Book Review: Good to Great by Jim Collins

I just finished reading the book Good To Great by Jim Collins. It’s been recommended to me so many times that I decided to give it a read finally. So the idea that sparked this book was to answer questions about how good companies might become great companies, and how they went about doing so. The study looks at companies from 1965 to 1995, looking for those that, for 15 years, either tracked or underperformed the stock market, followed by a transition, and subsequently returning at least 3 times the stock market for at least 15 years. The goal was to eliminate “flash in the pan” success from the results. Further filtering was performed in order to ensure that companies also outperformed their industries, so as not to include spurious results showing entire industries that grew by leaps and bounds in a given period. Eleven companies were located that matched these criteria, and were studied in depth, and compared to competitors in their fields:

  • Abbot Laboratories
  • Circuit City
  • Fannie Mae
  • Gillette
  • Kimberly-Clark
  • Kroger
  • Nucor
  • Philip Morris
  • Pitney Bowes
  • Walgreens
  • Wells Fargo

Level 5 Leaders

All the companies studied had what Collins describes as “Level 5 Leaders”. Despite sounding like something from a space-alien worshiping cult, what the term refers to is an individual who is very humble on a personal level, but who possesses a great deal of drive and desire to succeed, where “success” is not personal, but defined by creating something great that will outlast their time at the helm. These are people with an unwavering will and commitment to do what is necessary to drive their organization to the top. Most of the good to great executives discussed luck as an important factor in their success. Level 5 leaders, are, in any case, the kind of people who do not point to themselves as the cause for an organization’s success. The chapter closes with a discussion of whether Level 5 Leaders are born, or made, with the conclusion that many people probably have the kernel of abilities and attitudes necessary to attain that status.

First Who … Then What

During the transformation from good to great, rather than concern themselves first with the “what” – products, direction, strategy – the companies studied ensured they had the right people “on the bus” before anything else. By having a strong team, these companies avoided the pitfall of the “lone genius” CEO. “Great” companies are those that have a very solid foundation, and don’t depend on the brilliance of any one person.

The research indicated that compensation did not correlate at all with the “good to great” process. No particular compensation scheme appeared to be advantageous.

Also important was that, while the companies were “tough” places to work, they were because of the general high quality and hard-working mindset, not because of ruthless management. Some practical tips for how to be rigorous:

  • Don’t hire someone unless you’re %100 sure that they’re the right person. It’s better to wait and get someone that you knowis a good fit.
  • Once you realize you need to fire someone, don’t put it off. Do it quickly and fairly, but do it and be done with it, rather than put it off.
  • Give good people good opportunities, rather than the biggest problems. Fixing problems makes you good, but taking advantage of the right opportunities can make you great.

Good to great teams were mostly composed of people who had a good sense of balance with the rest of their lives – family, church, and so on. Of course, they had a deep commitment to their companies, but not one that blinded them to the other important things in their lives.

Confront the Brutal Facts

One of the key factors in the success of the great companies was a series of good decisions. The good decisions flowed from the fact that they all made a consistent and thorough effort to confront reality, internalizing the facts relevant to their market. Having lofty goals can be good, but you can never lose sight of what the reality is on the ground, no matter how much you will it to be different.

In a large organization, where it’s impossible to personally poke your nose in all corners of the company every day, it is crucial to create a climate where honesty is valued and honored. If people aren’t telling it like it is, those at the top may not realize the truth until too late. Some tips to create this kind of climate:

  • It’s often better to ask questions rather than dispense “answers”.
  • Encourage healthy debate. It has to be real debate, not a show put on to make people feel included. It should also not just be argument for the sake of argument – reach a conclusion and move on.
  • When things go wrong, investigate to avoid repeating the mistake, instead of assigning blame. If people are too worried about protecting themselves, it becomes difficult to honestly analyze and learn from failures.
  • Create mechanisms, “red flags” that allow people to communicate problems instantly and without repercussions, and in a way that cannot be ignored.

Amidst these “brutal facts” that must be faced, you must also have faith in your final goal. By maintaining this vision, and keeping your ear to the ground, it won’t be necessary to motivate people – if you’ve got the right people, they’ll be motivated of their own accord.

The Hedgehog Concept

The “hedgehog concept” refers to a parable of a hedgehog and a fox, where the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The good to great companies were by and large built by “hedgehogs” – this doesn’t mean stupid – it just means that they were able to focus on one big important thing that made their companies great. Sometimes it takes real genius to see through all the clutter and grab the one, simple, unique thing that gives you the advantage.

