By David J. Waldron, Author, Speaker, and Advisor on Organizational Effectiveness
This is an excerpt from David Waldron’s forthcoming book, “A Great Place to Learn & Earn – An Organizational Effectiveness Model for Private Sector Education.” Reprinted with permission of David Waldron.
In his seminal book, “Good to Great” (Harper Business) Jim Collins and his research team studied organizations that had transformed from merely good companies to great, legendary enterprises. The team found several common denominators that were shared by each company studied. Many of these common traits were paradoxical or counter to conventional wisdom.
Whereas business books are typically a dime a dozen, “Good to Great” is considered by many as one of the best ever written. I am in that camp, and therefore have chosen these key concepts as the basis of this installment of “A Great Place to Learn & Earn” to demonstrate how private sector education schools and companies can make the leap to greatness.
First who, then what?
This initial concept is perhaps the most paradoxical of Collins’ conclusions.
He found that great companies first hired the best talent they could find and afford, and then let their people determine the vision and mission of the organization.
In other words, let capable people you hire collectively create the culture of the company. Collins’ ingeniously translated this notion of first who, then what, into a believable concept.
He envisioned the successful organization as driving a bus down a highway not really knowing where it is ultimately journeying but certainly to a place of greatness:
- First get the right people on the bus.
- Then get the wrong people off the bus.
- Next put the right people in the right seats.
- And then let the right people in the right seats figure out where to drive the bus.
This powerful concept is rarely found in today’s workplace, private sector education being no exception in general. Vision is often set at the top, and then talent is sought to “fit in” to the culture of that vision. But does it work?
To test the typical vision first, people second culture found in most organizations today; simply ask a highly regarded employee or co-worker what they think of your organization’s vision and culture. Political correctness notwithstanding, you should expect a generally positive albeit brief and to-the-point answer. But then ask the same person what they would like to see added and/or deleted to the published vision, mission, and values statements. I guarantee their time spent answering your follow-up question will far exceed the first. This is where the concept of people first manifests itself as motivated employees want to be a harbinger of the vision as opposed to simply a follower.
So how do we find outstanding, self-disciplined employees and co-workers?
Interview for greatness
Hire people (or refer them if not in a hiring capacity) who are disciplined in their own right. I have long observed the second you need to micro manage someone, you have made a hiring mistake. But what if we manage systems, not people? Collins found this a superior approach “…because when you have disciplined people, you do not need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you do not need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you do not need excessive controls.” In the great companies he researched, these hiring practices came before any deep analyzing of otherwise required credentials and practical skills.
To demonstrate a real world example of putting discipline and commitment ahead of credentials, I once ran a career college where I had stopped counting how many times students would tell me a particular faculty member was the best teacher they ever had going back to kindergarten. This instructor was a disciplinarian, i.e., maintained classroom control, but taught in a kind, dedicated, and thoughtful manner; and the students respected her for the consistency. She was a born teacher, yet never took her natural talent for granted, always working hard and going above and beyond for her students without letting them off the hook. In the eyes of students, peers, and administrators, she was simply the best.
However, in pursuing regional accreditation (to replace our national accreditation) although this instructor was highly educated, including a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League institution in the subject matter she taught, the accreditation visiting team determined she would no longer be eligible to teach certain courses because her master’s degree was not in the same field as required by the standards. Best teacher ever, but not the right credential. I wanted to give a copy of “Good to Great” to each member of the accreditation team.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this same great instructor possessed four personality traits that I found in my years as a hiring manager often predicated success or failure of employees in career training environments.
Four common traits of successful private sector education employees:
- Assertive (values oriented communicator).
- Self-directed (performs with limited or no supervision).
- Other-directed (genuinely customer focused).
- Work ethic (dedication and character).
Two immutable keys to the four traits of a successful private sector education professional are (1) the employee must possess all four with some significance; and (2) the qualities must be discovered in the hiring process because each cannot be taught.
