Behind The Scenes: John Collins, Collins helps people, organizations reach their Critical Victories

John Collins is founder of Critical Victories, a consulting and coaching practice. He works with organizations, groups and individuals who seek to boost professional performance in high-stress, high-stakes environments. Collins is a firearms expert and was one of the investigators of the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, and the subsequent serial bombings that took place in the region. Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Collins was tapped by then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to help devise ways of preventing future similar tragedies. Collins is a sought-after speaker and certified by the Society of Human Resource Management. Collins said his HR experience plays a key role in how he teaches, coaches
and consults. 

Tell me more about Critical Victories. When did you get up and running and what sparked your interest in starting
this venture?

Critical Victories is the name of my consulting and coaching practice that I formed in late 2013, though I had been doing a lot of public speaking, teaching and consulting well before that. I work with people, teams and organizations to improve their performance. Most of my clients want to strengthen executive leadership skills or make their team more competitive or effective. The core of my business is working with people one-on-one during in-person or over-the-phone coaching sessions. 

You’ve said you began to see that your experience in forensic science had value for people in other high-impact professions, that the lessons are “portable.” What are “high-impact” professions, and how are the
lessons portable?

My role in helping solve the bombing of the 1996 Olympics and the serial bombings in the areas in surrounding Atlanta affected how I understand the value of leadership when stakes are highest. High-impact professions, in my view, are those with an elevated expectation of perfection, particularly when the work has great public significance. These professions include criminal justice, medicine, aviation, sports management, government, universities or others where failure can have grave consequences. However, anyone in any field can face high-stakes circumstances, making them good candidates for my services.

One lesson most portable across various domains is that people and teams cannot reliably meet professional priorities when distracted by personal crises fabricated in their minds. My practice gives me an opportunity to help people confront urgencies while clearing their minds of toxic thinking habits.

What led you to include firearms forensics as an area of specialization?

During my forensic career, I was trained as a firearm and tool-mark examiner. I probably fired between 10,000 and 20,000 guns during my forensic laboratory career, many of which I examined to determine if a bullet recovered in a hospital or morgue was fired from a suspect’s firearm. I became a forensic laboratory director at a fairly young age. My career as a practicing forensic scientist was shortened by the transition into a leadership position. I don’t regret the transition, but miss the work and the opportunity I had to testify in important criminal trials.

 You were part of a panel of firearms experts assembled by Attorney General Eric Holder following the December 2014 murders of 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students in Newtown, Connecticut. What was that meeting like and what came of it?

That was a surreal experience because the stakes were so high. The meeting was held in the office of the vice president, next door to the White House. I had the strange feeling that the souls of the children who died were in the room with us. That may sound strange, but it was a feeling I had, and I can’t say much more about it than that. I was impressed by the lack of political posturing. All of us contributed, and the discussion was creative and stimulating. The underlying question was how can technology make guns and gun ownership safer. I was sitting two seats away from the attorney general and saw him glance at his phone to reply to a text from his daughter. It struck me that the politicians and staffers we see on TV are human beings with personal priorities just like everyone else. You could see on his face that he was traumatized by what happened in Newtown, and I was impressed by how professional he was despite that.

Where do you stand on gun laws, and what reforms, if any, would you recommend?

Your question presupposes that I take a stand on gun laws, which I don’t. I’ve worked with too many violent crime cases and examined too many guns to ignore the complexity. Firearms have deep roots in American culture. For some, guns are understandably viewed as devices used to perpetuate criminal violence. To others, guns represent memories of hunting with friends and family. Some think gun ownership is a means to prevent oppressive government intrusion. It’s a complicated, emotional issue. However, guns carried by untrained or irresponsible people, especially in densely populated areas or where people are vulnerable, is a serious problem. In my experience, at the heart of violent crime is violent intention. If local communities can keep young people from developing violent intentions, we will save a lot of lives, regardless of our gun laws.

You set records in discus throwing at Michigan State University. Tell me more about that.

I started as a walk-on, meaning coach Jim Bibbs let me throw in some open meets, without a Spartan uniform; something called competing “unattached.” When he saw I had potential, he brought me onto the team. Toward the end of my freshman season, he said that if I broke the freshman record, or placed at the Central Collegiate Championship meet at the University of Illinois, he would award me a varsity letter. Fortunately, I did both and was a varsity thrower all four years at Michigan State. I’m proud to say that in four years I was only beat by a Michigan Wolverine one time, and it was because I was disqualified for fouling on all three throws.

Did you learn anything as a discus thrower that you apply to your work today?

Yes, for sure. The primary lessons deal with how to manage pressure. One’s preoccupation with perfection is a recipe for failure. The more “perfect” I tried to throw, the worse I did. On the other hand, when I tried to enjoy the opportunity to compete and enjoy the camaraderie with other throwers in the Big Ten, I performed well. In this regard, I believe that people, including the clients with whom I work, function far better when they get in the habit of enjoying themselves, their work and their colleagues. I think enjoying one’s work is at the heart of being successful.

How do you approach the task of training people from the high-impact professions you’ve discussed? What is your end-goal as a trainer?

As a coach, I act as a thought partner with my clients and help them see things that have previously escaped their awareness. My ultimate goal is to have my clients feel more confident in themselves and/or their teams than when they first begin working with me. I can actually measure this with pre- and post-assessments I administer, which is always a very interesting exercise. Confidence is the ultimate feeling of well-being, but it does not come without effort or without periodic reassessments of how one works, how one relates to people or how one thinks. The bad news is that people cannot be saved from themselves. If a person, team or organization does not want to improve, there is not much that can be done – and I admit that this is something I run into from time to time. The great news is that when people really want to improve as individuals, professionals or leaders – and are willing to let go of the past and journey toward new ways to live and work – then just about anything is possible. 

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