Bestselling author Jim Collins, left, interviewed by From Day One’s Steve Koepp at the Denver conference (Photos by Tom Sandner)

“You just get up and you start marching,” says author, teacher and consultant Jim Collins. “You always have a friend right when you wake up in the morning and there's this monster project that is going to take you years to do.” For Collins, his “monster project” has been research into long-term corporate success (and failure), research that has led to authoring and co-authoring six bestselling books, including Good to Great and Built To Last.

Speaking at October’s From Day One conference in Denver, Collins shared his business insights and told the audience about his research over the past 30 years, his plans for his next project, and the spreadsheet organization he uses to get it all done.

“The rule is very simple: I have to hit above 1,000 creative hours every 365-day cycle. That's how you get these big projects done. You just do that,” he said, echoing one of the enduring concepts he distilled in his research.

There are other advantages that accrue from such sustained focus. “It gives you a chance to really go deep,” Collins told From Day One co-founder Steve Koepp during the one-on-one conversation. “I also find the insights deepen over time. If you stay in the work⁠—stay deep in the actual work⁠—then over time, you will have something that might be worthy to share.”

What Collins has discovered in his research has proven worthy of teaching to corporations like Amazon, MBA students at Stanford, and cadets at West Point. In addition to compiling 6,000 years of combined corporate history, he’s also done immersive studies in health care, government and education.

“⁠I've been really lucky,” said Collins. “I think luck’s important in life. But what really is the most critical kind of luck is ‘who’ luck—people who touch your life.”

It’s ultimately all about people. “Great vision without great people is irrelevant,” Collins insisted. “If you always start with the idea that you begin first and foremost, everything, with building around people and getting the right people for what you're trying to do in the kind of company are trying to build, then ‘who’ comes before ‘why.’ That makes a great life.”

Another key to enduring success is understanding the concept of momentum, in which brilliant ideas and magic moments are less important than plain old persistence. In his new publication Turning the Flywheel: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, Collins uses the flywheel as a metaphor for the constant, incremental efforts that businesses⁠—and people⁠—must make to succeed.

“If you really study how something great gets built, it never happens as sort of one idea or one breakthrough moment or one ‘Aha!’ or one technology or one instantaneous thing,” Collins said. “It's a cumulative effect over the course of 60 or 70 years. If you look at the way our companies got built at their best, it's like pushing a giant heavy flywheel. You start pushing in an intelligently consistent direction. At some point the flywheel’s got all this momentum behind it and you keep pushing.”

Values like humility and service are hallmarks of great business executives, who Collins categorizes as “Level 5 leaders.” By way of illustration, he quoted a line from a long-ago meeting with one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard. “He had one of those wonderful sentences that will forever stick with me. Sometimes a mentor will give you a line you can flip through forever: ‘Never stifle a generous impulse.’ Isn’t that just a wonderful thing? Like [if] you're ever wondering ‘Should I tip more?’ Never stifle a generous impulse. It's just a great guiding thing.”

A stint as Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point taught Collins about creating a culture of service. He observed that the heavily challenged cadets seemed much happier than the MBA candidates he had taught at Stanford. “You learn something there that's instilled, which is success is communal,” he said. “The only way you get through this place is by taking care of each other. So if I struggle with a math test I'm going to get help from somebody who's good at that. And if I’m really good at something, I’ll help someone else. And you create a culture where the way we're going to do things is, we’re going to take care of each other.”

Caring about each other is the first of three fundamental principles Collins closed with. “People are first. The people in your life, the people you work with, and doing meaningful work with people you love doing it with. No. 2 would be really to figure out your ‘hedgehog,’ what you’re passionate about, what you can be best about, and stick with it. And then the third is this fundamental dynamic of preserving your core, while always stimulating progress. I think that what one of the things that people struggle with is, they either give up their core and they water it down and then they don't stand for anything. Or they get so wedded to a particular version of the core and they don't change and they become irrelevant. The great genius at the end is to do both all the time.”

The project Collins is now working on has fascinated him since early in his career, based on social scientist John W. Gardner’s 1964 book Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society. "He believed that one of the greatest costs of society is a failure of individuals and institutions to self-renew." With his research on companies wrapping up, Collins "woke up in my late 50s and started a research project which is incredibly exciting and asks a very simple question: Why do some people self-renew better than others?"

We look forward to his answers.

Cynthia Barnes has written about everything from art to zebras from more than 30 countries. She currently calls Denver home