Lispian Random meanderings on whatever catches my fancy

Good Enough to be Great

I’ve just revisited Good to Great by Jim Collins again thinking about how it ties back to startups. Although the reviews are all over the map I do wonder how many reviewers have tried to start a company or work at a mediocre firm with people that just don’t care? After reading the book I found myself nodding constantly and realizing what we had done right at Texar and what we had done wrong.

It makes me appreciate people like Bill Gates all the more. Originally a talented geek he was also a savvy businessman, which, I’ve found out, is all too rare. He quickly (and I mean quickly — by the age of 20) grasped the notion of “good enough” in terms of deliverable requirements while demanding top performance from this team. The goal is to create a great company that will drive great results. Bill Gates did that and more at Microsoft — no one in their right mind can argue that. Some may argue about the quality of Microsoft’s software but I will simply state: What stopped anyone else from building better software and selling it?

For an interesting take on how a leader can lose out by their own misreading of the market read Almost Perfect by Pete Peterson of WordPerfect (a PDF can be found at his site here). One can’t help but shake one’s head realizing how much WordPerfect gave up by ignoring Windows, even though it seems customers were telling WordPerfect they were going to buy Windows 3 and that they wanted a version of WordPerfect. Instead, WordPerfect focused on OS/2. They ended up 6 months behind Microsoft’s release of Word, which may well have been the turning point in the word processor wars.

Back to Good to Great. The book is an eye opener. There is one study that compares 11 great companies to some comparison companies. The 11 great companies flourished almost to the one under a CEO that was from within (there was one exception). The comparison companies almost to the one brought in an outsider. The outsiders usually didn’t get what the company was about and were more concerned with the here and now, their ego, and how much money they’d make. The CEO’s that came from within had more loyalty to the company and the employees, wanting them to succeed. Collins provides an interesting litmus test for CEO types called the Window Pane and the Mirror. The test is rather simple, but telling:

  • If the company is successful on a given project, who does the CEO believe is responsible? Is it him/herself and senior management or is it the employees? If him/herself, then that CEO is looking at the mirror.
  • Similarly, if there’s a failure or loss at a company that impacts corporate earnings, etc. does the CEO look out the window pane at the employees claiming it’s their fault, they didn’t work hard enough? Or, does s/he look into the mirror to attribute blame.

This is similar to the old Harry S Truman adage: The Buck Stops Here. If you’re a manager you have to take the good with the bad, but especially the bad. If things aren’t going well you have to take the heat. All too often we hear that the company or employees failed some visionary leader. I don’t think so. I think the leader may have been more blinded by his vision than willing to stare reality in the eye and determine the proper course of action.

Collins book is a great read on management and how they manage corporations, or anything. Although I’d like to believe I tend to manage and have managed correctly I’ll leave the judgment to others. However, if I ever start another company I can tell you that I don’t intend to ever have any managers that don’t fit Collins’ Level 5 manager definition. I highly recommend everyone interested in their careers read the book. It is well worth it for you and your staff.

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September 2010
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