Chances are that if you’re a high level executive in the business world or if you are studying in an MBA program, you’ve at least heard of Jim Collins and his two famous books: Built to Last and Good to Great. I haven’t read Built to Last, but just the other day I finished reading Good to Great. Before getting into some of the meat of the book and what I thought about it, I should note that this book was recommended to me by a friend who is currently an MBA student and the Assistant Executive Director of our international fraternity. Specifically, he asked me to read the monograph that accompanies Good to Great which talks about the social sectors – which I will review at another time.
Good to Great is, in short, a study of why some companies become megastars in the business world and why other ones seem to fall by the wayside. I use the term “study” because this book really is nothing more than the discussion around a set of findings from an actual academic study into a variety of companies – both those that made the jump to being “great” and those who either stayed in the middle of the industry or failed.
In a moment, I’ll write about some issues that I have with the companies that were used in the study, but it would only be proper to state how impressed I was with the findings of the study. Collins defines his results as: Level 5 Leadership, First Who…Then What, Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith), The Hedgehog Concept, A Culture of Discipline, Technology Accelerators, and The Flywheel and the Doom Loop. In fact, if you read just the table of contents for Good to Great, you’ll notice that this is their exact listing. The two findings that I enjoyed reading the most were Level 5 Leadership and Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith).
As a reader who is engaged in reality (and thus I apply real-world experiences to what I read), I liked reading about Level 5 Leadership for both selfish and professional reasons. Professionally, it is amazing how many people that I have worked for who are not the type of leaders that my companies have needed to exceed. I’ve worked for people who didn’t know a thing about leadership, yet managed to become the President or Executive Director of the company. It’s sickening, really. What makes someone a Level 5 Leader? As Collins suggested, it’s the unique combination of professional will and personal humility. In other words, you have to always have the best interests of the organization in mind, yet be able to be self-effacing about your success; always put the company’s success before your own.
How many people can honestly say that they’ve worked for people who acted that way about their company’s success? Few, I’m sure. Better yet, how many people have worked for bosses that considered the company’s success as a direct result of their own contributions? Much more, I’m sure.
The other finding of this study that I liked was the Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith) chapter. From my experience, this is something that far too few companies are comfortable with doing – and who can blame them. Who really wants to sit down as a company and look into the proverbial mirror? That’s a tough task and one that many companies cannot accomplish because their leadership is either too concerned about their professional reputation or they refuse to see any flaws that their leadership could have created.
I also like how Collins adds a summary to the end of each chapter showing the findings and the unintended findings. A very nice touch.
Now then… I have a problem with this companies in this book being heralded as “great.” Why, you ask? Two answers – Circuit City and Fannie Mae. Both of these companies are defined as “great” in the study, which shows one of the obvious flaws of the study – namely, that the confines of the research did not take into account whether or not the results that were being generated were built on a legit financial system. In other words, did Circuit City beat the pants off of the rest of the electronics stores because it truly had a better overall corporate structure? I think recent history would suggest the answers is a resounding no.
The same can be said of Fannie Mae. Here’s an organization that some suggest was implicit in the housing bust that literally wrecked the American and global economies. How can these companies be considered great in the long run if they were such miserable failures?
On the other hand, Wells Fargo is touted as a “great” company (and rightfully so), but it is contrasted with the Bank of America as a company that never made the leap to “great.” Well, having worked with the Bank of America (not as an employee, but as a business partner), I can tell you that they are a great organization. Sure, they may not have fit Collins’ definition during the period of the study, but rest assured that Bank of America is a great financial institution. For those of you who are naysayers due to its current bailout from the federal government, I get it. However, the Bank of America is one of the few financial firms that wants to repay the TARP funds ASAP.
All in all, I though Collins book was very well written and that the findings of the study were accessible. I would also argue that the findings are applicable to the business world despite my last few paragraphs. However, I would argue that the public can have a legit complaint about Fannie Mae and Circuit City being heralded as “great.” If you can get your hands on a copy of Good to Great, I recommend reading it.