SHRM Day 3: Pick the Right People, Commit To a 20-Mile March

He spoke for nearly an hour, but when Jim Collins, author of a slew of wildly popular business books, including his most recent, Great by Choice, finished his remarks Tuesday morning at SHRM 2012 in Atlanta, the point was simple.

Pick the right people. Set goals. And develop a plan to achieve them.

Surely a hall filled with thousands of human resources professionals would applaud the message. But as it must be for the hundreds of thousands of people who hear him speak each year, it was Collins’ skill as a performer and storyteller that truly captivated the audience.

As someone who is a trained skeptic, it felt at times to me as if Collins’ valid business ideas seemed overshadowed by his desire to speak with a pastor’s pitch, to ignite an emotional response from his audience, to perform.

Despite his charismatic facade, Collins actually does evoke — behind the flashy catchphrases and  concepts, such as “return on luck” — some valid mental tools that professionals in the space can actually put to use.

Two of them especially floated to the top.

Pick the right people: It is a message heard in the space over and over again. Great leaders are great not necessarily because they are the smartest people in the room, but because they have the sense to realize that there are others who possess better skills and ideas that, when combined with the skills of a collective, can propel an organization from — to use Collins’ words — good to great.

“The X-factor of great leadership is humility,” Collins said. Part of being a great leader is to have the ability to assess talent and to place it well in an organization.

Leadership is a tricky subject; it’s something that is extremely hard to quantify and define. Yet, to his credit, Collins does an especially good job through the use of captivating corporate stories of showing how exceptional leadership helped some firms overcome grim circumstances, defy the odds, and sustain success.

Bill Gates, Collins posed as an example leader, certainty wasn’t the only one capable of writing the code that eventually created Microsofts’ first great software product — thousands of his kind were likely to be able to do the same.

However, Collins said Gates maximized his “return on luck” by developing a leadership and work ethic greater than that of his peers. He didn’t just develop the code, but put in as much sweat and equity into the process while other equally capable programmers remained passive.

HR professionals, he said, should take stock in Gates’ story and seek out recruiting the kind of talent that appear to display similar traits and qualities. He defines this crop of leaders as “level 5,” those that have a collective of the most important individual leadership qualities — contributing team member, competent manager, the effective executive, highly capable individual, as Collins defines his other four levels — needed to prosper in business today.

Commit to a “20-mile march” with your team: We’ve all likely applied this concept of goal setting to our own lives — personal or professional. Collins adds his own language and style to the practice, a branding that appears to motivate and inspire on a deeper level.

The point of the 20-mile march is to commit to a goal, and then to design a framework, or steps, to accomplish that goal. Collins linked it to the process of a writer. A writer, he said, if setting out to write a book or long paper by a certain deadline, might set his or her 20-mile march to write four pages a day, no matter what.

Collins used various other stories to make his points — many of them set in the extreme, such as a team climbing a mountain and seeking survival from a brutal storm or other obstacles as they struggle to overcome the odds and achieve its goals.

In the end, the keynote felt more like a motivational address. Topics ranged from leadership to luck, to overcoming uncertainty and chaos, both professionally and personality.

Collins’ theatrics on the stage — his carefully crafted fluctuations in tone, his penchant to pause dramatically for effect, the dynamic of his speech and movement — gave it the feel of a genuine performance art, seemingly diluting, at least to me, the actual depth to his team’s business research and point of use for his audience, the mid-level HR manager.