Workplace Communication

Four Lessons Learned from Jim Collins – Applied to Communication

Four Lessons Learned from Jim Collins – Applied to Communication

On Monday, I was lucky enough to attend the opening keynote address at the Government Finance Officers Association which was presented by Jim Collins, leadership expert and best selling author of several books, including “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.”

I have no intention of repeating his presentation by outlining the leadership lessons he shared. If you’d like to learn those, be sure to check out Jim’s website at and investigate his many books on the subject. However, while taking notes on some of the key points he made, I realized that so many of them could be applied to communication in addition to leadership, so I will share those here.

1. If you want to get people’s attention, get them to confront the brutal facts – THAT is the catalyst for change.

Whether it’s letting employees know about an organizational change, or trying to re-direct someone’s behavior, being specific and factual in not only sharing what’s wrong, but the consequences of not changing, is critical. Being a wimp and hinting at a problem, or making broad general statements like, “We all need to do a better job of getting back from lunch on time,” to your entire staff in a meeting rather than manning up and facing the employee with the tardiness issue, has got to stop. We have to stop communicating in generalities – it just doesn’t get the RIGHT people’s attention. Does that mean we need to be ugly, hurtful, or as I like to say, “Go all New York,” on people? No, but we do need to share the truth as specifically and factually as we can.

2. The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.

There’s nothing that makes people uncomfortable and makes them distrust as much as communicating in a way that is inconsistent. I’d rather work for Chef Gordon Ramsey, who is pretty consistently aggressive and direct, than Glenn, the manager in the TV series, “Superstore,” who is not only a bad communicator, but terribly inconsistent. Whether it’s over-communicating sometimes and under-communicating others, or letting poor performance slide in some instances, and jumping all over it in others, inconsistency is sometimes worse than inaction.

3. Those who do well in uncertain times are the ones who worry all the time.


Collins refers to this as Productive Paranoia. I like to think of myself as productively paranoid. In fact, one of my favorite games is the “What If?” game. From “What if someone broke through my front door?” to “What if there really was a Zombie Apocalypse?” I like to be prepared for anything. I play the same “What If?” game when I’m communicating. Before I send an email, have an important conversation, or think a presentation is finalized, I ask, “What if _____,” and fill in the blanks with all the things I can think of that can go wrong. Collins said, “You can’t predict what’s coming, so therefore, you must be prepared for what you can’t predict.” Although it’s unlikely we’ll have a Zombie Apocalypse any time soon, thinking through potential problems, strategizing approaches, and predicting possible outcomes is called “planning” as far as I’m concerned.

4. What should be on your “stop doing” list?

In Collins’ presentation, he referred to leadership and organizational practices that we need to consider stopping. He said you can’t do it all and you can’t do it all well. Collins posed the challenge, “If it were a fresh decision today to start this, would we do it?” If the answer is no, then we need to stop.

Think about all the things we do in communication out of habit or because “that’s what we’ve always done.” Take a new look at your old communication approaches and techniques. Are they working? If not, it’s time to stop doing them. An example that comes to mind is my client organizations who still do newsletters. Just because you’ve always used a newsletter as a way to communicate with your employees or customers, doesn’t mean you should still do that. Are they reading it? Really? If not, maybe it’s time to start exploring other options.

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