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Getting to Great

A man interested in going to my alma mater, NYU’s Stern Business School, emailed me to ask advice about making himself POP on its waiting list.  He wanted to stand out.  After an hour of my no-doubt-highly-insightful advice, Aaron Butler recommended that I read “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.  He even reminded me to visit the Texas institution – Half Price Books – to find a copy of this 2001 bestseller.  Mr. Butler is clearly an astute businessman already.

Thanks, Aaron!

The copy I purchased had a note in the front cover from 7-Eleven’s President and CEO Joe DePinto addressed to a “team member” saying that he uses this information everyday in his job.  So with those two rousing recommendations, I plowed through this 210-page book (with 90 more pages of appendices and chapter notes, which I admittedly only skimmed).

Basically, here’s what I learned:

GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF GREAT: Basically, when a company (or a team or organization of any kind) becomes good, it tends to remain so and not make the effort to become great.

THE “WHO” IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE “WHAT”: First, the top leader – CEO – must be a self-effacing, low-key person who is more interested in the company being great, than he/she is interested in receiving accolades or glory.  Big egos get in the way of great, sustained results.  Big ego bosses can have short-term success, but it is only around as long as the ego is around.  Second, the CEO and other senior execs must hire the smartest people they can find and then decide what to do with them.  In other words, it’s easier to teach people how to do job  tasks than to teach them how to have your passion and ethos.  The book says over and over, “(leaders) first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.” (P41)

HONESTY WITH, AND FOCUS ON, WHAT YOU CAN AND CAN’T DO: First, your company’s leadership must be open to discussing and hearing the brutally honest facts about the company’s shortfalls, and then facing those shortfalls head on.  Leaders should be optimistic about the heights to which the company can climb, while at the same time, being realistic about the company’s capabilities and strong suits.  Second, they recommend that you focus simply on what they call “The Hedgehog Concept.”  That is the intersection of the answers of the following three questions:  What are you deeply passionate about?  What can you be the best in the world at?  What drives your economic engine?

ONCE YOU FIND YOUR PASSION/FOCUS, YOU MUST CREATE A CULTURE OF DISCIPLINE TO FOLLOW IT: Basically, many companies start down one path and a few years into the trek, make an about face.  This results in a loss of momentum.  The “overnight successes” studied by the author and his team of grad students showed that it took (on average) 15 years of mediocre results, before the company turned around and had at least 15 years of results that were 3x the market average.  The leaders created a culture of success that would live on – with or without them.

TECHNOLOGY ACCELERATED THE CORPORATE SUCCESS, BUT WAS NOT THE CAUSE OF IT: The author, Jim Collins, puts it best when he says, “When used right, technology becomes and accelerator of momentum, not a creator of it.  The good-to-great companies never began their transitions with pioneering technology, for the simple reason that you cannot make a good use of technology until you know which technologies are relevant.”

These “Good to Great” findings were very interesting, and it was actually a relief to know how accessible greatness is.  The hard part, appears to be, getting the right people on board and getting them to stay focused on core goals and principles over the long haul…and by “people” I mean “leaders.”

My only real complaint about the book is that the writing isn’t exciting and punchy…it’s very dry.  I understand that it’s a book based on academic findings, but I don’t think that’s a good excuse.  Oliver Sacks writes very interesting books based on data, as did the Freaknomics duo and Malcolm Gladwell.  Though these other authors are not pure academics, they do write interesting books based on volumes of data.  I wish Mr. Collins would’ve faced the harsh reality that he needed to find a great writer to make his writings pop to a much larger audience.  I understand the book sold over 2 million copies (according to the book jacket).  While that is very good (and 2 million is more books sold than any book I’ve written), maybe it’s not all that great.  With a better writer, he might’ve sold even more.

Despite that one annoyance (and I am a writer after all, so it’s something I notice), I do recommend this book for people looking to become better at whatever they are doing with their lives.  This information would apply not only to big companies, but also to entrepreneurs at all stages, and people working in volunteer organizations, government and non-profits.

Thanks again, Aaron, for making the rec!

One response to “Getting to Great

  1. Hi! This is Aaron. Nice review and great blog. I really like your comments on the main points. I added your blog’s RSS feed to my RSS reader, so I don’t have to worry about missing any of your posts.

    Glad you enjoyed the book and I think it’s great that you have one that was signed by the CEO of a major corporation. Thanks for the mention too. Cheers!

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