The “three circles” is an idea regarding how to find your “hedgehog concept”: think of three interlocking circles, representing 1) what you are passionate about, 2) what you can make money at, and 3) what can you be the best at. At the intersection of these three things lies the winning target. If you can bring all three things to bear, you have found a way to excel. Learn to realize, as well, what you will never be the best at – those are things you must avoid, if possible. The economics of various industries varied widely, but the good great companies were winners, even within industries that weren’t rising stars. One consistent rule of thumb is to identify a ratio, profit per X, (where X could be customer, web site user, per unit sold, per employee etc…) and focus on that. Sometimes it may not be obvious.

Passion, on the other hand, does not come from executive rah-rah sessions with employees, but by doing things that make people passionate on their own. Passion isn’t something that can be forced on people, it has to come from a mission that they truly believe in, that’s more than just a paycheck.

Another practical suggestion is to create a “Council”, of between 5 to 12 people, to discuss and gain insights into the organization. It should meet regularly, not a one-time group. Its members should bring to the table a deep understanding of some portion of the firm. They need the freedom to speak their minds, and always have the respect of the other Council members. The Council exists to help the chief executive, not reach a consensus. It is an informal group, in the sense that it is not spelled out in official documents or org charts.

Culture of Discipline

Great companies have both an entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of discipline. They are both necessary – without the drive to try new things, and some degree of independence, a company becomes a rigid, stifling hierarchy. Without some sense of discipline, things begin to break down as the company grows. The best companies have both latitude for individual action, as well as a culture of disciplined behavior. This begins, once again, with the right people. It’s useless trying to create rules to force the wrong people to behave correctly – it simply won’t work. Instead, you need to find people who have an innate sense of self-discipline that doesn’t come from above. There is a big difference between having a “tyrant” that enforces a culture of discipline by fear, and finding people who naturally adhere to a disciplined approach. The former will disintegrate when the leader moves on, the latter creates a lasting system.

One helpful approach to discipline is to have a “stop doing” list. Stop doing the things that aren’t central to your business. Stop doing the things that are just clutter, but even more importantly, stop doing even things that might be seen as important, if they are not in your “three circles”.


“Great companies adapt and endure” – technology is not a differentiator in and of itself, but rather something that enhances great companies. They use it to further increase their leverage, in a conscious, directed way, rather than rushing to embrace it for the sake of its newness. Technology won’t light a fire where there is none, but where there is already good momentum, judicious use of technology can help accelerate it. Technology is an enabler of change, not the cause of it – but the “people factors” must be in place before application of technology will do any good. Technology as a reaction – to the latest fashion, to the competition – was not what was found in great companies. These companies possess a drive that pushes them to be the best in their chosen field, and picking the right technology is a natural part of that.

The “Flywheel” and “Doom Loop”

These two concepts represent positive and negative momentum. A flywheel is a heavy wheel that takes a lot of energy to set in motion – to do so usually requires constant, steady work, rather than a quick acceleration. Great companies’ transformations were like this as well. There was no magic recipe or no ‘aha’ moment when everything changed. Rather, with everything in place, lots of hard work slowly but steadily got the great companies going faster and faster, with a lot of momentum. Once it’s in motion, all that stored energy tends to keep it moving in the right direction.

Conversely, the “doom loop” is the vicious circle that unsuccessful companies fall into, rushing first in one direction, then another, in the hope of creating a sudden, sharp break with the past that will propel them to success. Some attempt to do this through acquisitions, others through bringing in a new leader who decides to change direction completely, in a direction incompatible with the company. The results are never good. The difference between the two approaches is characterized by the slow, steady, methodical preperation inherent in the flywheel, as compared to the abrupt, radical, and often revolutionary, rather than evolutionary changes within the company.

Built to Last

The results from this book were obtained without regards to Collins’ earlier work, Built to Last, but when all was said and done, Good to Great is what has to happen before a company becomes Built to Last. Much of what is present in Good to Great was present during the creation by their founders of the Built to Last firms. Companies that have endured have a raison d’être beyond simply making money – they have distinguishing and unique characteristics, goals and ways of operating that go beyond a simple desire to make money. These core values are preserved, while tactics change continuously to deal with an restless, tumultuous world that never stops.

The “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG), a concept introduced in Built to Last can be either good (as motivation, something to pursue), or bad (if it’s impossible or a bad fit). Good BHAGs are those formulated from a deep understanding, whereas bad ones come from brash recklessness without regard for the actual values and capabilities of the company. Companies need to exist for a higher purpose than mere profit generation in order to transcend the category of merely good. According to Collins, this purpose does not have to be specific — even if the shared values that compel the company toward success are as open-ended as being the best at what they do and achieving excellence consistently, that may be sufficient as long as the team members are equally dedicated to the same set of values.