eric Monday, executive vice president for finance and administration at the University of Kentucky, discussed one element of the institution’s mission from his perspective. He confidently listed mission-critical goals that made his institution special, noting that, “Filling the nursing shortage in rural Kentucky with University of Kentucky nursing graduates,” is a mission at which they can be best in the world. Creating a world-class nursing program fills a need for the state, compounding the school’s mission with the pragmatic approach of supporting healthcare resources.

Beyond strategic planning committees or board meetings, this concept applies to the day-to-day decisions Level 5 leaders must make with their teams. These decisions consider the effect on the institution’s resources and team efficiencies. Level 5 leaders will continuously ask: are these tasks the highest and best use of the team’s time? If not, are they worth continuing? And of course: what is the impact to the mission? If the impact of the decision does not further the mission or will negatively affect it, the project is not worth the team’s time.

Consider again the fixated, mission-driven approach of the University of Kentucky, or that of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Bezos’ business mantra reiterates his three big ideas: low prices, fast delivery, and vast selection. Technology automation is upending workforces worldwide and data security is quickly becoming top-of-mind at every company. Yet Bezos’ ideas stand the test of time. If fast delivery is based on consumer expectations, it doesn’t matter if it’s 2005 and Amazon is delivering by UPS, or 2030 and using solar-powered automated drones. For the University of Kentucky, educating nurses to serve the state’s rural populations will remain a core vision regardless of virtual reality environments or new cancer research. The mission remains intact despite technological and generational changes.

  1. The Right People in the Right Seats on the Bus

Imagine you are a bus driver. The bus, your institution, is at a standstill, and it’s your job to get it going. You decide where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who’s going with you.

Most people assume that great bus drivers immediately start the journey by telling people on the bus where they’re going — by setting a new direction or by articulating a fresh corporate vision. In fact, leaders of institutions that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. The right people are self-motivated and share the same institutional vision as the Level 5 leader—the wrong people do not. And the right people are in roles that lets them further that mission.

In filling the bus, there are new challenges inherent to today’s multigenerational workforce. Millennials and Generation Z (iGen), or those born after 1995, are used to constant access to technology and expect immediate results for everything from online orders to Wi-Fi connectivity. Managing a multigenerational team requires that visionary leaders find a solution that puts the right people in the right seats on the same bus instead of separate busses for different generations.

With the right people on the bus, in the right seats, attention can be turned to the “what” question. What are we doing to move our institutional vision forward? This requires a shared vision; one where team members have a meaningful say. And it requires flexibility—which ideas, while outside the framework, still further the mission (and should be incorporated); and which ideas should not be pursued. If the entire bus believes in the vision, the institution will be productive in pursuing greatness.

  1. Turning the Flywheel

The premise of the flywheel is simple. A flywheel is an incredibly heavy wheel that takes huge effort to push. Keep pushing and the flywheel builds momentum. Keep pushing and eventually it starts to turn almost by itself and generate its own momentum – and that’s when a company goes from good to great.

Like flywheels, institutions begin making progress, then can reach a “breaking point” in which the metaphorical flywheel moves forward with almost unstoppable motion. Catalyzing that breaking point forces leaders to evaluate the balance between shoring up operations and innovation. An institution can’t become great without a base from which to build innovation, but the institution will not thrive if it only focuses on perfecting the operational status quo. Consider Maslow’s theory applied to technology.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Technology

For technology leaders, strategy should drive technology and process, not the other way around. Understand the vision and build the technological base that makes it possible to reach that breaking point. Identify which tools are foundational, and which are strategic. Software and tools don’t solve problems, strategic thinking, collaboration, and focus – skills that are intrinsic to humans – do.

In this digital age, infrastructure and connectivity are foundational features. Essential but not core technologies — those required to complete the mission but do not support other technologies — include stability, security, and information. Partnering with trusted resources to perform operationally essential tasks (e.g., email, managing help desks, networking), frees up the team to work on tasks that only the internal team can best accomplish. Once work begins on mission-critical tasks, competitive differentiation starts to move the flywheel with increasing speed.

Brad Stone describes an early version of Amazon’s flywheel in The Everything Store:

… Bezos and his lieutenants sketched their own virtuous cycle, which they believed powered their business. It went something like this: lower prices led to more customer visits. More customers increased the volume of sales and attracted more commission-paying third-party sellers to the site. That allowed Amazon to get more out of fixed costs like the fulfillment centers and the servers needed to run the website. This greater efficiency then enabled it to lower prices further. Feed any part of this flywheel, they reasoned, and it should accelerate the loop.

Think about it. Great institutions have a team that “buys” into a shared vision, they feed this vision, allowing the flywheel to spin with increased momentum. The sky is the limit – recruitment initiatives, immersive technologies, virtual curricula, and more just skim the surface of what the great institution can achieve at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. Universities and colleges that pursue these initiatives will endure for years to come. As Collins explains in his monograph, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.”

Applying Collins’ four Tenets Through a Higher Ed Lens

In summary, institutional leaders from all backgrounds can apply Collins’ four tenets through a higher ed lens. You can build a bus with the right people that can help drive the institutional mission by keeping these best practices in mind:

  1. When recruiting leaders, purposefully seek out individuals who demonstrate personal humility and professional will.
  2. Develop on-campus constituents—beginning with the executive team and filtering down throughout the institution—a passion for the school, its mission, and its success.
  3. Determine measurable indicators of success and frequently monitor progress.
  4. Hold leadership accountable to those measures and support them when difficult or painful decisions are necessary.
  5. Ensure every member of the campus community knows, and is frequently reminded, how their individual efforts play an important role in supporting the institution’s mission and vision.
  6. Take personal responsibility for mistakes but provide attribution to your subordinates and peers for successes.

Any leader jumpstarting an institution’s path to greatness must take a deep dive into their own leadership strategies first. They must understand what drives the resource engine and empower the team to craft the future by building buy-in for non-negotiables. They must remain true to the mission. While software and technology are enablers, they are tools that will not push the flywheel to its breakthrough point. People will. A passionate team with a shared vision will continue to turn the flywheel regardless of their diverse prior experiences or expectations.

Collins is convinced that these good-to-great findings apply broadly and not just to CEOs, but to all of us and whatever work we’re engaged in—including leading colleges and universities toward becoming key building blocks of a great society.

Yes, Jim Collins’ ideas are still relevant for higher education today!


Rajiv Shenoy, Chief Technology Officer, Apogee

Megan Cluver, Senior Manager, Deloitte Consulting

Bill Dillon, Executive Vice President (retired), NACUBO

Works Cited

Cluver, Megan. Dillon, Bill. Shenoy, Rajiv. Are Jim Collins’ Ideas Still Relevant for Higher Ed Today: How Colleges and Universities Can Go From Good to Great. Apogee Technology Seminar, Orlando, FL. 2018.

Collins, James C. “Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer.” Rh Business Books, 2006.

Grajek, Susan. “Top 10 IT Issues, 2018: The Remaking of Higher Education.” Educause, Web. January 29, 2018.

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