Let us take a look at all four traits:
Assertive does not mean aggressive. Conversely, ethically assertive professionals demonstrate a strong capacity for communicating well with a focus on values and problem-solving. In the formal interview ask the candidate to share a story of how they recognized and solved a pressing problem in the workplace. Their answer will tell you a ton (or little) about their professional assertiveness.
Next take them on a tour of your campus or office building to see how they naturally interact with staff and/or students. Successful education and training environments, particularly those with challenged demographics, require ethical assertiveness.
Self-directed, commonly referred as self-motivated, defines how disciplined the employee is when left with limited supervision. But do not ask the candidate direct questions about their self-motivation as good interviewees (not necessarily good employees) will have prepared answers they know you want to hear. Instead challenge them with questions about specific projects or job duties they were forced to complete on their own. Listen to how confident, or not, they were in tackling and completing tasks at work, even unpopular ones.
Other-directed, often described simply as customer service, is becoming a dinosaur in today’s commerce. But do not confuse this trait with purely outgoing, friendly personalities as a majority of people in today’s society, and therefore workplaces, are extraverted. What we actually need are caring and motivated professionals (including introverts) who are genuinely about taking care of the customer whether a student, employer, co-worker, or regulator.
During the hiring process observe and/or ask how the candidate perceives their role in teaching or serving students and other stakeholders. The answer should invariably be I love doing this so much; getting paid (fairly) for it is merely a bonus!
Work ethic is probably the one trait most often associated with you can not teach that. But work ethic is more than just showing up on time, putting in the necessary effort to get the job done, and being responsible for your workload. It is also about character and self-discipline.
Taking responsibility, avoiding impulsive behavior, and being one who takes the high road are also common in those with a sound work ethic. Interview questions here are simple: “Bring me through a typical workday from arrival to departure. Tell me about the last time you were in an unexpected confrontation with a customer or co-worker. How did you handle it?” Get to the character of the candidate.
Lead and/or follow with professional will and personal humility
Whether we approach our work as a leader or a follower (granted both are needed for a successful team) Collins’ discovered the great organizations and their people exhibit uncommon workplace habits
- Focus equally on what to do, what not to do, and what to stop doing.
- Take credit for bad performance while giving credit when things go well.
- Lead with questions, not answers.
- Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion.
- Conduct necessary autopsies fixated on solutions, not blame.
Imagine a corporate office or campus with a culture that allows processes to be questioned; takes responsibility when things do not go as well as planned; does not always have the answers, but often engages with questioning to empower as opposed to stymie; facilitates open dialogue in problem-solving; and investigates issues for resolution instead of culpability. What if there were no written warnings; no annual performance reviews; no bible long rules of conduct; no wrenching restructurings and cost-cutting; or other repressive tactics that paralyze more than stimulate an organization?
What if companies were actually run by department managers and their teams, not by well-intentioned but sometimes destructive legal and human resources departments? Collins’ great companies were magnificent because they first hired and nurtured disciplined people, and then let them collectively drive the bus to greatness.
Confront the brutal facts, and do the right thing
Collins also found that companies making the leap from good to great had a consistent belief in their ability to succeed in the end. He believes that if companies conduct their due diligence and gather all of the facts, the right path will often unfold right in front of them.
His terrific analogy is of a large flywheel that takes relentless pushing to get it to turn over even once, but after spinning in the same direction over time it starts to gain momentum until it is a very powerful force on its own. Collins contends “Good to Great” transformations never happen overnight. They are the result of years of persistence. It might look dramatic and revolutionary from the outside, but on the inside it is more of an organic, ongoing development process.
Drive your economic engine
New Enrollment + Quality Education + Graduation Rate + Job Placement % = Profitable Enterprise
In Collins’ book, the good to great companies commonly recognized and drove their economic engines, the ultimate achievement for being in existence as a company in the first place. During three decades in the workplace it became apparent to me how easily people and organizations get sidetracked from the economic mission, often the founding purpose of a company.
