What takes a company from Good to Great

A couple weeks ago I read the best-selling business book Good to Great, by Jim Collins. I snagged one of the copies floating around Age of Learning, where I work. The book explains six key traits common to companies that have changed from average companies to stock market superstars. The book was published in 2001, so it has had time to seep into business culture. Although the study has its critics (see reviews on Amazon), I find the book inspiring.

I like best the Hedgehog concept. The clever fox knows many ways to attack the hedgehog. The hedgehog knows only one thing: to curl up and become a ball of spikes. But that is all it needs to know. Dogged adherence to a simple strategy wins the day. And so it is in business. Much to the surprise of Collins and his team of researchers, the overperforming companies he chronicles were not clever proud foxes, but instead unassuming hedgehogs who stuck to simple, almost simpleminded strategies, without fanfare or big re-orgs. 

Unassuming yes, but also incredibly courageous. In the 1950s, the grocery chain Kroger, then half the size of grocery giant A&P, realized that consumers wanted superstores instead of small local markets. So it quietly went about revamping every one of its stores to fit the new model. Expensive, time-consuming, dogged, and ultimately winning. Meanwhile A&P, in love with its glorious past, hid from the brutal facts and instead flitted among many different strategies, eventually going bankrupt. Both were old established companies, but only one had the courage to face facts, and commit to a strategy.

Of course there are good strategies and bad strategies. Hedgehogs find their calling in the overlap of three circles: What your are passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine. In other words, you gotta love it, rock at it, and make money at it. And if you are not the best in the world at something, having the courage to drop it, as Wells Fargo did when it decided to give up global banking and focus only the western United States.

The most surprising thing about hedgehogs is that they slip under the radar. The CEOs profiled in Good to Great are unassuming, almost invisible, not interested in personal glory. Instead they focus on doing the right thing. They hire passionate people, listen to the market, and make a long string of consistent decisions with unwavering determination. Hedgehogs are not spectacular. But they produce spectacular results. Slow but sure wins the race.