I’m a fan of the work of Jim Collins, but I’m also a fan of Jim Collins’ editor – or of the editorial choices that Jim Collins, himself, makes when finalizing his publications. If you’ve read his work and skipped to the main course – the leadership guidance – you’ve missed some very nice appetizers. At the start of his slim Good to Great and the Social Sectors, for example, he includes this autobiographical tidbit:
During my first year on the Stanford faculty in 1988, I sought out Professor John Gardner for guidance on how I might become a better teacher. Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, founder of Common Cause, and author of the classic text Self-Renewal, stung me with a comment that changed my life.
“It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting," he said. “Why don’t you spend more time being interested.”
If you read Collins' essay from a few years earlier (2003, USA Today) to learn more about his idea of a “stop doing list,” you will see a similarly enlightening confession running alongside the main point of the article:
Each time the New Year rolls around and I sit down to do my annual resolutions, I reflect back to a lesson taught me by a remarkable teacher. In my mid-20s, I took a course on creativity and innovation from Rochelle Myers and Michael Ray at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and I kept in touch with them after I graduated.
One day, Rochelle pointed to my ferocious work pace and said, "I notice, Jim, that you are a rather undisciplined person."
I was stunned and confused. After all, I was the type of person who carefully laid out my BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals), top three objectives and priority activities at the start of each New Year. I prided myself on the ability to work relentlessly toward those objectives, applying the energy I'd inherited from my prairie- stock grandmother.
"Your genetic energy level enables your lack of discipline," Rochelle continued. "Instead of leading a disciplined life, you lead a busy life."
She then gave me what I came to call the 20-10 assignment. It goes like this: Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?
That assignment became a turning point in my life, and the "stop doing" list became an enduring cornerstone of my annual New Year resolutions — a mechanism for disciplined thought about how to allocate the most precious of all resources: time.
It goes without saying that Collins has plenty to teach leaders -- but, in these two anecdotes, he also has a great deal to teach learners. I'm amazed -- and even a little bit jealous -- by the simple fact that Jim had the kinds of teachers in his life who were willing to cut, decidedly and without question, to the proverbial chase. They helped him adjust his work by telling him what he would have to adjust about his life. My reading? His "life's work" has been special, at least in part, because it has been nurtured by honest, direct feedback, by teachers who knew him better than he knew himself.
Additionally, he was willing, and able, to listen and adjust. It couldn't have been easy to hear what he heard or change as he changed. Not at all. The feedback he received told him to walk in a new direction, to resist what was natural in him, to surrender what he thought were his greatest weapons . . . just as his career was getting started.
The title for this post, then, has nothing to do with the Jim Collins we often quote in leadership circles (you know, the Jim Collins of the "relentless culture of discipline" or the "hedgehog" or the "level 5 leadership"); it has to do with the Jim Collins who is willing to show his followers a bit about how he learned to approach enterprises with openness, warmth, and the clear, quick analytical mind that has been so helpful to so many. He jumpstarts much of his best work by paying tribute to the biggest jumpstarters in his own life -- straight-talking mentors.
Some of you might have seen the recent cover story in Bloomberg Business Week about Facebook's "second in command:" Why Facebook Needs Sheryl Sandberg. It, too, is in part about feedback, and specifically, the kind of feedback that Sandberg provides. It's also where I found the title for this post:
In some ways, Sandberg is still a creature of Washington. She holds parties and events at her house almost constantly, evoking the high-powered hospitality of the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in her heyday. She doesn't bring a laptop into meetings, preferring instead to scrawl notes in a day planner. And she's made great use of her political skills, praising subordinates in public and keeping reprimands private. "She is super direct," says Mike Schroepfer, Facebook's vice-president of engineering. "She pulls people aside privately and says, "I'm going to be the one to tell you, this is what people are expecting from you and here's what you need to do to improve."
Feedback like Sandberg's is hard to deliver, hard to receive, and in my mind, absolutely essential for those of us who aspire to do important work well.
I'll leave you with a few questions:
- Do you have a John Gardner, Rochelle Meyers, or Sheryl Sandberg in your life? Do you have someone willing "to be the one to tell you, this is what people are expecting from you and here's what you need to do to improve?"
- If so, are you willing to truly listen when this person offers you feedback?
- If not, are you in the process of cultivating the kind of relationship wherein you could ask for, and receive, such feedback?
- And finally, are you someone's Gardner, Meyers, or Sandberg? Are you willing to offer him or her essential feedback, tough feedback, the kind of feedback that can take his or her life's work, to borrow a page from Collins' work, from good to great?