For private sector education, successfully thrusting its economic engine is arguably as simple as new enrollment + quality education + graduation rate + job placement % = profitable enterprise.
But this formula for success has no room for predatory recruiting, devalued instructional costs, grade inflation, or minimal job placement standards. To the contrary, it takes a disciplined caring environment focused on doing the right thing by hiring and retaining employees that recruit, train, support, and fully outplace qualified students to the benefit of all stakeholders including student, employer, regulator, shareholder, and the public at large.
Understanding and driving your company’s economic engine is the fundamental requirement of a successful organization. Ignore or compromise your engine, and it will seize.
What can your campus or company be the best in the world at?
This question was often a central theme to the great companies in Collins’ research. The successful companies want to know the one big audacious thing the organization can understand and stick to. What does or can the organization do or use as its core solution to competitive threats and changes in the industry (think gainful employment)? What must we be deeply passionate about, best in the world at, and able to make a profit or surplus by doing so?
I challenge all readers, regardless of whether you are affiliated with a campus, regional division, corporate office, regulatory agency, employer, investor, or perhaps work outside of private sector education, to engage your colleagues by asking the question, what can we be the best in the world at? You might be amazed by the passionate contributions to this exercise.
For example, at a career school I led we made an effort to hire the best talent available, and often asked the question “What are or can we be the best and most passionate in the world at?” Inevitably, the consensus was campus event management demonstrated by strong and willing participation throughout the ranks of faculty, staff, and administration. The improvement in enrollment, retention, and placement results, capped by a spectacular graduation ceremony from this joint effort in event planning and execution were significant. Lo and behold we ultimately became known as the preeminent campus in the company for event management and were soon called upon by other locations nationwide for our best practices.
“People Before Vision” puts great teams on the private sector education bus that drive it on a successful journey determined to benefit all interested stakeholders. And I say journey as opposed to destination, as a voyage of greatness will endure far beyond any finite endpoint.
In the spirit of “Good to Great,” you and your organization deserve to be on a journey of greatness. Be committed first to hiring and retaining the best people possible. Show up every day with professional will complimented by personal humility. Regularly confront reality and always do the right thing. Drive a culture of discipline, in a caring way. Remain forever focused on your economic engine. Work tirelessly to turn that flywheel until it spins in perpetuity. Ultimately recognize what you and your coworkers do well. And then simply be the best in the world at it.
Copyright 2015 David J. Waldron. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with Permission.
David Waldron is an award winning, 24 year veteran of for-profit postsecondary education industry and author of the forthcoming book, “A Great Place to Learn & Earn: An Organizational Effectiveness Model for Private Sector Education.” He provides high profile leadership and actionable commentary to client companies worldwide as writer, speaker, advisor, and board member.
David most recently was founder and publisher of Edu Investor at Country View Capital Research, LLC where he served as an expert source to institutional investors, management consultants, and expert networks; and as contributing education services writer at Seeking Alpha, the online platform for investment research.
He was previously campus president at Lincoln Educational Services where he tripled student enrollment with a strong compliance record; opened the first Euphoria Institute of Beauty Arts & Sciences outside Las Vegas; increased student satisfaction from 63 percent to 90 percent; launched the first practical nursing program in state history; the an inaugural member of company’s campus leadership council.
Prior to being recruited to Lincoln, David was campus president at Gibbs College of Boston where he implemented quality inner city student services featured nationally in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Business Week; and initiated a capital improvement and presentation program elevating the campus to a showcase for institutional investors. He is also former campus president of the original Katharine Gibbs School in Providence, RI where he successfully lobbied the state Legislature to become the only degree granting for-profit institution in the state’s history.
David earned his B.S. in Business Studies from Stockton University (NJ) on a full academic scholarship, and completed the Program in the Practice of Management at Brown University.
*GOOD TO GREAT – Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. Copyright © 2001 by Jim Collins. Published by Harper Business (imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.) For more information visit: http://www.jimcollins.com/.