Jim Collins, author of best-selling business books\n Good to Great and (with Jerry Porras) Built to\n Last, is nearing completion of his latest research effort,\n a look at organizations that have thrived while operating in\n environments characterized by severe disruption. An avid rock\n climber, Collins uses the analogy of performing well high on a\n mountain, in an environment characterized by fast-moving and\n unpredictable forces. Collins believes that most leaders today\n feel they are metaphorically moving higher on the mountain, and\n notes that this might be especially true for CIOs. He and his\n research colleague, Morten Hansen, have been researching the\n question of why some companies prevail in such environments,\n while others fail to perform (or survive).\n\nJim CollinsCollins shared some of his initial findings at the CIO\n Leadership Conference held April 29-May 1. After his talk,\n Collins spoke with CIO Senior Editor Stephanie Overby about\n what CIOs can learn from his research on leadership, including\n what he calls the \u201casymmetric risk\u201d IT leaders must\n manage every day, and why CIOs are uniquely qualified to\n succeed in the CEO role.CIO: You spend a lot of your time studying CEOs. At\n the CIO Leadership conference where you spoke earlier this\n year, you had the chance to spend some time with leading CIOs.\n What did you learn?Collins: As we got to talking, I was really\n struck by the duality of risk and opportunity CIOs have to\n manage. On the one hand, a couple people talked about threats\n of cyberterrorism. I mean, this is real stuff\u2014I had no idea\n how real. You add that to how dependent companies are on their\n information systems and technology systems\u2013one CIO I\n spoke to said that it used to be if we went down for a few\n hours it was annoyance; now it\u2019s a catastrophe\u2013and that\u2019s a huge burden. Man, this is one of those\n really, really tough jobs in life where every day that\u2019s\n a success, you\u2019re invisible. Yet the one day when\n something goes wrong, you become very visible. What a hard job\n when you think about it.At the same time I was really struck by how CIOs are really\n energized by wanting to help push the organization forward, to\n do innovative things, to bring in things that advance the\n flywheel of business.Thinking about how they deal with that duality is how I came\n up with the image of CIOs being like climbers. You don\u2019t\n want to just cower in your tent and never go up. That\u2019s\n not living. That\u2019s not really being a CIO. At the same\n time you don\u2019t want to make the one mistake that will\n kill you. That duality of putting yourself in a risky\n environment\u2013going for the summit, going to try to do\n something bold and being really disciplined about protecting\n your systems, not making the one mistake that will bring us\n down. I wouldn\u2019t go so far as to say no other role\n in the business is like that. I don\u2019t know that. But it\n strikes me that this role is pretty far out on that curve.Next: Managing "Asymmetric Risk"Is there increasing value in having the ability to\n manage what you call asymmetric risk?As we study entire enterprises moving higher on the\n mountain, CEOs are increasingly managing asymmetric risk.\n Something happens and there\u2019s a stock meltdown or a\n company gets acquired or something bad happens and it instantly\n explodes in the 24-hour news media. That need to manage\n asymmetric risk will be increasingly a CEO requirement. CIOs\n have been trained in that. They live in that.Yet, the leap from CIO to CEO is still not all that\n common.I don\u2019t know if that will change. But let me share\n something from our Good to Great research. We look\n carefully at backgrounds of people who became key CEOs in\n companies during the eras we studied. A lot came from unusual\n backgrounds. Bill Allen, who was one of the greatest CEOs in\n history and brought Boeing back from the brink was a lawyer.\n Darwin Smith was a lawyer. Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines\n was a lawyer. David Maxwell was a lawyer. The most prevalent\n background in the best CEOs we studied was law. But how often\n do you hear of law as a path to the chief executive\n position?But lawyers are very disciplined thinkers who also manage\n asymmetric risk. That\u2019s part of the nature of law. Now it\n may be rare that lawyers become CEOs, but when they do get in\n that role, their training has been very, very good and they\n have been exceptional. CIO training strikes me as potentially\n having some very good training for corporate leadership.Do you have any advice for managing asymmetric\n risk?In the research we\u2019re doing on prevailing in the face\n of disruption, we find that the ability to recognize and manage\n asymmetric risk to be a crucial capability. The companies that\n we\u2019ve studied that have done really well in these\n environments are always squirreling away slack in their systems\n so they can absorb a shock. They\u2019re very conservative\n financially, which gives them options. They can always try to\n climb again another day. They never stretch themselves too thin\n or grow too fast, so that when the shocks come (and the shocks\n are going to come), they have built in shock absorbers. If you\n stretch yourself to the limit, you amplify your asymmetric\n risk.Next: How Can Companies Sustain Positive\n Momentum?