BOOK: Good to Great (Jim Collins)

BOOKS: Good to Great (Jim Collins)

I just finished reading "Good to Great" for the second time. As I recall, I first read it a couple of years ago and thought it was a fine book, but it didn't especially GRAB me.

Early this December (2004) the entire MSAM (Microsoft Across America) team met in Las Vegas for our quarterly meeting and a bit of holiday cheer, and "Good to Great" vocabulary was apparent in much of the management dialog. So I bought another copy of the book (I couldn't remember who I lent my first copy too) and read it over the last few days.

I guess sometime WHEN you read a book makes a big difference, because this time I had a very different experience reading it.

First, I recently finished a two day FranklinCovey course on Time management. David Knapper, a Sr. Consultant at FranklinCovery gave the course and David is an exceptionally talented and motivational speaker. The FranklinCovey message is great And much of "Good to Great" shares theory with FranklinCovey, though is presented with a different vocabulary and supported by gobs of real corporate research.

Another timing issue that I think really changed my perspective in reading the book a second time is a struggle that I've been experiencing in my role at Microsoft. "Good to Great" is presented from a CEO down perspective, effecting change at the top. My entire management experience has been at the senior level. My first formal work in management was in a company that I started. So was my second. Things just worked and so my first experience managing in a company that I didn't own was running an operational unit with relative autonomy.  The rest of my management career has gone this way as well.

In my last experience I started a company named MecaMedia (though we were much more widely known as ASPGurus). I built the company over a couple of years and sold the company to USWeb/Cornerstone which I went to run for a year after the sale - again with nearly complete autonomy, reporting to the board of directors.

My manager MikeO is a very interesting guy. The bulk of his professional career has been at Microsoft as a manager, and one of - or THE - driving principal in his career is developing other people.

I'm guessing that he has seen me as a real challenge - a know-it-all, with all this management experience, and a guy that HE didn't hire, but rather inherited with the team that he now leads. Mike has been challenging me since he took ownership of the team to stop thinking like an individual contributor and to take on more of a leadership role. "Let the team benefit form your experience and your mistakes".  I've been viscerally opposed to considering any management position at Microsoft and have (in my mind) identified leadership and management as unavoidably connected.

In the last couple of months I had two interactions that I think have identified a huge road block for me. One was an interaction with Rory Blyth. Rory is an amazing bright kid. (And I use the term "kid" with all the hostility of a 43 year old, often tired guy, who frequently looks on youth with envy). Rory is new to Microsoft and learning a great deal about existing in corporate culture. (….. and surprising me in the process.)

The second was an unfriendly exchange (that I instigated) with the MSAM marketing manager Michael Murphy (who we universally refer to as Murph).

In Las Vegas I got to have some great conversations with Murph, who everyone loves. I was thankful and a bit relieved for the interaction. I also got to spend a good amount of time with Rory, which I not only enjoyed but found interesting, as MikeO insists that Rory and I were cut from the same mold.

My epiphany after those interactions is that I have no experience in being a leader in the MIDDLE of a company. I've always been at the top. What's more, my personality is not naturally well suited for political interactions and I've used the intentional selection of an individual contributors position at Microsoft as a excuse avoid spending energy on the discipline that my character challenges will require to be a good leader in the middle of a large organization.

Hmmmm. Growing up still sucks !

So what does all this introspection have to do with the book "Good to Great" ????

Well, the book is largely about what the SENIOR person in a company did to drive that company from a good company to a great company. But, that all supposes that the culture of the Good-to-Great is set at the top and the rest of the company is on the same page.

So, after reading "Good to Great" I'm left with a couple of big questions.

1.) How do you know if YOUR company is a "Good to Great Company"?
2.) How do you work "Good to Great" from the middle of the organization?

Microsoft is HUGE. It's never even been an "average/good" company. It started strong and has been great by socio-economic measurements for its entire life. What's more, while Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have many of what the book refers to as, "Level 5" management traits, they are not the demure characters that the book suggests are ideal in "Good to Great" organizations.

In the "middle" of an organization (which is itself in the middle of an organization), how do you have huge impact? Maybe it's impossible. What I'm hoping is that it IS possible and that I just haven't fully changed my perspective to see the challenge in the appropriate light.

So clearly the book "Good to Great" has been a super catalyst for thought.

