Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

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Good to Great

Good to GreatI’m certain everyone who reads this blog has at least heard about Good to Great by Jim Collins. This is perhaps one of the clearest, best written books about how great people have done amazing things to catapult companies into prominence. The companies in this study that went from good to great are Abbot Laboratories, Circuit City, Fannie Mae, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Nucor, Phillip Morris, Pitney Bowes, Walgreens and Wells Fargo. Following are some of the ideas from the book I feel are keys to the success of these companies:

“Those who worked with and wrote about good-to-great leaders continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe in his own clippings and so forth.” They were not well-know or “celebrity” CEOs, but leaders who worked passionately for what they believed in.

Level 5 Leadership: Mr. Collins groups leaders into five categories. The Level 5 Executive “Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.” He gives significant examples of how the leaders of each of the good-to-great companies possessed these characteristics. One characteristic (of the Level 5 leaders) that caught my attention was their propensity to be ambitious first and foremost for the company, not for themselves. He doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about levels 1 – 4, I suppose because he does not believe anyone below Level 5 can take a company to greatness.

First who…then what: How many companies do you know that first put their teams together, then decide what they are going to do? The good-to-great companies didn’t all do it that way, but all of them focused on getting the right leaders in the company (“on the bus”) and into the right positions on the team (“right seat on the bus”). The book identifies three practical disciplines for being rigorous (not ruthless) in people decisions:

  1. When in doubt, don’t hire—keep looking.
  2. When you know you need to make a ‘people’ change, act.
  3. Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems.

Confront the Brutal Facts: In every company/organization, difficult things happen. All of the companies in the study began the process of finding a path to greatness by confronting the brutal facts of their current reality. “When you start with an honest and diligent effort to determine the truth of your situation, the right decisions often become self-evident.”

The Hedgehog Concept: Every good-to-great company had clear and concise vision about what they could be the best in the world at, and equally important what they were not the best at. Mr. Collins developed the three circles of the hedgehog concept and explained that the company’s “hedgehog” activities are those that fall within the intersection of the three circles (click the link above to see the details).

This book has many more ideas that will lead companies to success. In my opinion the prominence of these (and other) great companies always comes back to the people who are leading them. What concepts did you get out of this book that I haven’t addressed? What traits have you seen in great leaders? What other companies do you consider great? Please leave a comment and let me know.

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Purpose alignment

If you have read my article you know that I believe deeply in leading on purpose, in making a focused, intentional effort to improve yourself and the people with whom you work. It takes time, effort and energy to do it consistently.

I recently read an article by Niel Nickolaisen about aligning your business or organization around its strengths and the strengths of its people. (I received a hard copy of this article, Determining IT’s Strategic and Tactical Roles; Niel, if you read this perhaps you can point us to an on-line copy.)

Niel discusses the need for companies to define their core competency and focus their efforts on building in those areas. They should evaluate business activities in two dimensions: First, the extent to which the activity differentiates the organization in the marketplace. Second, the extent to which the activity is mission-critical to the organization.

Depending on where the activity falls (i.e. high or low) based on each criterion, they can map it and determine whether it’s a core competency and something they should focus on. (Fortunately I was able to find Niel’s quadrant on-line.) If it’s not core, don’t spend a lot of time or effort. This quote sums it up nicely: “It would not make sense to design a marketing campaign that proclaims, ‘Buy our cars (or jets or LCD monitors). We have the world’s best accounting system!’”

These principles apply nicely to leading teams (whether as a product manager or in some other role). We need to focus on our strengths (core competencies) and outsource to, or partner with, others who have strengths in other areas. Thus collaborating we improve the organization as a whole.