\n In Good to Great, you explored the incredible\n amount of effort it takes to begin to transform an\n organization. But you proposed that once it is started, the\n momentum builds like a flywheel. You\u2019re now doing some\n research on the downshift from \u201cgreat\u201d to\n \u201cgood.\u201d How difficult is it to sustain that\n momentum over time, particularly in times of great market\n shifts?\n\n Our research indicates that the flywheel concept applies as\n much in times of change as in times of stability, perhaps even\n more so. Over the long course of history, a great company is\n built by a series of good decisions executed with supreme\n excellence, accumulating one on top of another over a long\n period of time. No decision or event, no matter how big,\n accounts for more than a small portion of the total outcome.\n Greatness is a cumulative process, even in times of dramatic\n change. And never forget: the most important flywheel decisions\n are people decisions. If you get the right people, they can\n adapt to a changing world.The very nature of our research method\u2014studying those\n that attained and sustained greatness in contrast to those in\n similar circumstances that failed to become great (or failed to\n sustain it) reduces the role of circumstance in explaining\n outcomes. If one company rises and the other falls, yet they\n both have similar circumstances at the start of the inflection,\n then the answer cannot be circumstance.My colleague Morten Hansen and I are nearing completion of a\n six-year research effort studying companies that went from\n startup to greatness in environments characterized by\n turbulent disruption. We've deliberately selected companies in\n the most severely turbulent industries, using the following\n climbing analogy: If you wake up in the security of base camp\n and a storm moves in, you'll probably be fine. But if you find\n yourself at 27,000 feet as a vulnerable little speck on the\n side of Mount Everest, where the storms are bigger, faster\n moving, inherently unpredictable, and the environment less\n forgiving, a storm just might kill you.Our research examines companies that prevailed in such\n environments in contrast to those that did not prevail in the\n same brutal, turbulent, rapidly changing environments. No\n matter how we slice it, greatness\u2014creating it and sustaining\n it\u2014is a function first and foremost of conscious choice and\n discipline, not circumstance.Next: What Seeking Greatness Means to Individual LeadersWhat implication does that have for individual\n leaders, like the CIO?Focus on building your organization into a pocket of\n greatness. Those who rose to senior leadership in the\n good-to-great companies focused first and foremost on\n delivering exceptional results, building the best accounting\n department or law department or whatever they had\n responsibility for, and letting those results speak. They\n became chief executive because they proved themselves as Level\n 5 leaders within their organizations, and others took notice.\n (Editor\u2019s note: In Good to Great, Collins\n defines five levels of leadership, from level one, the highly\n capable individual, to the level-five executive, who is capable\n of building enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of\n personal humility and professional will.) And even if they\n didn't become CEO, they became key members of a Level 5\n executive team. A Level 5 team lives by the idea that "no\n matter how much we achieve, we are always only good relative to\n what we can do next." One of the keys to sustained performance\n is to remain productively neurotic about how you could lose\n your position, about how you need to make yourself stronger\n tomorrow than you were today as a hedge against an uncertain\n future, about the need to be aware of the brutal facts. Perhaps\n CIOs can play an especially helpful role in tracking and\n presenting data, facts and trend lines\u2014indicators of concern\u2014so that the brutal facts might be confronted long before\n events mushroom into a significant setback.Based on your interaction with CIOs, which you warn\n is relatively limited, you described IT leaders in your keynote\n speech as socially adept introverts. Why is that worth\n noting?I\u2019m a socially adept introvert.We have a mythology of leadership that leadership and\n personality are the same thing. They\u2019re really not. Yes,\n some leaders are very extroverted. Some are very charismatic.\n There are some advantages to being charismatic, but\n here\u2019s the danger: It\u2019s very dangerous to be\n charismatic and wrong. If you\u2019re wrong and charismatic,\n you can convince everyone else you\u2019re right, which\n isn\u2019t in your best interest.Our work has found that that tends to be more of a\n liability. The executives we studied were very good listeners,\n very good at asking questions. They weren\u2019t necessarily\n good at giving speeches or standing up in front of a room,\n although some learned well how to do this despite their shy\n nature.If you come from a background that is more analytic,\n it\u2019s likely not your nature to be the extrovert. And\n it\u2019s worthwhile noting that many of the very best leaders\n and chief executives are exactly like that.Next: Why CIOs Are Good at \u201cLegislative\n Leadership\u201d\n\n You say that successful CIOs are probably good at\n \u201clegislative leadership.