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Good to Great Summary

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

One of my favourite leadership books of all time is Good to Great by Jim Collins. It's in my top five—possibly alongside three or four of Patrick Lencioni's works. Collins' earlier book, Built to Last, could be his best known work. But what I love about Good to Great is that the companies studied once were just good before they became great. They weren't all-stars straight out of college. They weren't topping the ranks in high school. These are the companies that were average in high school, average out of college but at 25 something changed and they went on to become all-stars. I love that concept because all of us want to lead and be part of great organisations, but many of us find ourselves leading and part of good organisations.

So, how do you take a good organisation and make it great? Jim Collins outlines six concepts. I'm going to unpack three of them here that were most significant for me.

Level 5 leadership

This one was big for me. As I read, I realised I had assumed all great leaders were big-personality leaders. Not true. And how nice that it's not just anecdotally untrue, but also backed up by research findings in Good to Great? The thing that stood out for me in this chapter of the book is that leaders who turned good organisations into great organisations were humble. They also tended on the quiet side.

Where they lacked a super-ego and didn't ooze natural charisma, they instead had a fierce determination to stay true to the organisation's purpose and values. So, whether you're a big-personality leader or not isn't the point. The point is that leaders of great organisations succeed not through individual personality but through corporate personality, if you will. They are extreme when it comes to the organisation staying true to its DNA. How about you? Do you know your organisation's DNA? And how determined—and courageous—are you when it comes to defending it?

First who ... then what

Before I read Good to Great, I thought vision was everything. I still do to some extent. Nothing moves people like purpose, vision, 'why' (as Simon Sinek calls it). As part of my thinking, I assumed the very first thing a leader should do in any context is articulate and communicate vision. Jim Collins changed my mind.

He helped to resolve a dissonance in my thinking that I was aware of. I believed organisations were ultimately about people. Customers/clients/congregations, yes. But also employees/volunteers. The issue with believing leadership is all about vision is ... well organisations can't be all about vision and all about people. I now believe organisations are all about people, and one of the most important tools to impact all of the above-mentioned people involved in an organisation is vision. But vision doesn't come first.

Jim Collins has this great analogy of a bus. He talks about getting the right people on the bus first, then working out where to go. I've come around to this idea. Before, I would have said that no matter who you had on the bus, as long as you were going in the right direction (vision), you can get there. Now, I've changed to believe that as long as you've got the right people on the bus, you can work out where to go and get there together. Organisations are all about people. And that's not just about the 'end result' of what an organisation does—positively affecting customers/clients/congregation. It's about people from the start. First who ... then what.

Hedgehog concept

One of the most helpful frameworks I've come across is the hedgehog concept. The idea is simple—a fox comes up against a hedgehog. The fox is sly and has many plans and ways to attack. But the hedgehog has one incredibly effective strategy that it employs time and time again. It rolls up into a pointy, dangerous ball making it impossible for the fox to get anywhere near it.

The hedgehog concept is also true for great organisations. Interestingly, they're less like the fox, and more like the hedgehog. What makes organisations great isn't the 100 things they do incredibly well, it tends to be one thing the organisation is extremely good at. There are three intersecting circles in a venn diagram. One of the Build to Last concepts sits within the middle where the three circles intersect—the BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal). How do you come up with your organisation's BHAG? You answer three questions:

1. What are you deeply passionate about?

2. What can you be the best in the world at?

3. What drives your economic engine?

Each of the three circles represents one of the questions. If you can answer questions one and two, but not question three, then your BHAG won't be quite right. But, if you can answer all three truthfully and chase after the BHAG in that direction, then you'll be on your way to leading a great organisation.

These three concepts were the most significant for me from Good to Great. Let me know if you have any questions or if you have any stories of successes or challenges employing these concepts.

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