|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, July 19, 2004
Chronicle of Higher Education 7-19-04
Corporate-Style Leaders May Not Make the Best College Presidents, Business
A burgeoning class of itinerant college presidents, who have more in common with corporate chief executives than with the tweedy campus leaders of yesteryear, does not necessarily bode well for institutions of higher education, a leading expert on organizational success cautioned college business officers on Sunday.
"The revolving door might be a recipe for mediocrity," the researcher and best-selling author Jim Collins said in a speech during the opening session of the National Association of College and University Business Officers' annual meeting, which is taking place here this week.
As colleges and universities have become more focused on their financial bottom lines, often of necessity, their leaders have come to more closely resemble business executives. Presidential tenures have become shorter, job hopping has become more acceptable, and presidential vacancies are more likely to be filled by outsiders.
Mr. Collins suggested that what he described as higher education's fixation on business culture may be counterproductive. Leaders who prosper in the business world, he said, in many cases appear to be fundamentally different from their successful counterparts in the world of nonprofit institutions.
If he is right, the current fashion of selecting presidents who behave like CEO's could have unintended negative consequences. "Have we created a beast that deselects" the best candidates for college and university presidencies?, Mr. Collins asked.
A former faculty member at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, Mr. Collins in 1995 founded a management-research laboratory in Boulder, Colo. His multiyear research projects have resulted in several books, including Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperCollins, 1994), which sought to identify the characteristics that distinguish great companies from mediocre ones; and his latest work, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't (HarperBusiness, 2001), which has sold more than one million copies.
Mr. Collins has hypothesized that there are differences between what he calls executive leaders -- men like Jack Welch, who ran General Electric -- and legislative leaders. The latter category includes people like Lyndon B. Johnson, who has been called the most effective U.S. senator of all time.
Universities have more in common with legislative bodies like the Senate, with its diffuse power structure, than they do with corporations, Mr. Collins said. Like legislatures, colleges have multiple constituencies that require decision making by consensus.
"Running a university is more difficult than running a Fortune 500 company," Mr. Collins said. "One might learn more from Johnson than from Jack Welch."
Despite the differences between corporations and universities, higher education can learn lessons from the business world. But all too often, Mr. Collins said, colleges reflexively adopt the most common business practices -- what he called "importing the cyanide" -- instead of selecting those practices that are common to uncommonly successful companies.
Colleges, to take one example, often overlook internal presidential candidates in favor of outsiders because college officials think that's what corporations do.
Mr. Collins's research found, however, that more than 90 percent of companies that had made the leap from good to great had chief executive officers who had ascended through the ranks. More than two-thirds of the "good" companies that had brought in chief executives from outside failed to make the leap to great, defined as superior stock performance over time.
Mr. Collins cautioned the audience against using the lack of ready gauges, like stock price, as an excuse to settle for mediocrity.
"The lack of measurability is no excuse for the lack of rigor," Mr. Collins said. "Good is the enemy of great."
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