Jim Collins is telling the story of his grandfather, role model and namesake Jimmy Collins, "a truly heroic figure" who was a test pilot in the 1930s – and not just any test pilot. Jimmy also wrote a bestseller, published posthumously after he crashed. "The thing about the right stuff is the people who have the right stuff don't just live cool, they die cool," Collins says.
That must have been a lot for your father to live up to, I venture. “My father was a very different character,” he says carefully. “He was an artist, and he died young, aged 48, and was kind of . . . I would just simply sum it up as: ‘Being a parent was not his hedgehog.’”
This exchange, about 25 minutes into our lunch at Murano, in London’s Mayfair, also sums up what readers love, or loathe, about Collins’s work. One of the world’s best-known and bestselling management writers, the former McKinsey consultant and Stanford lecturer has created a large, loyal following – and a rival band of vehement critics – with his mixture of deep research, vivid anecdote and leadership insights, often encapsulated in images that are memorable to the point of absurdity.
Since the 1990s, Collins has relentlessly propagated ideas such as Big Hairy Audacious Goals (pronounced “Bee Hags”), which leaders can use to stimulate progress, the “20-Mile March”, which gives teams the discipline to press on through uncertainty, and “Level 5 Leaders”, who mix humility and willpower.
"The Hedgehog Concept" comes from Collins's best-known title Good to Great (2001), which appropriates Isaiah Berlin's essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, itself based on the Greek proverb, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
Collins turned it into a principle for leaders to live by. He found that chief executives who led companies that went from merely good to truly great had a simple, clear understanding of what they and their organisations were best at. Since the book appeared, he has added to his list of successful single-minded leaders people such as Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, which encourages top college students into teaching, and Jorge Paulo Lemann, the Brazilian entrepreneur behind Kraft Heinz's recent abortive takeover approach to Unilever.
Roll their eyes
Our lunch is taking place a day before a rare live appearance by Collins outside the US. Over 1,100 managers are paying up to £714 (€845) a head to hear these ideas, straight from the hedgehog’s mouth, at London’s ExCel centre. I warn Collins that when I mention BHAGs to cynical British colleagues, they roll their eyes. We’re among the few early lunchers at Murano and I’m reluctant to break the cool quiet of Angela Hartnett’s Michelin-starred dining room with a profanity. But, I venture, is this not essentially BS?
Collins doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he credits his wife Joanne with pointing out that once you have clarified what you think, you have to “wrap the concept in such a way that the wrapping paper is a useful carrier of the idea”.
It’s a way of marketing the idea then?
No, Collins responds, it is teaching. “I am at my core a teacher . . . I never started a firm, a big consulting firm, or a training firm, and I keep my own schedule really tightly limited.” Why? Because “I don’t want to sell ideas, I want to teach ideas”.
If you really count a creative hour with discipline, you can't fudge them, you have to stay on the march
For a teacher, Collins is a particularly effective salesman, though. His books have sold more than 10 million copies, the London seminar is a sellout, and chief executives flock to his management lab in Boulder, Colorado to engage in "Socratic dialogue" with the author.
His success partly comes down to his famous self-discipline. Indeed, what has most worried me about the lunch, scheduled to last precisely 90 minutes, is that it may not be productive – for Collins rather than me. As a young academic, he started dividing his days into creative and intellectual activities, which he reckoned should take up 50 per cent of his time, teaching (30 per cent), and “other stuff” (the rest). For a while, he ran three stopwatches. Now, Collins simply measures the creative part, trying to maintain a rolling average of 1,000 creative hours a year and posting the running total – his own 20-Mile March – on a whiteboard at his lab.
Hitting a consistent 1,000 creative hours is not easy, he says. “If you really count a creative hour with discipline, you can’t fudge them, you have to stay on the march.” With every minute of our lunch that descends into waffle or small talk, I feel his target getting further away.
