6/12 Questions from Jim Collins

6/12 Questions from Jim Collins

By Rachel Stone

February 28th was one of those rare occasions that will stay with me forever.  I got to listen to one of the world’s most respected experts on the topic of leading successful businesses.  If you are not familiar with Jim Collins’ work (Good to Great, Built to Last, Great by Choice and others) then it would be wise to get stuck in.

Jim Collins and his team of researchers have spent 25 years studying what makes businesses great. It’s empirical research. The evidence is laid out for you.

The day I saw him it cemented so much of my previous understanding.  He summarised his wealth of knowledge and experience into a solid morning of jam packed learning. I’d like to share it with you in a series of blogs.

This first one gives you the over view and the subsequent ones will break it down further.

Here’s the top layer which comes from the 12 questions took us through on the day:

1)      Are we willing to strive for Level 5 Leadership, and to embrace the 10X behaviours needed to build a great company or social enterprise?

If you’ve read Good to Great you will know what this means, if not you better had get on with it! What type of leaders can take an already good company and move it forwards to a massive uplift in results? You’ll be surprised by the findings.  It’s not those “all singing, all dancing” charismatic leaders parachuted in. It’s more likely to be those diligent, earnest and humble leaders.  When things go right they praise the team sincerely.  When things go wrong they look in the mirror, taking personal responsibility for failure. The success of the business is more important that the personal ego.

2)      Do we practice the principle of First Who with the Right People on the Bus and in the right seats?

This makes you really look at your approach to hiring people and rigorously (not ruthlessly) developing the team.  The relentless pursuit of the right attitude over and above the right skills is key.  The people drive the system and the system drives the business.  So get the right people on board first then decide what to do with them.


3)      What are the Brutal Facts and how can we better live the Stockdale Paradox?

Vice Admiral James Stockdale survived of the horrific ordeal of being a Vietnamese Prisoner of War. His experience has been studied by countless psychologists because he was so successful in his endeavours whilst a captive  under horrific circumstances. There were many prisoners in the same situation as Stockdale, although they didn’t survive. They based all their survival efforts on being optimistic about their fate and hanging on for the day they would be rescued. Studies revealed that many died of broken hearts. They hoped for a release at Christmas, then Easter, then in the fall and so on.  Their optimism wasn’t enough to keep them alive on its own.

Stockdale, on the other hand, coupled optimism with facing up to the brutal truth.  Collins claims this as one of the six key concepts in his Good to Great Flywheel model.

Stockdale famously said “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade”

His efforts were channelled into accomplishments to defy the enemy and to take an element of control.  He developed a tapping code to communicate with others, he sent a coded message home to his wife which relayed vital information about the enemy and he used a system of milestones to keep him alive.

Since the study of his ordeal the “Stockdale Paradox”  has been discussed in leadership circles and it is simply this:

  • You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
  • AND at the same time…
  • You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Many leaders fail to hear the brutal truth. The higher up in an organisation you get the less likely you can be to hear what you need to hear.  Unless you crate the right culture.

4)      What do we understand about the Hedgehog Concept- what we are fanatically passionate about? What we can (and cannot) be the best at and what drives our economic or resources engine?

Good to Great sets out the Flywheel model and a crucial part of this is the Hedgehog Concept.  Only when these three things are present does success occur:

1)      You are doing what you are passionate about (truly passionate, not what you can get passionate about if you have to)

2)      You are doing what you can do “Best in the World” i.e. leave alone those things at which you are only average

3)      You choose to measure profit in the right way.

You’ve really got to read the book to get this – or read another blog to follow!

5)How can we accelerate the clicks on the Fly Wheel by committing to a 20 mile march?

Colllins explains that the Flywheel clicks slowly until everything is in place to get that change in momentum.  He urges you to map out your FlyWheel – and to keep the consistency of a focus on the steady progress towards excellence.  The reference comes from an expedition across the frozen continent by a famous team of explorers led by a formidable leader. How did they have success – they just kept on with the steady goal.” We just march 20 miles a day”   Collins described two businesses to compare, one with sporadic success but higher than average rewards, with inconsistent bursts of results in a jerky and unpredictable manner, some great years, some rubbish ones, compared to a steady and reliable company producing consistent, lower and secure results over an upwards but steady curve.  He favours the second.  The steady march towards success with a clear focus and a consistent drive forwards wins hands down.  Get the right focus and keep the clarity and keep marching forwards.

6)Where should we place our big bets, based on the principle “Fire Bullets , then cannon balls”- blending creativity and discipline to scale innovation?

It’s a great visual clue as to where the difference is between what supports success and what doesn’t.  The calibration of ideas, methods and approaches before committing to something seems so obvious but few businesses try this.  Having the patience and forethought to test and monitor first then to go ahead requires a mindset that ego driven leaders fail to exercise.  Someone’s great idea needs to be trialled and the results reviewed.  All too often the rush to do things efficiently overrides what would be effective and this can lead to failure.

Collins talks a great deal about discipline- not as you might think of it (the stick wielding brute ruling with a fist of iron is not what he means.)  He means the disciplined thought, with disciplined actions of disciplined people (the right Who).


The next blog will continue with the next 6 of the 12 questions.


Rachel stone is a leadership coach and trainer who works to help businesses grow through expert leadership.  If you are interested in developing a coaching culture in your leadership team call 01424 830000 or 07545217966  to book up for your free 90 minute consultation.



About RSE Group

Here at the RSE Group, we are curious to understand what will give organisations the best ROI on their investment in their people.

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Whether it’s about their skills, experience, attitudes & potential, or about its organisations and their teams, management, leadership, culture and behavioural preferences, it is clearly so much more than just about getting bums on seats.

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