My favorite leadership book of the nineties is Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. I have referred to and quoted from this profound book many times since reading it in 1994. Based on extensive research of 18 “visionary companies” and 18 corresponding “comparison companies,” the authors explore why visionary companies (all founded before 1950) still lead their industry and surpass their much less successful competitors. Collins and Porras give us deep insight into why “visionary companies prosper over long periods of time, through multiple product life cycles and multiple generations of active leaders.” Anyone interested in building a high performance culture must read this powerful book.

In 2001, Jim Collins published Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. This book resulted from Jim assembling a research team to start with a blank sheet (screen) and figure out “how can good companies, mediocre companies, even bad companies achieve enduring greatness.” Using extremely tough benchmarks, the research team “identified a set of elite companies that made the leap to great results and sustained those results for at least 15 years.” This resulted in identifying “Level 5 Leaders,” “The Hedgehog Concept,” and the “Flywheel and Doom Loop.” A culture of discipline and technology accelerators figured prominently in the findings as well.

I very much enjoyed reading Good to Great, but found it somewhat frustrating because it was not as prescriptive as Built to Last. Collins says that the books are really in the wrong order. Good to Great really should be read before Built to Last. Good to Great describes what it takes to become an outstanding company. Built to Last provides more of the leadership principles that make it happen.

Occasionally I work with management teams who try to use these books to move themselves from good to great. They have started using terms like “getting people on and off the bus” or “The Hedgehog Concept,” but weren’t able to make things substantially better. Their implementation frustrations illustrate a much bigger “Strategy Gap” problem I see all the time.

The first part of the problem is that far too many management teams confuse strategy with execution. They think that having the plan or understanding a concept is doing it. The second part of the problem is that a good management team can’t build a great organization. The place to start improving the organization is by improving the dynamics and effectiveness of the management team itself, to make them great. But it’s a very rare team that is willing to look in that mirror.

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