\u201d What do you mean by\n that?\n\n It came from some work we did in the social services sectors\n (education, hospitals, city management, universities) as\n opposed to corporations. What we found is that, unlike in\n business, you have leaders who get things done without\n concentrated power. It\u2019s like a senator, who is one of\n 100, who has to somehow figure out how to assemble points of\n power to get something done. Whereas if you\u2019re [Wal-Mart\n founder] Sam Walton or some other CEO of a public company, you\n have enough to power to decide things on your own.As I listened to CIOs talk, it began to dawn on me that if\n you don\u2019t have that concentrated executive power, the\n legislative skill set might be the same as we see in the social\n sector. You don\u2019t have the power to make something happen\n so you have to have the legislative ability to see where the\n points of power are and leverage them. How do you identify the\n pools of power and coalesce them to get to a decision in that\n direction even if it\u2019s not your decision to make?\n That\u2019s a legislative skill set.One of the interesting things about legislative power is\n that people have to trust your motivations. They know\n you\u2019re arguing a point, but you\u2019re looking for the\n best overall outcome. Frances Hesselbein of the Girl Scouts did\n a lot of things to make outcomes happen. But everyone knew in\n the end that Frances would bleed green. It was all about the\n Girl Scouts. The more someone is in it for larger outcomes, the\n more legislative influence they have.A legislative leader is always asking what\u2019s best for\n the organization and thinking about the multi-variant ways they\n can connect people to their vision. It\u2019s very artful and\n nuanced. The interesting thing is that most CEOs are now facing\n an increasingly diffuse power map, too. The pure power for the\n CEO of a public company is shrinking, with the increased power\n of boards, Sarbanes-Oxley, shareholders. They have to acquire\n more legislative skills to complement their executive power.\n Those who learn how to yield legislative power\u2013like\n CIOs\u2013might be well suited to those roles.Next: Why Good People Trump Good Money\n\n\nTwo of the biggest concerns for most CIOs at any given\n point in time are usually shrinking budgets and finding the\n right people. You\u2019ve always said that people trump money\n every time.\n\n If you look at it through an entrepreneurial lens,\n environments characterized by limited resources, what becomes\n very clear is that those who build the better ones understood\n that every seat on their minibus was too precious. It was a\n small number of seats in a scary environment while the company\n was vulnerable. But it was far more important to them to put as\n much energy as possible into putting the right people in the\n right seats. If I can only have three seats, all of whom are\n right people, that\u2019s fine. I\u2019ll get more done with\n three of the right people than if I were able to double my\n budget and have six people, three of whom aren\u2019t the right\n people.The more uncertain and more dangerous our world, the more\n important [finding the right people] is. Using that climbing\n analogy, it\u2019s more important who your partner is on the\n end of the rope than whether you have the best gear. If you\n really think about it, what\u2019s really going to help you?\n People who can adapt to setbacks, adapt to resource\n constraints, adapt to uncertainty. One company we researched\n for Good to Great, [steel products maker] Nucor, said\n the key is we hire five, work them like 10 and pay them like\n eight.CIOs are extremely concerned with motivating\n employees. But you\u2019ve said, in as many words, that\n motivating people is a waste of time.Our executives didn\u2019t spend a lot of time motivating\n people. They really didn\u2019t . They understood that the\n right people really are self-motivated. The real question is\n not doing the stupid thing that will de-motivate them. In a\n way, it\u2019s disrespectful to say I will motivate you.\n It\u2019s actually saying that you aren\u2019t a very\n motivated person. The employee is saying, excuse me, what I\n need is guidance and coaching and development, not\n motivation.How does your concept of having the right people in\n the right seats apply when you are outsourcing work to a third\n party and have less connection to and control over people\n issues?I just don\u2019t know. If it\u2019s a tight partnership,\n you still have some say in picking the right who\u2019s. How\n all that changes when you\u2019re outsourcing, I don\u2019t\n have an empirical data on. I\u2019ll say this: You can\n subcontract a lot of things, but you should never subcontract\n your thinking. In Good to Great, we found that the\n great companies who used consultants did not want answers from\n their consultants, they wanted data. They didn\u2019t want\n their consultants to do the thinking for them.E-mail Senior Editor Stephanie Overby at firstname.lastname@example.org.