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Leaders Are Responsible for Building Success That Lasts

15/08/2014 15:57 BST | Updated 12/10/2014 10:59 BST

This month I turn a spotlight to Jerry Porras, the co-author of international business bestseller Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. The book, which focuses on how leaders can build and maintain successful companies, was co-written by Porras alongside Jim Collins - the result of a six-year research project.

One of the main reasons that this book is so highly regarded in the business world is that it combines the academic skills of Porras with the experience of Collins - a solid foundation from which to advise. They agreed that the nature of business means that, for leaders, success can feel like an uphill struggle. But rather than focus on leaders directly, the aim of the book was to share insight into the "approaches and behaviours of the most visionary companies of the past two centuries."

As you will see from our blog posts, Potential Squared is focused on looking to great leaders of the past and present for inspiration, applying their principles to our own challenges. Every great leader can cite those that they take inspiration from, and in many ways this acted as a springboard for the basis of Built to Last. Here Porras shares with us his motivations and advice for achieving and maintaining success, from the inside out.

Why did you decide to write Built to Last with Jim Collins?

It wasn't a process in which we were sitting there saying, 'let's write a book'. It was an evolutionary process which began with a series of discussions. Jim had been an MBA student in one of my classes about eight to ten years before we started working together. I was interested in what glued organisations together, allowing them to move in the right direction over time.

Jim had been an entrepreneur and then worked for HP, so he had a variety of experience. At the time we started talking, he was a freelance consultant working for small companies, talking to them about building strong companies. His focus was emphasising 'mission', whereas I was toying with the notion of 'purpose.' He wrote an article in the San Jose Mercury - I recognised his name, contacted him and said we should talk.

What was the process involved in writing Built to Last?

The two of us brought significant skills to the relationship - mine from an academic background, and Jim using his experience. However, we were at odds with each other with respect to exactly what 'mission' was and exactly what 'purpose' was. We started evolving the conversation to the power of mission or purpose in guiding leaders. What could we contribute in the area of leadership? Great builders lead great organisations, so we decided to focus on great leaders.

As we got more deeply immersed, we found that the current notion of the time - you couldn't be a good leader if you weren't charismatic - was a messy one and not based on a lot of research. We kept talking and thought we were up against a wall, until we had a discussion where one of us realised that rather than focus on great leaders, we should instead focus on great organisations, and then explore what their leaders look like.

What did you most enjoy about writing the book?

It was a lot of fun. We would have long arguments about things - fruitful arguments. These conversations would enlighten us both. And out of those polar opposite views, we generated a third view of what was going on that we wouldn't have been able to generate if we had both been academics or practicing managers.

Why do you think the book was so well received?

The things we found were consistent with thoughtful people's experiences. I use that term very specifically. This book resonates with people who think about what is going on. This provides them a framework that puts it all together. It is not a 'how to' book, but it presents a picture of what an ideal company could look like and that picture is a framework that you can hang a lot onto. However, it doesn't tell you exactly what your particular organisation should look like in operational terms.

What discoveries in Built to Last remain particularly relevant today?

I think a lot of elements are relevant. For me the most significant finding or dimension that we identified is the core ideology of a company, its purpose and its values. This becomes more important every day as we move toward faster changing environments and developing technologies. A company's rudder needs to be strong and relevant for a long time, and values and purpose keep it steering in the right direction, which benefits a company in the long term to be successful.

Please provide your favourite examples of 'clock-building' leaders, both past and present.

One of the historic ones was Sam Walton, founder of Walmart. He is exceptional in that regard. Walmart as a clock has become more and more complicated, but he focused on different ways to build a greater company. That notion of building the company and not leading the company was a really powerful finding from my perspective. William Ignite, at 3M, helped to create a lot of the approaches to running the company that made it innovative - and it continues to be an innovative company.

In terms of more contemporary examples, I wouldn't put Steve Jobs on the list until I see what Apple is like as a company in five to ten years time. He certainly fit the charismatic model, but will Apple continue to thrive long after he is gone? The jury is still out on that.

Continuing on that theme is Larry Page of Google. He has not been very visible, but he has played a very large role in creating the type of culture and innovative ideas that they have. But you need to observe a company over a long period of time - five to ten years is not long enough.

Built to Last was first published over 20 years ago now. Do you think the business world has changed for the better in this time?

There has been a huge change, mainly technologically driven. The Internet impacts the way business operates and a lot has been for the good. But if I had to put my finger on one dimension in the business world today that I think is very unhealthy over a longer term is the lack of commitment that exists between the company and the people that are employed within those companies. 3M are still one of the most innovative companies around and they do things that require people to be there and commit, as well as the company committing to them.

Can we expect to see another book from you?

Not likely. I have shifted the focus of my interest from large corporations and how they operate, and in recent years have become much more interested in small companies and entrepreneurism. I am Latino and have become much more concerned about the position of the Latino community in our society. By 2050 we will make up about 30% of the (US) population, so what can I do to contribute to the development of the Latino community? I want to develop an approach to allow them to contribute something of substance. Perhaps long term, a book may come out of these experiences.

What advice would you give to future leaders?

Your job as a leader is to build something that is really great, enduringly great. You have a responsibility to your employees, your stock holder and your community to contribute something of substance and importance. Building a company that makes a difference is the most important thing you can do. You might not get as rich but you will get rewarded today, tomorrow and a hundred years from now.