Sunday, November 23, 2014

A tribute to George Collins, a humble man with a powerful impact

Professor George Collins (1955-2014)

A tribute to George based on recollections of his time in Brisbane with CAST (2008-2012).

George wrote a beautiful farewell speech when I left CAST in mid-2011.  In the speech he looked at how my personal brand compared to the Good Brand Report.  I’d like to return the compliment. George had a unique brand and I like to think he would have enjoyed the comparison. Some of these words are adapted from George’s own words.

According to the annual Good Brand Report, there are a number of common traits shared by good brands, characteristics that make these brands special.

Utility – Aim to enhance your usefulness for the consumer. In doing so, look not only at your product or service, but the eco‐system that surrounds it.

George had a quiet, unassuming but impactful way of influencing those around him. Before providing input to any situation he would seek to understand it. He was very sensitive to the eco‐systems that surrounded him and quickly determined how he could contribute most usefully to them. This seemed to be a trait that George applied in all aspects of his life but at CAST it was evidenced by the thoughtful but determined way he set about getting to know everyone in the office, from their coffee preference to their hopes and aspirations.  Only when he felt that he well-understood those around him did he then look at how to best work in with them to address the challenges particular to being CAST’s CEO. George applied the same principles to the people in CAST’s partner organisations, always seeking to understand how he could add the most value to the many eco-systems in which he operated.

Experimentation – Constant innovation is the essential element of growth. Continually push the boundaries of your offering and create ancillary products.

Innovation was one of George’s passions. He was always open to new ideas and inventive in thinking of ways to best support those ideas and the people driving them. In this way George created many ancillary products, in the form of the people he has supported to take on new and different challenges. George always shepherded his colleagues, being available to advise, guide and support. While it has been more than three and half years since George and I worked together at CAST he would stay in touch and was always available to support and encourage.

His bravery and willingness to try new things, led him to star in a video for one of CAST’s award winning technologies that had everyone talking.  It was overwritten with the caption, ‘George Collins – CEO, CAST – the most boring CRC (according to some),’ an in-joke amongst colleagues. George never took himself too seriously and we all loved him for it.

George was constantly pushing his own boundaries, trying to find new and better ways of doing things.  While there are many examples of this, one of CAST’s younger staff members, Gastronomy Gal, fondly recalls George’s mission to cook the perfect poached egg.

“Every Friday (because it was getting too frequent so we had to pick a day) George and I would share cinnamon toast and discuss culinary issues. One of the issues was George’s scientific method to cooking a poached egg exactly to his liking. He would often report back on his experiments including the ratio of vinegar to water, the stirring method - all these variables that were affecting the possibility of the perfect poached egg. As one of the only non-scientists in a whole company full of them, I explained to him that it was more about feel, than exact ratios, and he was mortified by my casual attitude towards it. I know he involved his family in this extended experiment because one day, months and months after the egg experiment first began, he came to work really excited that he had managed to cook what he thought was the ultimate egg, but was crestfallen because no one had been there to experience it. Troubling him even more was the fact that he wasn't sure he would be able to replicate it because he wasn't sure of his method! I said 'what happened to the science of making the perfect egg?' He said he'd been in a rush and taken my approach and just 'chucked it in'. I obviously had an incredulous 'I told you so' look written across my face because George smiled and replied, 'of course I'm going to have to adjust a few things here and there and do an experiment to see if not having a method actually works'. I just laughed! - Forever a scientist, although one with very humanist tendencies.”

Design – Premium aesthetics coupled with consistent delivery wins every time. Make your audience feel valued, encouraging them to include you as part of their identity.

George had excellent aesthetics and saw beauty in the creation of ideas and in the shared responsibility of bringing ideas to reality.  George also took the time to appreciate the beauty all around him. While George clearly didn’t like spending time away from his family, he would often reflect on the small joys associated with living in his apartment in the heart of Brisbane. George’s time with his family seemed to revitalize him. Through George we came to know his family and bask in the glow as he would proudly reflect on their achievements and his gratitude for the time they shared together.

I’ll never forget George’s contagious excitement at the prospect of a lift to a meeting in my husband’s fire engine red Holden Crewman muscle car.  We giggled like children at the prospect of being spotted by someone associated with our industry partner – Ford Motor Car Company of Australia. George reminded us to be grateful for the little moments.

Consistent and reliable delivery of excellence was a hallmark of George’s personal brand.  George made every moment count, and while this often meant that it appeared that he would leave things to the last minute, in reality he was extracting every last piece of value out of the time he had available. Last minute or not, George could always be relied on to get things done and to make things happen.

George cared passionately about the people in his life and made all of us feel valued. We each hold a small part of George as part of our shared identities. In this way George’s brand will continue to live on.

Community and listening – Create a sense of community for your customers. Actively engage them and listen to what they have to say. They are the best source of guidance for improved service.

George was a great listener.  He combined this with the patience to listen to a lot of people on a range of different subjects. George was an excellent facilitator and had a talent in engaging people and building what they had to say into a collective vision.  He was always careful to ensure that his decisions as CAST’s CEO were being guided by the CAST community and were made in consultation, never in isolation.

Not only a good listener, George fostered trust and cooperation by providing a safe environment for people to work.  Simon Sinek speculates on why good leaders make you feel safe, “When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.” Certainly this was the sense of community that George excelled in building, and it did lead to remarkable things.

Change the model – Look at your consumers’ eco‐system of needs and change your business model to suit them.

We all find it challenging to cope with change and sometimes our situation changes before we realise it. George always sought to be informed and, where possible, understand the changes around him. George saw change as a driver to adjust his own way of working to meet the demands of the future. The variety of leadership roles that George filled showed how he was able to adapt his own business model to meet new challenges.

We saw George’s attempts to adapt to change in a funny way at CAST as he struggled to better understand Generations X and Y and their differences to his own Baby Boomer generation.  Again Gastronomy Gal, CAST’s Gen Y representative, recalls some of the frequent robust discussions that she would have with George on this topic, “George was incredibly embarrassed that someone on Brisbane River’s CityCat had offered him their seat. He thought that the Gen Y person involved was just being cheeky because he couldn't possibly be 'that old' but I explained to him that you didn't have to be elderly for a Gen Y to offer a seat, the rule is that if a person is older than you, you should offer your seat.  George was mildly placated but not really satisfied, so then went about offering his seat to every elderly person, or pregnant woman he could find to assert the point that he did not need a seat and was perfectly capable of standing. This went on for a few months until he saw another young person offer a lady who was younger than him a seat, and then he relaxed and finally believed me!”

Beyond the 30-second ad – Instead of spending money on advertising, leverage the existing community that’s involved with your brand to promote your products and services.

George was incredibly generous with his time and gave himself to people in his workplace, his family and his community. Interactions with him were always meaningful and often significant. George’s brand was unique and impossible to encompass in only a few words. A humble man with a powerful impact on all around him, his generous and gentle soul will be sadly missed.

It was a privilege to work with George and the lessons from his life and the influence of his personal brand will continue to live on through all of those who knew and loved him.

Links to more tributes to George:

Natalie Chapman, GEmaker
CRC for Low Carbon Living
Swinburne University of Technology

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