Sunday, December 14, 2014

Social Sector Greatness

Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to GreatGood to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great by James C. Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes I like to argue with authors, often scribbling “yeah, but…” comments across the margins of their books. Other authors make such tight, well-researched cases for the points they make, they are hard to argue with. Jim Collins is in this last category. A business professor, Collins’ books are reports on in-depth university studies about his subjects. Built to Last and Good to Great have become essential business reading.

(I did a two-page summary of Good to Great a while back. You can download that by clicking here.

Collins has convinced me that there are identifiable characteristics separating businesses that have sustained greatness from those that have not. He believes his theory is applicable to all kinds of organizations, including social sector entities like schools, hospitals, non-profit organizations, etc. He doesn’t really flesh out that idea in Good to Great, but fortunately for all of us, Collins wrote a follow-on article called “Good to Great and the Social Sectors.” Here is the first paragraph:

"We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to be ‘more like a business.’ Most businesses – like everything else in life – fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great… So, then, why would we want to import the practices of mediocrity into the social sectors?”

Good question, Professor. Why would we do that?

Greatness is a product of certain dynamics that have been researched and described. Import those to your social sector organization, Collins teaches us, and make them relevant to your organization.

Here are a few keys of the Good to Great framework, with the updates relevant to the social sectors. I’ll be using these with government and non-profit clients from now on:

1) Defining and Measuring “Great”: In business, the primary measure of greatness is profits. Not so in the social sectors where money is rarely an output of the organization. Mission-based outcomes can be more difficult to quantify and measure, but it is nonetheless important to do so effectively. Performance against clearly identified mission-based goals must be meticulously monitored and continuously improved.

2) “Level 5” Leadership: Leaders who possess all the usual leadership skills are Level 4 leaders. To be a Level 5 leader, one must be focused on the organization, rather than on oneself, and be working to groom the next generation of leaders. Social services organizations tend to not have the top-down chains of power and control more prevalent in the business sector, so leaders must be facilitative and possess the ability to build consensus.

3) First Who – Get the Right People on the Bus: Without the right people, no organization can hope to survive, let alone thrive. Good people who are mission-focused and present for all the right reasons don’t need “motivation” or “alignment” or spectacular compensation packages. Getting the wrong people off the bus is complicated in the social sectors by tenure and a high degree of volunteerism. But – an organization can’t be great if the people in it are not internally motivated to make it so.

4) Confront the Brutal Facts without Losing your Vision: Greatness requires managers who resist any temptation to stick their heads in the sand or gloss over the hardest-to-deal-with aspects of their reality. At the same time, that clear-eyed focus can’t come at the expense of hope or willingness to dream up a better reality. Take a good look at where you really are, be clear about where you want to go, and move forward with purpose.

I love Collins’ concluding sentence as much as I love the opening one: “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” The 30 pages in between are pretty good, too. As someone who believes passionately in planning for success, I highly recommend the studies Jim Collins and his colleagues have made of the attributes of greatness. If it is true that you can’t learn about the light by studying the darkness (and I believe it is) then here is a study of the light. Good luck!

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