Who Before What – The Genius of Jim Collins

22 years ago Jim Collins published his book Good to Great.  In the ensuing 22 years it’s fair to say that this book has had one of the most profound effects on business than any other publication – be it book, article, TED speech, whatever!  In recent times, though, I fear some of the principles and wisdom generated by Collins’ work has begun to be ignored, and, maybe, seen as too “conventional”.  In this age of accelerating change, A.I., hyper-communication, electric cars, changing values in the very fabric of our society, I could go on but won’t, maybe Collins is seen as too old school.  “That doesn’t work any more.” “Business has moved on.” “We have to change what we do in order to be successful these days.”  I hear these types of comments often.  On the one hand, yes, we do have to change what we do, but the foundations of a successful business haven’t changed.  They never will!  Get those principles right and the changes that are required will happen significantly easier.

We need to remember that Good to Great was not a book of Collins ideas, thoughts and musings.  It was the product of an exhausting 10-year study of a large number of U.S. corporates, where the factors inherent to success were identified and studied.  The fact that some of those “Good to Great” companies eventually failed was well explained in his follow up book How the Mighty Fall – they stopped looking after the foundations of their success – that small number of critical principles that Collins identified.  

One of those critical principles has become even more important over time – Who before What.  Collins believed (the data proved!) that great organisations are not defined by their innovative and competition-leading strategies, but by their ability to attract, develop and retain talented people.  He likened an organisation to a bus, where there are a certain number of seats that relate to the core roles in the company.  The right people need to be in the right seats before the route is planned for the buses journey.  No matter how good your strategy is, if you don’t have the right people in the right seats you are unlikely to execute it.  And you better make sure those “right” people have an involvement in crafting your strategy as well.  Only then will they be sure to be inspired by it, and execute it.  

This principle throws up the right questions.  “In our organisation how do we know who the right people are?” “How do we ensure we can find the right people, especially if the job market is tight?”  “What do we do if we know we have some of the wrong people?”  “Do we need to start formulating our strategy again if we have the wrong people?”  “But there is so much happening – interest rates, costs, cashflow, labour market etc etc, surely there are more important priorities?”  The answers to these questions become obvious when we start “living” this principle of Who before What:

  • The right people for you are those that share your company’s Core Values.  So you need to know what your Core Values are, and how to identify people that share them.  So employment interviews must become significantly more than a 15 minute chat!
  • Your company will attract the right people when you have the right people on board.  The right people don’t get on the bus because of where its going, they get on the bus because of the other people on the bus
  • If you have the wrong people you have people who do not share your Core Values.  So free up their future!  Easy to say in our employment law environment, but if someone is not performing, not meeting expectations, tell them and put them on a formal Performance Improvement Plan
  • You need to review your strategy with the right people’s involvement.  Only then will you have a chance of crafting the right strategy, and, more importantly, execute it.  Is it better to have an incredible, innovative strategy and not execute it; or have a so-so strategy and execute the hell out of it!
  • Business owners have a myriad of challenges right now.  But we can’t solve all our issues alone – we need our people to help.  We need the right people to help!  If you are having to do everything yourself, you haven’t got enough of the right people.  Who before what – get them

Keep well, stay focused and make sure you look after yourselves


Phil Pickford

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