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My Book Reviews Jim Collins, Good to Great
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Review of Good to Great, by Jim Collins. New York, 2001, ISBN 0-06-662099-6

Why list a business book like Jim Collins' Good to Great as must reading in this forum? One big reason: The freedom to excel in sales comes only when you start working for yourself (and your customers) as if your territory or sales responsibility were your own business. Regardless of whose name is on your paycheck, you're the one bringing in the revenue, and if you sell effectively, you're also the one driving profits, increasing market share, and building and protecting the franchise of loyal customers. And if you're going to sell as a "company of one," then knowing how to run a "great" company is critical to success.

What I liked first about Collins' best-selling book (as with his previous best seller, Built to Last) is that it's not a bunch of business and leadership theory - it's based on years of careful research. He's telling us what he found, not what he made up. That said, you'll still need to find your own lessons and meaning in Collins' book, but here's why it's on my list of favorites. It's an easy read. We're all busy. I like the fact that it's well-organized and well written; more than that, I like the summaries at the end of each chapter (they're printed on grey paper, so you can go right to them). One way to get into the book is to start with the summaries and find what interests you - or raises questions you want to answer.

Key lessons for me: The top business leaders Collins' team studied, what he calls "Level 5 Leaders," are all strong, decisive, assertive people, with strong egos and equally strong ambition - just like high-performing salespeople. But the difference is "their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves." If you want to assess how well you might stack up as a "Level 5 Salesperson," just check your goals. What motivates you in your work? Are you driven by the desire to put money in your pocket, to feel "powerful," to feel "needed," or are you focused on creating a great customer-focused business? Level 5 Leaders, Collins found, were also self-effacing - they combined a fearless, unstoppable will to succeed with an equally deep humility. When things went well, they "looked out the window" to find others to praise (such as colleagues and customers); when things didn't go well, they "looked in the mirror" to identify how they needed to improve their beliefs and behavior. In comparison with leaders (and sales consultants) who trumpet their own brilliance and expertise, Level 5 leaders were "plough horses" who kept relentlessly pushing forward, not "show horses."

Collins devotes a whole chapter, "First Who…Then What," to the importance, for business leaders, of getting "the right people on the bus" - hiring, rewarding, and retaining employees and managers who share the leader's passion for excellence. For people running their own business, this is probably the most important chapter in the whole book. But there's a powerful analogy for salespeople as well. Your customers are your partners in growing your business. It makes just as much sense to "hire, reward and retain" good customers as it does to build a great staff of employees. The same analogy holds through the rest of the book. It's as important to "confront the brutal facts (yet never lose faith)" with customers as it is with employees. I liked Collins's "yin/yang" balance between living in the face of unswerving honesty and candor while also preserving an unquenchable optimism for the future. (My only quibble with a popular "Executive Book Summary" abridgement of Collins' book is that they ignore the balance and concentrate on half of the answer - confronting reality.) Two more useful assessment questions: How candid are you with customers (especially when problems arise)? How strong is your faith in the future (for the customer) when things don't go well?

There are many other great (not just good) insights in this book. The last one I want to emphasize is Collins' "Hedgehog Concept" - three critical questions to pursue deeply, whether you're a salesperson, or running your own small business.

So: Read Collins' book (I prefer the book to the abridged version, but it's also available in audio form for those who prefer to listen rather than read). Start the process of making the transition to becoming a "great" salesperson.