Bar Bulletin

September, 2004



"Going From Good to Great"
~Are you interested? Do you know how?~

By Pat Yevics

In choosing speakers for the Solo and Small Firm Conference, we make every effort to provide attendees with tried and true topics and established speakers, as well as some new and innovative ideas and presenters.

If you
always do
what you’ve
always done,
you’ll always
get what
always got.

When I met with Mary Ann Masur, one of the new speakers that we have scheduled for the 6th Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference, Saturday, November 6, 2004, at the BWI Marriott, she spoke enthusiastically about a book called From Good to Great by Jim Collins. I had seen Masur do a presentation some months ago and I knew that she had a lot of ideas for helping solo and small firm practitioners start to look at reinventing the way they run their practices.

After her many references to the book, I decided to buy it and see what, if anything, it could say to solo and small firm practitioners. I tend to be a bit skeptical of some of these business books by gurus who never seem to operate in the real world, and in the beginning of the book I thought that this was going to be just more of the same.

But I decided to keep reading because of the way that Masur had spoken so highly of it. And I am glad I did because I think the book has a lot to say to practitioners, not just about the way they “manage” their practices but also the decisions they make. This is not a how-to-be-great book. In fact, the author refuses to even give a top-ten list of ways to go from good to great because doing so would trivialize how difficult it is to go from good to great. Instead the book tells stories backed by five years of detailed research about how great leaders chose to be great and make their companies great.

Jim Collins and his research team of over 20 people spent some 15,000 hours researching whether or not there were companies that could “defy gravity and convert long-term mediocrity or worse into long term superiority” and, if the answer was yes, what the common denominators of these good to great transformations were.

Without going into great detail in this article, Collins created tough benchmarks for an elite group of 1,435 publicly-traded Fortune 500 companies. His team went through a process of thinning the list to just 11 companies that met the criteria of going from good to great. Besides simply telling the stories of these companies (which was interesting enough), Collins compared each of the companies to a similar company in the same industry which faced the same market issues, economic issues and regulation issues.

Collins and his team used publicly-traded companies because it is was easy to get financial data, and they were able to use how well the companies did on the stock market over a period time as one of the measurements. Although these were huge companies, the methods and practices were applicable to a business or organization of any size. In fact, as a result of some of what I read, I am making changes within the LOMA department at the MSBA. This is absolutely a book that applies and is worthwhile.

There are five aspects of going from good to great. The first is leadership, or what Collins calls “Level 5 leadership.” What was astonishing about these Level 5 leaders as described in the book is that I had never heard of most of them (okay, I had never heard of any of them). I had, however, heard of many of those in the comparison companies. This is not an accident, according to Collins, because even though all of these Level 5 leaders had egos and were ambitious, they were more concerned about the company and having the best company than about themselves.

Another characteristic of these leaders was that they were willing to give credit to others when things went well and take personal responsibility when things did not go well. Level 5 leaders looked at adversity as opportunities while the CEO’s at comparison companies looked at adversity as excuses for their problems.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book which has direct applicability to firms of all sizes is the concept of “getting the right people on the bus.” The theory is that if you have the right people on the bus and in the right seats and the wrong people off the bus, then success will come. Most of the good to great companies had people who wanted to be great. According to Collins, the good to great leaders understood three simple truths. “First, if you begin with ‘who’ rather than ‘what’, you can more easily adapt to change….Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away….Third, if you have the wrong people it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company.” (How often have we spoken and written about the importance of having the right people?)

There is great discussion about compensation and motivation, both of which affect all solo and small firm practitioners. Although the companies in question valued their people, these were tough companies with even tougher CEOs. It was referred to as “rigorous, not ruthless.” They believed that the best way to “deliver to the people who are achieving is to not burden them with the people who are not achieving.”

According to their research, there are three ways to practice being rigorous and not ruthless. First, when in doubt, don’t hire but keep looking. Second, when you know you need to make a change in personnel, act quickly. Third (which, while it makes perfect sense, is rarely done), put your best person on your biggest opportunity and not your biggest problem.

Another concept which I think will help solo and small firm practitioners as much as anything in the book is what Collins refers to as the “Hedgehog Concept.” It is the coming together of three components (the author uses three circles), “a simple, crystalline concept that flows from a deep understanding of three circles.”

1) That at which you can (and cannot) be the best in the world

2) What drives your economic engine

3) What you are deeply passionate about.

Reading the stories of how the 11 companies came to this simple concept will help practitioners decide what kind of firm they want to be and how they can get there. Deciding to be great is a conscious choice and not an accident. Success is never an accident.

Another interesting idea that will make most practitioners feel better is the role that technology plays in being great. All of their research points to the conclusion that “technology was an accelerator of momentum and not a creator of it.” Those companies that were well-run and followed the principles listed in the book used technology simply as another tool towards being great, while technology proved no advantage to those companies that did not have the right management structure in place.

As I indicated, this is not a tips book. There is no list of items to follow in order to become great. There was one tip which I like and want to share. It goes along with a saying that I heard over 20 years ago but have never forgotten: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” In addition to keeping a “to do” list, one of the CEOs mention in this book kept a “stop doing list.” Think of all the things that happen in your office or your practice that prevent your practice from being great. Make a list to stop doing them. I already have my list and plan to share it with my staff, and I urge you to do the same with your own staff.

Change does not happen overnight; none of the companies that went from good to great did it in one fell swoop. It was a gradual and cumulative process, one success heaped upon another. We need to keep that in mind as we make decisions about how we want to make changes to our firms if we want to go from good to great.

There is much more in the book that solo and small firm practitioners will find helpful if they want to make changes in their firms. I recommend this book. The charts and comparisons are fascinating and I found myself reading all charts, graphs, appendices and footnotes.

I look forward to seeing everyone at the Solo and Small Firm Conference on November 6 at the BWI Marriott (see below) – it could be the start of going from good to great.



Publications : Bar Bulletin: September, 2004

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