Implications of “Good to Great”

Fall 2003

Implications of “Good to Great”


In the past year, leaders of many firms espouse concepts from Jim Collins’ bestseller, “Good to Great.” In revisiting the concepts, many don’t seem consistent with their professional services firm culture. Some concepts are applied verbally, but not actually. And other concepts could deliver incredible benefits if firms applied the rigor to realize the “great” results. Either way … the concepts are worth discussing.

         “Level 5 Leadership.”

“Look for situations where extraordinary results exist but where no individual steps forth to claim success credit. You will likely find a potential Level 5 leader at work.”

Many leaders boasting “Good-to-Great” principles have bigger egos. They’re visible, often visionary leaders, but not Level 5. Many promote “Greatness” slogans, which Collins specifically says is not what Level 5 leaders do. Using Collins’ examples, a Level 5 leader is a (less visible) “facilitative leader” … builds a strong cadre at the next level, listens a lot, then facilitates visions, strategies, actions by that next level.

By building strength at the next level, Level 5 leaders were consistently not “worka-holics.” Trina’s finding in her coaching experience, the best leaders are not worka-holics, and have better life balance. As their effectiveness in their firms improves, they also achieve better balance in their lives … and with fewer hours in the office.

       “First Who … then What”

The sports team analogy was quite clear: “If you’re not cutting it – even after many years on the team – you’re out.” Most firms are, organizationally, like families. If someone’s been with you 25 years, has shared good times and bad, and has “gone to war with you” to help save the firm in crisis times, most firms would never cut that person loose.
       “Sorry Harold. You’re now the weakest link Goodbye!”

Firms in our profession may not “hit the same heights of greatness” but seem more comfortable getting “Harold” some help … counseling, coaching, retraining, reassignment … to get him as useful as they can. It’s more of an issue of “How good (or great) can we be … while we remain humane with our corporate family?”

       “Confront the Brutal Facts”

The markets for many firms are “mature.” Yet leaders in those markets often suffer “denial.” They complain clients treat them like commodities, ask for priced proposals, and that profits are 5 to 7 percent. They observe longer “short lists.” In fact …
One recently had 24 firms! But they won’t “confront the brutal fact” that their long-term “bread and butter market” is soft … and then make plans to diversify from it. Many firms need to follow this principle much more rigorously.

       “The Hedgehog Concept”

Here’s an area of real opportunity! The principles are keyed to three questions …

1. What can you be the best in the world at?
2. What drives your economic engine?
3. What are you deeply passionate about?

“The Hedgehog concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the be or an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It’s an understanding of what you can be the best at.” And the statement needs to be simple, clear, and – with work – achievable.

If I’m part of a civil/environmental firm in, say, South Carolina, and if our firm’s genesis has been public works … municipal clients … couldn’t I – with consistent effort and time – achieve being the absolute best municipal engineer in my geography?

· How would I measure, to know I’ve truly achieved this result?
· What would I have to do for each client to see me that way?
· How would we organize our firm for us to reach this goal?
· How to get all our people focused on achieving that end?

The catch? What if South Carolina municipalities are severely short of funding for several years? The market does need to be there. Do we need to be “the best in the world” in two or three niche markets? Collins doesn’t discuss that, as the corporations he surveyed had (historically) enjoyed dramatic success for twenty or so years.

“The Culture of Discipline” and “The Flywheel”

Could a regional firm focus on what it would take to be the absolute best in their region? It’s less glamorous, but it’s the day-after-day, focused, dedicated work – on the part of the whole firm – that seems required to make the firm truly “Great.”

“Technology Accelerators”

One municipally-focused firm created software that helps clients automate their municipal services to citizens. They now have a separate, profitable group in their firm. They have a service others don’t. It sets them apart from other firms. It’s a focused technology use that advances their success … reinforcing the Hedgehog concept.

Principles Collins derived from his research are similar to what Peters & Waterman learned, through similar research for “In Search of Excellence.” The real challenge …

How rigorously can you apply
what their research shows will work?

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