As the waiter arrives to take our order – my guest picks veal osso buco as his main course from the set lunch menu; I go with sea bass from the à la carte – Collins is describing an even more extreme period of self-measurement. He calls it “monk mode”, when he needs to dedicate himself to completion of a project. At first, he merely increases his creative hours. Then he becomes “belligerently reclusive”, he says. In the later stages he alters his entire sleep pattern.
“It’s not uncommon for me to go through a cycle where [it’s] bed at 10 at night, sleep until maybe two, up, work two till breakfast, nap, then another chunk of time, followed by an afternoon workout, another nap, evening session before dinner, little bit of relaxation, work session before dinner, bed at 10, up at two, repeat.” He pauses. “I might do that for weeks on end.”
Presumably napping was out at McKinsey. Collins joined its San Francisco office at 22, after graduating in mathematical sciences. In the "ethic of professionalism" laid down by Marvin Bower, who shaped the modern consultancy, he found a substitute for what his late father hadn't offered. "To be essentially parented into the value system that Marvin Bower created was one of the great lucky breaks of my life," he says.
Collins also managed to get involved in a project that was to make the name of McKinsey consultants Robert Waterman and Tom Peters, with In Search of Excellence (1982), a book that topped the New York Times bestseller list for a year and a half and set the stage for Collins and other leadership "gurus". Working on it "planted the seed", he says, "for what became 25 years of work".
When I say I am somewhat in awe of anyone with the discipline to see their career path as clearly as Collins seems to have done, he politely denies that everything was planned. But he was clearly a determined young man. When he started to teach at Stanford, aged 30, he crossed out the opening line of the syllabus description of his course and wrote: “This will be a course on how to turn an entrepreneurial venture or small business into an enduring, great company.”
Of all his books, his favourite is How the Mighty Fall, which addressed why established companies fail
This was the genesis of his breakthrough book Built to Last (1994), written with fellow academic Jerry Porras, and of his signature research method: take pairs of companies, rewind their history, and work out how one company became highly successful and the other did not. It is a method that has opened him to criticism – the most common of which is that not all the visionary companies in Built to Last actually lasted and that not all the great companies in Good to Great stayed great.
Collins finds such criticism frustrating. Of all his books, he says his favourite is 2009's How the Mighty Fall, which addressed why established companies fail, including some (Motorola, Circuit City) that he had celebrated in earlier work. But he remains adamant that his approach is no less valid than studying the training methods of world-class athletes, even if their records are later broken. What is more, he believes it is even more important to apply those principles in an era of frequent disruption, dominated by an Uber or a Google.
“We know [the world] is full of uncertainty, it’s full of chaotic events, it’s full of all these sorts of things. We still have the same question. The question is, how do you still start and build something great and potentially lasting in that kind of world? So I reject the idea that you can’t. I categorically reject that it’s impossible. It might be harder. So what? Anything exceptional is hard. This is yummy.”
We were able to define and quantify luck and then ask the question, 'Are the winners lucky?'
He forks a romanesco floret from his plate, holds it up and poses a disconcerting question: “Did you know that romanesco is a mathematical fractal?” Collins explains that when he took a course on chaos theory, the vegetable was singled out as an example of a natural occurrence of the geometrical structure – an odd reason for selecting a starter, but a fine illustration of the curiosity that he says is his “little engine inside”.
Daniel Kahneman took up the critique of Collins in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), accusing him of "ignoring the determinative power of luck" to shape companies' destinies. This attack animates Collins as we move on to our main courses. He believes that he and Morten Hansen answered it in their book Great by Choice, published around the same time as Kahneman's. Examining the good and bad luck that pairs of companies faced, they concluded that the critical question was not "Are you lucky?" but "Do you get a high return on luck?" The best, they found, earn a higher return by working harder and, as a result, rebound more strongly from disasters.
As he tucks into his veal, Collins says, “It is deeply satisfying that we were able to define and quantify luck and then ask the question, ‘Are the winners lucky?’ . . . and to find out they’re not.”
Collins is an engaging lunch companion, with the charm of a streetwise professor who is as interested in his students as in his own work. But there must be a risk, I suggest, that as he becomes more personally invested in the principles he framed, he becomes more reluctant to wonder whether he got any of them wrong.
