Treat It Like a Business
In 2005, Jim Collins, author of the best-selling Good to Great, penned a brief but time-worthy monograph Good to Great and the Social Sector. His subtitle should say it all, Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer. However, just in case anyone missed his point, Collins’ first paragraph begins with these prescient words, “We must reject the idea—well-intentioned, but dead wrong—that the primary path to greatness in the social sector is to become ‘more like a business’” (p. 1). (Note: All quotes and references are from, Collins, Jim. Good to Great and the Social Sector: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer. A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great. Boulder, CO: Jim Collins, 2005.)
Issue Three: First Who—Getting the Right People on the Bus, within the Social Sector Constraints
Collins launches his discussion of issue three with a true story that illustrates that social sector “leadership” is not only about the “head” of the organization. In his illustration, a high school science chair turns his fourteen-person department into a great organization. You “can build a pocket of greatness without executive power, in the middle of an organization” (p. 14).
Collins then repeats his findings from Good to Great. “Do whatever you can to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people into the right seats” (p. 14).
Since it is harder to hire “great” people in the social sector, at least with money as a motivator, and since it is harder to fire mediocre people in the social sector, especially volunteers, early assessment is the key to getting and keeping the right people in the right seats (p. 15).
Who are the “right” people in non-profit organizations? “Those who are productively neurotic, those who are self-motivated and self-disciplined, those who wake up every day, compulsively driven to do the best they can because it is simply part of their DNA” (p. 15).
Taking It Home
So, how do you select and assess people in the social sector? First, tap into their idealistic passions. The “social sectors have one compelling advantage: desperate craving for meaning in our lives” (p. 16). Purity of mission has the power to ignite passion.
Second, make the selection process selective. The “more selective the process, the more attractive a position becomes—even if volunteer or low pay” (p. 16).
Issue Four: The Hedgehog Concept—Rethinking the Economic Engine without a Profit Motive
The essence of the Hedgehog Concept is “to attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, and then exercising the relentless discipline to say, ‘No thank you,’ to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test” (p. 17). In the private sector, this includes three intersecting circles of deep understanding:
1. Knowing what you are deeply passionate about.
2. Knowing what you can be the best in the world at.
3. Knowing what best drives your economic engine.
In the social sector, the third area “shifts from being an economic engine to a resource engine” (p. 18). The question is not, “How much money do we make?” It is, “How can we develop a sustainable resource engine to deliver superior performance relative to our mission?” (p. 18).
The core resource for non-profits is people. People who know what they and the organization are passionate about and who know what they and the organization can be the best in the world at.
The first key leadership principle is learning how to tie your people (resource) to your passion and your passion to your people. How do we jointly develop a family-sense of shared purpose that everyone is passionate about?
The second key is learning how to say “No thank you” to resources (people) who are not passionate about your passion. In a church, this means taking the risky level five leader step of offending the well-too-do or well-connected in your congregation by not selecting them for leadership positions if they are not passionate about the church’s passion.
Issue Five: Turning the Flywheel—Building Momentum by Building the Brand
In building a great social sector organization, “there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, our research showed that it feels like turning a giant flywheel. Pushing with great effort—days, weeks and months of work, with almost imperceptible progress—you finally get the flywheel to inch forward. But you don’t stop. You keep pushing, and with persistent effort, you eventually get the flywheel to complete one entire turn” (p. 23).
You keep this up . . . a hundred thousand times. “Then, at some point—breakthrough! Each turn builds upon previous work, compounding your investment of effort. The flywheel flies forward with almost unstoppable momentum. This is how you build greatness” (p. 23).
By focusing on your passion, you produce results. Those results, in turn, attract resources, which you use to build a stronger organization which delivers even better results, which attracts greater recourses . . . Success breeds support which breeds greater success.
It’s fascinating to see this process at work, for good and for bad, in a local church. Often times, a pastor will serve faithfully for years, leading the cranking of the flywheel. For reasons known only to God, the pastor senses a call elsewhere. The new pastor on the block inherits an already-cranked flywheel. The flywheel takes off. The new pastor claims all the credit, indicating that he is not a true level five leader. Clogs develop in the flywheel, and it grinds to a halt.
Had the new pastor rightfully honored the way the previous pastor had built a strong, self-sustaining organization (one that could thrive without him because he had equipped the people to be leaders), then the flywheel could have continued to fly on into the future. This is the essence of a great church with a great level five leader.
According to Collins, in the social sector, the key driver that keeps the flywheel flying is brand reputation which he defines as tangible results and emotional share of heart. That is, potential supporters believe not only in your mission, “but in your capacity to deliver on that mission” (p. 25).
Social sector leaders constantly keep the flywheel going by doing good for the world but only good if it fits with the core passion, and refusing to be diverted to other good things (p. 27). Stand firm behind your core passion delivered with uncompromising excellence. Build a pocket of greatness.
Do not let outside or inside problems stop you. Follow the Stockdale Paradox: “You must retain faith that you can prevail to greatness in the end, while retaining the discipline to confront the brutal facts of your current reality. What can you do today to create a pocket of greatness, despite the brutal facts of your environment?” (p. 30).
As Collins concludes, on his back cover, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.”