SHRM Atlanta 3: Jim Collins — Yes, It’s All About People (the Right People)

When you’ve written books with titles like Good to Great and Built to Last, people tend to think you have all the answers.

But author Jim Collins, the general session speaker Tuesday at the annual SHRM Conference and Exhibition, would be the first to admit that’s not the case.

What Collins does have, however, is some great insights drawn from years of painstaking research that has not only led to his best-selling books, but also to a lot of great insights about building a business and keeping it moving ahead.

Although his speech Tuesday at SHRM Atlanta might not have been quite as entertaining as Malcolm Gladwell‘s on Monday, or as energetic as Condoleezza Rice’s opening presentation Sunday, it was focused and pragmatic. Plus, it had a singular lesson for HR professionals.

It’s all about the people

It’s one you may have figured out already: greatness is not to circumstances, but due to conscious choice. And the single most important leadership skills for building a great organization is picking the right people to fill the seats on the bus.

Yes, it’s all about the people, stupid.

All sorts of leaders, managers, and organizations don’t get this simple but obvious principle, and despite all the mission statements that proclaim that “people are our most important product,” what companies and executives say and what they actually do are two very different things.

This is something that all too many HR pros know all too well.

Collins also talked a lot about Level 5 leaders and how they have an “X” factor that Level 4 leaders don’t have, and that the “X” factor is humility. It’s a quality, he said, that Level 5 leaders — aka, great leaders — all share, plus, “the ferocious will to pick people better than themselves.”

I’ve worked for a lot of managers and leaders, and very few of them were ever what you would describe as humble. In fact, the worst of the bunch had a thoughtless arrogance that seemed to be their defining characteristic. Humility seemed to be the furthest thing from their mind.

Humility and great leaders

But, of the small handful of truly great leaders I’ve been blessed to work with, what Jim Collins says is absolutely correct: they were humble and focused, as Collins notes, “on asking people what they think rather than telling people what they should know.”

Great leaders are humble? How does that square with guys like Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Herb Kelleher (Southwest), and Andy Grove (Intel)? As Collins noted, when you talk about those guys, “humility does not exactly come to mind.”

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But he added that for the Level 5 leader, the combination of ego-vision-confidence is what drives them, and that drive is channeled outward into the organization and the quest to be great.

In other words, with the Level 4 leader, it’s all about them and what they get out of the organization. For the Level 5 leader, it’s about the company and how to propel it to greater heights.

Consistency and the “20 mile march”

Collins had a lot more to say, including one analogy about the race to the South Pole in 1912, the race between British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen, and the concept of having a “20 mile march,” but I suspect you’ll get a lot more insight into that concept by reading Great by Choice than whatever I could get into here. (It’s all about being clear, consistent and focused on what you need to do to make a “20 mile march” each day as Amundsen did in getting to the South Pole.

I wish Collins had gotten back to more of the focus on people, because I think it would have resonated a lot more with the SHRM audience, but he did the next best thing which is to focus on the leadership qualities it takes to be great and hire the kind of people that will get you there.

Of all the SHRM general session speakers, Collins was probably the toughest for the audience to get into, and it’s not because he didn’t have good things to say, but rather, because it’s simply tough being the speaker on Day 3 and following in the footsteps of Condi Rice and Malcolm Gladwell.

Still, Collins was clearly superior to Sir Richard Branson and Arianna Huffington from last year’s SHRM in Las Vegas, and that’s a huge plus in my book.

I’m betting Tom Brokaw will bring another element, and style, to the final general session tomorrow as SHRM wraps up things here in Atlanta.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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