‘Good to Great’ author: How to have great schools


Sustaining greatness requires what Collins called a “20 mile march” philosophy, by which he meant setting clear, consistent, and self-imposed performance goals—and then sticking to these goals, no matter what.

The term comes from the approach adopted by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen on his trek to reach the South Pole in 1911, in which he and his team set out to cover 20 miles per day, regardless of the weather and other hardships—and they ultimately succeeded. Collins contrasted this approach to that of Robert Falcon Scott and his team, which lacked such a disciplined approach, and tragically, they perished on their return journey.

Great schools not only hold themselves accountable, Collins said; they also pick one good strategy and stick with it long enough to see results, instead of trying different techniques and then abandoning them after only a few years for the “next big thing.”

Effective leaders also know how to distinguish their institution’s core values from its practices, Collins said—preserving the former while changing the latter to stimulate progress. But school leaders might be surprised to learn how much change is really necessary, he said—and how much change is too much.

To illustrate his point, Collins cited the example of Southwest Airlines, which has enjoyed phenomenal success. It’s a little-known fact, he said, that Southwest actually copied the business model of another airline, Pacific Southwest Airlines, which is no longer in business.

As the market evolved and airlines struggled to adapt, one of these companies changed its business plan about 70 percent, Collins said; the other, only 20 percent. As it turns out, it was Southwest—the company that succeeded—that only changed 20 percent of its plan.

“I promise you, if you change 70 percent of your business plan, you will fail,” he asserted, “but if you change zero percent, you will also fail.”

The trick is to understand the right 20 percent to change—and why. And that requires understanding what it is you do well, so you can maintain those practices that are working.

Collins concluded his talk by leaving the superintendents with several key questions to ponder, including…

• Do you want to take your schools from good to great? That is, do you have the Level 5 will to do whatever it takes to make this happen?

•  How many keys seats do you have on your bus? How many are filled with Level 5 leaders—and what will it take to make this 100 percent?

• What are the “brutal facts” of your situation?

• What is your “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG)? This is a goal that is clearly definable, yet “profound enough to change the lives of every student in your district” should you succeed.

• What is your 20-mile march, and what do you need to do to hit this goal consistently for the next 25 years?

• What is the right 20 percent to change about your own school district—and why?

Follow Editor in Chief Dennis Pierce on Twitter at @eSN_Dennis.

Dennis Pierce

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