News Column

Changing Society One Organization at a Time

January/February 2008, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Hildy Medina

Jerry Porras

Jerry Porras is on a lifelong mission to create a healthier society by making organizations better.

For more than 30 years, the 2007 Hispanic Business magazine Lifetime Achievement Award winner has shown hundreds of organizations around the world ways to reach their fullest potential by helping employees realize their individual potential.

His philosophy, "creating a healthier society by creating healthier organizations," resonates with people worldwide. Fourteen years after co-writing Built to Last Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, the book still sells thousands of copies annually. It has sold more than 1 million copies and been translated into 25 languages, making it one of the most successful business books in American history.

Mr. Porras, a Stanford University professor emeritus and expert in the field of organizational behavior, says he never would have predicted the book's staying power.

"But, if you sit back and ask the question logically," Mr. Porras says, "it's a book about building something that lasts."

The book didn't start out that way. When Mr. Porras and his co-author, James Collins, set out to write Built to Last, they initially discussed writing a book around the theory that it takes great leaders to build the Procter & Gamble and Hewlett-Packards of the world.

"We were expecting to find larger-than-life, visionary, and charismatic types of leaders leading great companies," Mr. Porras recalls. "We were interested in studying business leaders."

The more the pair delved into this theory, the more they discovered it was wrong. What they found was that a truly enduring company is one that draws on the creativity of its employees rather than revolving around charismatic leaders.

"It was a real surprise," Mr. Porras says. "What we discovered time after time when we looked across the visionary companies was that none of the early leaders, with very few exceptions, were larger than life."

Many of the early business leaders were described as being good listeners, low key, and humble.

"What they did was focus on building a great company; they didn't create a company revolving around their own brilliance," Mr. Porras explains. "They built a company with the capabilities to do all the things necessary to be great."

Built to Last, which was based on six years of research, dispels the myths that it takes a great idea to start a great company, that profits should come first, and that strategic planning will lead to brilliant moves.

"You can see how its implications are just profound because this explains why these companies have staying power," Mr. Porras says. "This explains why Procter & Gamble is such a great company after 130 years. Certainly, their leader didn't live 130 years."

For Mr. Porras, these discoveries served to reinforce how he lives his own life.

"There are some characteristics of the way I've led my life that fit with these people that built these great organizations," Mr. Porras says. "It made me more confidant about who I was and how I was doing things."

His parents, Mr. Porras says, were two of his best teachers.

"I was raised that you don't go out and seek glory for your hard work and for doing what you're supposed to do," says Mr. Porras, who is Mexican American.

The third of four children, Mr. Porras was born in 1938 and grew up in El Paso, Texas. The son of a Southern Pacific Railroad machinist, his family got by on one salary until Mr. Porras' father developed severe high blood pressure and was forced to quit his railroad job. To make ends meet, his parents started a business renovating mattresses and a hardware store. Mr. Porras and his siblings all helped sewing mattresses and working at the store after school.

His mother and father, who both headed LULAC clubs in his hometown, insisted their children go to college. To help ensure a good education, the family moved to the edge of town, where the schools were only 10 percent Hispanic. Mr. Porras excelled in school and became president of the National Honor Society in his senior year.

Despite his excellent grades and popularity, Mr. Porras says he encountered discrimination. While other high-achieving students, like him, were encouraged to apply to the country's top schools, he was not. As a student at Texas College of Mines in El Paso, Mr. Porras soon discovered that he could not join the same fraternities as the Anglo students.

He didn't know it then, but these experiences would shape his belief system and strengthen his commitment to making positive changes in society.

"For many, no matter how hard they worked, how smart they were, or how much they could contribute, they still wouldn't have a chance to be successful," Mr. Porras says. "I think that stayed with me at a deep level. If you look at my life, my way of changing the world has been to work on the inside."

After graduating from college, Mr. Porras joined the U.S. Army and later worked for Lockheed and General Electric in Arizona. In 1964, he married Charlene Gualdoni. Two years later, Mr. Porras was set to start his graduate studies at Arizona State after being rejected from Stanford and Harvard. But at the last minute, he was accepted to Cornell University.

It was at Cornell that Mr. Porras discovered the discipline of organizational behavior the people side of business management which would change the course of his life.

"I knew nothing about human behavior, and it really excited me in ways that I had never been excited in engineering," recalls Mr. Porras.

He joined Stanford in 1972, one of 14 new hires at the Graduate School of Business and continued his research on the culture and structure of companies, developing a diagnostic methodology. His methodology has been converted into a software tool, and he is currently working on starting his own software development company to further develop and market the application.

His fundamental view, says Mr. Porras, is that organizations are the linchpins of society. "If you look at society, you can divide it up in various sorts of ways, family is an organization, a church is an organization, even a gang is an organization. Unless you're sitting out in a cabin alone in the woods, you're probably part of an organization."

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and, Copyright (c) 2007 All Rights Reserved.

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