Running a school district is more like leading the U.S. Senate than it is like being a corporate executive, says best-selling business writer Jim Collins, whose Good to Great is one of the most widely read books among K-12 administrators.
In a new monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer,” Mr. Collins translates his business-world lessons to the social-services sector, concluding that the book’s key principles look different when applied to school systems, nonprofit groups, and other nonbusiness enterprises.
“I kept hitting this different set of realities that social sectors face,” the Boulder, Colo.-based author said in a recent interview.
Among them: measures of performance other than profit, constraints on hiring and firing, and a diffuse power structure in which chief executives often lack the authority to enact many changes by themselves.
At the same time, he said, his research on social sectors since the publication of Good to Great in 2001 has convinced him that the book’s underlying theories about success hold true for all organizations.
For his book, Mr. Collins led a group of researchers in comparing pairs of companies, one that had achieved enduring success as measured by stock returns and another that hadn’t. They found the great companies distinguished themselves in their personnel decisions, how they used technology, the characteristics of their leaders, and how they understood their core businesses.
The book now is part of the school improvement canon. Education leaders often cite its central lessons, such as “get the right people on the bus” and “confront the brutal facts.” (“Business Book Gains K-12 Following,” Aug. 6, 2003.)
Despite that reception, Mr. Collins said, he’s been challenged to explain how his concepts can work in sectors with a set of rules different from those of corporate America.
“I found that the questions weren’t easy,” he said. “And I really had to do some thinking about it, before I could share any understanding.”
The result is his 35-page monograph, which went on sale last month, mostly through online vendors such as Amazon.com. It discusses each of the book’s findings, and how they can apply in social sectors.
Take the exercise of leadership. In his book, Mr. Collins describes what he calls Level 5 Leaders, whose combination of professional will and personal humility make them ambitious for their organizations, but not for themselves.
Success in the nonbusiness world requires the same qualities, Mr. Collins contends, but social-sector leaders typically have far less direct control over their organizations. He writes that their challenge is to “make the right decisions happen.”
That takes a special skill set, which he calls “legislative,” rather than “executive.” Asked for an example, he cites Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous ability to bend the Senate to his will when he served as the body’s majority leader.
Mr. Collins argues that executive leadership alone is not sufficient for human-resource management in the social sectors, where staffing decisions often are restricted by job protections and low pay.
Relying on ‘Brands’
To show how those challenges can be overcome, he points to Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in 1990 to recruit recent graduates of selective liberal-arts colleges to work for two years in urban and rural schools. Since then, more than 97,100 applicants have vied for about 14,100 spots. The lesson, said Mr. Collins, is that competitive people are attracted by selectivity.
He also writes of a high school science teacher who assembled a top-notch science department largely by not recommending novice teachers for tenure unless they’d proven themselves to be exceptional in their first years on the job.
“He realized that the default is that if you haven’t done something terrible, you’re going to be passed on through,” said Mr. Collins. “And his response was: That’s not good enough.”
Mr. Collins concedes that leading an organization to greatness involves special challenges in the nonbusiness sectors, where better performance doesn’t necessarily translate into more revenue.
He posits that social-sector organizations rely more on their reputations—their “brands,” as he terms them—to generate financial resources. He notes that parents tend to pick schools based more on reputation than on a careful study of their achievement.
“Building anything great is difficult,” he said. But, he added: “There are schools that do it, there are teachers that do it, there are science departments that do it.”