Book overview: Good to Great

I just wrapped up a quick post-graduation reading of Jim Collins’ Good to Great, on what is required for a company or organization to gain enduring success. The book was a gift from my boss, who has himself run large successful corporations, and spent several years as a consultant to troubled businesses. Watching him work is a learning experience by itself, and I’ve asked him to share with me some of the timeless principles he’s learned through the years.

Understanding how great organizations work is important if 1) your career involves anyone beyond yourself, 2) if you have any desire to advance at your job, and 3) if you want to see your company/organization succeed. And at the most fundamental level, success is less dependent on methods and process, and more on relationships and purpose, which is why it is also very important for everyday life.

In very simplified terms, Good to Great covers four main ideas. First, any successful organization begins with great leadership, and not necessarily the exciting motivational speaker kind, but the humble and approachable kind. A person with the patience to understand, the integrity to confront reality, and the will to do what must be done in the service to the organization (even if it means less personal payoff) is far preferable to the dynamic executive who lives to bask in the glory of his own accomplishments.

After the person at the top, the most important step before figuring out what to do is figuring out who will do it. If you have “the wrong people on the bus,” as Collins puts it, it doesn’t matter what you attempt to do—it’s going to fail. But with the right people in the right seats, everything else will fall into place. And who are the right people? Creative, thoughtful and teachable individuals who love what the organization stands for and has talents that fit the job. He recommends that companies not hire too hastily, as the wrong person will cause much more damage than just waiting it out, especially in top positions.

Third, Collins writes about what he calls the “Hedgehog Concept,” which identifies the purpose of an organization and clarifies its strategy. You’ll have to read the book for an explanation on the name, but basically, the Hedgehog Concept helps distinguish between what you should or shouldn’t be spending resources on, and you discover it by drawing a venn diagram with three circles, where one is what you’re passionate about, another is what you are better at than anyone else, and the last is what drives your economic engine. Where the three circles intersect, you’re invincible. On an individual level, you can even use this “formula” to figure out what career path to take.

Lastly, the book emphasizes the importance of positive perseverance, though that’s not what it was called (I just loaned the book to someone else, so I can’t check). It’s easy for setbacks and slowdowns to hurt morale, and for low morale to destroy growth. Every surfacing of fear and disappointment is like a small hole in the boat. But this isn’t about blind optimism—in fact, that can be very destructive, as it can lead to more severe disappointment. Rather, positive perseverance is about knowing which direction to go and pushing forward with patience and consistency.

When my wife and I began preparing for the Houston half-marathon in 2010, we couldn’t imagine running over thirteen miles. We’d run three the first month, five the next month, and so on, until we reached thirteen. And we learned that the only way we could make it was to run slow and steady. You might feel like you’re not getting anywhere, and it will take longer, but once you cross the finish line nothing else matters but that moment. Now, I’m not an optimist. But at a certain point, when you know that the only thing standing between you and your goal is your own willingness to work for it, then developing the right attitude and staying positive can make all the difference.

All of these findings were a result of a rigorous research project into thousands of American corporations. Skipping over lots if information provided by the book, it turns out the “secret” to success is rather simple: know who you are, what you are and why you are; hire the best people for the right positions; keep lines of honest communication open from top to bottom; push forward in one direction, even when things are tough; and constantly place service to others and the well-being of the organization as your primary goals. In short, reading Good to Great reminded me of the power of focused selflessness.

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