Here is what I'm going to apply from the book - from the middle out.

1.) I'm going to ask my management team to define with me.

a. What is our "Hedgehog concept"? What is it that is good for Microsoft that WE can be the best in the world at?
b. What is our economic pivot? In what way do we, or can we affect the bottom line of our business?
c. What are we MOST PASSIONATE about?
d. What are the core principals that drive our entire organization?
e. How do I map the above to my own role and my own plan?

2.)  I'm going to clarify (at least for myself)

a. Which of the things we currently measure ourselves against are in alignment with the items above?
b. Which are primarily political in nature or exist for bad or unknown reasons?
c. Which of our short term metrics are sensible, but are pursued to the detriment of long term strategies that are better aligned with the items above?

3.) How can I effect the long tern strategic success of my team, my division, and my sub (without detracting from my short term / tactical objectives) even if my respective organizations are not yet focused on those strategies?

Is anyone still reading ????

I'm thinking this is a common problem and a frequent source of de-motivation. "I'm just a man in the middle, all I can do is my own job, bla, bla, bla……"

The paradox is that Microsoft is not that kind of company and it doesn't attract those kind of people.

If I were a New Year's resolution kind of guy I'd be making a list……..

So based on all the above I should either have a great, impact-full, motivated year at Microsoft…. Or get myself fired  :

Needless to say - I really liked "Good to Great" it really made me think about the companies that I worked for in the past, the ones that I built, the one I work for now, and the one I might build in the future……..

So - HELP ME OUT !  How do you all solve the "Man in the middle" dilemma ? (Especially if part of your career plan is to STAY in the middle.)

PS: FYI - this is a bit manic because I'm on vacation and have got TWO full nights sleep in a row !!!

Comments (7)
  1. Charles Chen says:

    "I’m guessing that he has seen me as a real challenge – a know-it-all"

    Interesting, reading this (and the rest of your post) made me think of myself and the situation I was in at Factiva. Well, it wasn’t quite the same; I’m 23 and I wasn’t hired to be a team leader (just a code monkey :)), but I definitely have that same "know-it-all" type of personality, for better or for worse (usually worse).

    After 3 months, it was clear it wouldn’t work out…they were originally going to hire me as a full time employee (I was on a 3 month contract), but I let my poor judgement and personality get the best of me.

    Since then, I’ve been wondering what type of position _am_ I suited for (a different question, but the answer somehow relates to your quandary). I’m very independent, I like to work in teams…but only when I’m leading, and I just don’t like to do bottom of the rung work (aka code monkey). But at 23, that’s what usually happens…people don’t give you the chance.

    Well, while discussing this matter with a friend of mine, he suggested that I just settle down into a decent paying full time job. It doesn’t have to be challenging, you don’t have to be x or y, you can just go in, do your part, and what not. Instead, invest your energy into your personal projects, do work on the side that you’re interested in as people like me never truly find it rewarding to try to climb the proverbial corporate ladder.

    I suspect that you are similar in some sense.

    So to answer your question, be content as the man in the middle, try to work with the people around you and be a model employee. In the meantime, invest your energies elsewhere as well. Perhaps you might like collegiate level teaching?

    Ha, but then again, this is all coming from a 23 y/o…so take it with a grain of salt 😉

  2. C++ guy says:

    If making an impact is most important to you, then start another company, and this time, don’t sell it. If you choose to stay at microsoft, then forgetting about all this "Good to Great" stuff is probably the best way to stay sane.

  3. Jeff Small says:

    I am a .Net web developer currently studying for my MBA. I read Good to Great in a management class I took and found it to profoundly interesting and influential. The discussion focused around the frustration of being in the middle and not being able to affect real change. What came from that discussion, though, is that a company isn’t so much a single pyramid illustrating the power and leadership of the company as much as each department is a sort of sub-pyramid with all departments coming to form the whole organization. Each leader in those deparments can create a "great" environment modelled after Collins ideas.

    By the way, check out <a href=""></a&gt;. (No, this isn’t comment spam! 🙂 He has some interesting articles up that speak to this.

  4. Rory says:

    "Rory is new to Microsoft and ***learning a great deal about existing in corporate culture***."

    Now *there’s* a nicely sanitized description of what’s gone on 🙂

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