“You should always be open to the possibility that something will negate [what] you found before,” he says. Collins has arrived in London as critics are tearing into 3G and Jorge Paulo Lemann following Kraft Heinz’s over-ambitious bid for Unilever. But at his live seminar the day after our lunch, he singles out Lemann’s success as a pre-eminent example of “the power of the BHAG”, and, over lunch, he says his confidence in the solidity of his earlier findings only grows with experience. “What scares me is, what if the biggest, most important thing, we just completely missed?”
I ask where this "dark matter" may be lurking. Unlike some motor-mouthed management experts, Collins likes to pause before answering knotty questions. Here he waits for about 10 seconds. Like another of his role models – Peter Drucker, one of the most influential management thinkers of the 20th century – he has spent his career studying organisations and how they are run and led. But traditional hierarchies are disintegrating. When Collins finally responds, he says he increasingly wonders "if in fact the dominant structure isn't organisations, but networks".
Collins breaks off to compliment the waiter on the osso buco, and then continues to worry at the bone I have tossed him. “It was roughly 100 years ago that the shift to organisations [being] well-managed really started to take hold,” he says. “A hundred years later, maybe we’re really making an equally significant secular structural shift.”
Some of the clues for how to solve this “world-tilting” conundrum are already planted in his work, notably the importance of having the right people in your network. Collins, “an average and intense rock climber”, who conquered the “Nose” route of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite park in a day for his 50th birthday, says one lesson he draws from mountaineering is that “if you’re going to do really hard, difficult, scary things you might as well do it with people you really, really love spending time with”.
Climbing gives Collins, at 59, a lean energy that he demonstrates the following day as he pours out his greatest hits in three hours on stage. He and his wife, a former professional triathlete, have no children. But the three projects that are now the focus of his creative time show he is as interested in youth and legacy as any parent. One is a study of what motivates headteachers in the toughest US school districts. A second will be what he calls "a map [for] and a challenge to young leaders", fuelled in part by two years' teaching – and learning from – cadets at US military academy West Point. The third is an analysis of self-renewal, in particular the question of why so many individuals fail to renew themselves in middle age.
‘The big years’
“I would like to renew, I would like to be renewed,” says Collins. “The big years are 60 to 90, to me,” he adds, pointing out that when he first met Peter Drucker, then aged 86, the Vienna-born sage still had 10 books left in him. “I want to dwarf what happened before this with what comes next.”
As we tackle a sticky chocolate ganache for dessert, it seems the right moment for a similarly chewy question.
Collins has championed Level 5 Leaders, describing them as often "self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy". Yet around the world, leaders who seem to defy that model of humility are being elected. Donald Trump in the US is the most obvious throwback to a pre-1990s management style of command and control. Have leaders learnt anything from Collins's bestselling templates of how to run organisations?
Collins dodges my attempt to get him to comment on Trump with a smile and another nod to his favourite spiny mammal. “I tend to stick to what I know,” he says. Political leadership is “way outside my hedgehog”. He adds: “Are you ever going to wake up . . . and find that the world is nirvana with all positions of power held by Level 5? You know and I know from our studies of history that’s not the way the world works.”
Instead he hopes to "ignite a homing mechanism" that draws young managers into leading with purpose and values. He and Porras aimed to answer the question of whether such purpose-driven companies are more successful in Built to Last. "What we found is that you're at no disadvantage, so therefore if that's important to you, go win with it. If it's not important to you I can't do anything about that."
It seems an oddly downbeat conclusion – almost the opposite of a Big Hairy Audacious Goal – for a man with such a firm desire to fulfil Drucker’s lofty goal of making society “more productive and more humane”. But we have already over-run the promised 90 minutes by nearly an hour, and I have to ask one last question before Collins heads back towards monk mode. Will he add this lunch to his 1,000-hour rolling target of time spent productively? Collins pauses. “It will get some portion of ‘creative’,” he replies, diplomatically.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)