Hands up if you’ve been in a meeting where someone, describing the mission for the company (or team, project, task, whatever), mentions how it’s going to be just like that book. You know the one, three words, first word is the opposite of bad…

It seems just about everyone plans to transform from good to great this year, and most of them will fail. Why? They confuse simple with easy – success is simple but it most definitely is not easy.

I have a book review on this site for ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. Here are the 3 most common hurdles in the race for greatness:

1. Ego’s Chair

To transform from good to great requires a great leader, and they are in short supply (at every level, I’m not just talking about heads of companies or countries here). This is a difficult hurdle to overcome. It’s usually the leader who decides to pursue good to great. Put yourself in their shoes – chances are, if you’ve decided to puruse good to great, you’ve already decided you are just the great leader needed for the job…

A great leader puts the company ahead of any personal motives – a rare trait. But it does exist, one example is Microsoft. Steve Ballmer may have an ego the size of the planet, but his focus is 100% on making Microsoft great. During my time there, I didn’t always agree with his decisions but it was clear that he truly believed his decision was right for the company. Same is true for the top man, Bill. You get the feeling he just can’t step down from the company until he is certain Microsoft will achieve financial success beyond Windows and Office.

2. Burning Bush

(No, I’m not talking about having a go at the U.S. President or an incident from a religious book)

So you’ve got a great leader, what’s next? Fire absolutely everyone who could get in the way of the company achieving greatness. Got disgruntled employees? Give ’em the boot. Got a star that failed to shine brightly? Get them to walk the plank. Got anyone who’s just doing it for the money? Tell them they’re fired. Feeling uncomfortable? Join the rest of us with an ounce of empathy for people with priorities beyond the company, or join the lawyers reviewing contracts and employment legislation…

But this is what greatness demands. You don’t win an Olympic gold medal in sport just for clocking in on time at the training centre. According to a recent article in Business Week, Steve Jobs believes that a small team of top talent will run circles around a far larger but less talented group. You can replace ‘talent’ with ‘commitment’ for the same results. ‘Great’ is far easier to achieve if you are starting from scratch and can pick your dream team, but if you’re starting out you’ve got to get to Good first…

3. Dreamer’s Corner

Got a great leader – check. Got a great team – check. What’s left? Your mission must be to achieve greatness in what you can do, not what you would like to do or be. This requires a brutal honesty that doesn’t always gel with the optimistic risk-taking attitude required to become a leader in the first place…

It starts with your mission statement, and this is a hurdle that even Microsoft struggles with. Their mission statement: “…to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.” Oh really? So agreeing to adhere to Chinese government laws, preventing the use of words such as democracy and removing blogs discussing free speech reflects the mission? Perhaps it should be updated to read “…realise their full potential limited to that which is possible within constraints defined by their local government.” This isn’t about whether Microsoft was right or wrong to cede to Chinese law, I am questioning whether such actions reflect the mission statement. From 1975 – 2000, Microsoft’s mission statement was ‘a computer on every desk and in every home’ and that’s what they set about doing. Whilst I love the idea behind the current mission statement, it’s back to the book’s guidelines: define what you can and will be, not what you’d like to be. Google faces the same challenge with its ‘Do no evil’ motto – evil is a very relative term.

One company that does pass this hurdle, and arguably clears all three, is IKEA. Their mission statement focuses on what they do: ‘Provide functional, well-designed furniture at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them’.



Double or quits

So there are three big hurdles to jump, but you also need the stamina to complete the race itself. One of the most important insights from the book is that greatness did not come from a single defining action, there is no miracle cure. To become great requires perseverance, it takes time and lots of work. It’s not difficult to find reasons to criticise Microsoft but never underestimate the effort they will put into getting something right. Robert Cringely wrote a great article back in 2001 describing this aspect:

…Microsoft will lie, cheat, steal, or may be just work very, very hard – whatever it takes. That’s the most intimidating realisation of all for competitors…

Books on how to get thin in 30 days, get rich in 30 days and so on, all tap into that human desire to find short cuts to success. But there are no short cuts. It’s why even the potentially greatest of people and organisations fail to achieve their potential – they just aren’t prepared to work hard enough for long enough.

Success is simple, but it is anything but easy. If it were, the bar would simply move higher to maintain the pyramid of life.

Related site pages:

  • Book review: ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins (published 2001)
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