In Jim Collins’ prequel to his blockbuster Good to Great, he and Porras explore the characteristics of visionary companies – companies that not only made the leap from good to great, but also sustained remarkable success over a significant period of time. Founded in rigorous research and analysis (6 years’ worth, to be exact), Built to Last stands out from other general business books that comprise of mostly jargon and platitudes.
By matching each “visionary” company (e.g. General Electric) with a “comparison” company (e.g. Westinghouse) – companies that were founded around the same time, in a similar industry, with access to similar resources and opportunities – Collins and Porras discovered the fundamental principles that make “visionary” companies so unique. Furthermore, they demonstrate how these elite companies shattered 12 common, widely held business myths to achieve and sustain their “visionary” status.
Start With Why
“Visionary companies do not ask, “What should we value?” They ask, “What do we actually value deep down to our toes?”
Built to Last, page 8
Visionary companies live and breathe their ideology – a set of core values and a sense of purpose. By clearly defining their “why,” visionary companies are then able to produce the right “what” (products and services), attract the right “who” (employees and leaders), and develop the right “how” (policies and processes) to create an environment that breeds the kind of success that outlasts and outperforms their competition.
What’s interesting to note is that the visionary companies explored in Built to Last each had a different “why” and yet they all achieved resounding success. Collins and Porras discovered that the key commonality was their relentless commitment to their ideologies. Ideology spans decades, endures through leadership changes, provides direction when faced with difficult decisions, and prevails despite being unpopular or unprofitable at the time.
In short, ideology is king. “What,” “who,” and “how” lack purpose, direction, and clarity without “why.” Careful articulation and consistent application of “why” form the foundation of visionary companies.
GEM # 1
What’s On Your Banner?
“If we’re not going to live by it, let’s tear it off the wall… We either ought to commit to it or get rid of it.”
former CEO Jim Burke,
on Merck’s ideology
as quoted in Built to Last, page 72
A visionary company’s relentless commitment to its ideology can be applied to a more personal level – to an individual and her personal manifesto. Why is having a personal manifesto important? It acts as a filter through the noise. Making decisions is made easier because it automatically eliminates any possibilities that aren’t aligned with your core values. We all have limited time, energy, and resources, which makes a high level of self-awareness important for determining which activities and goals to pursue in order to maximize happiness and fulfillment.
Your personal manifesto says, “This is who I am, and this is what I stand for. Take it or leave it.” It goes beyond simply a list of things that you think are important. It embodies your core values and beliefs – things that you feel so strongly about that you would fly them on a banner above your head. These values and beliefs help define you as a person and play a significant role in what makes you unique.
I challenge you to create your personal manifesto. Start by writing down a list of 20 values. Remember that not all values are created equally, so you should review the list and rank them from 1 through 20. Then run the list by a close friend or family member who knows you well and is not afraid to be bluntly honest with you, as we all suffer from varying levels of self-awareness. The top 3 to 6 values will form your personal manifesto. This exercise in self-reflection is key to finding happiness and fulfillment –in your personal and professional life.
GEM # 2
Walk the Talk
“The very act of stating a core ideology (which the visionary companies have done to a far greater degree than the comparison companies) influences behaviour toward consistency with that ideology.”
Built to Last, page 71
Now it’s time to put it to the test. What good is your personal manifesto if it’s not put into action? This is not an easy feat. You’ll find that there may be a mismatch between your ideal state and your current state. For example, if you value “honesty,” do you believe there are instances when it is best to lie? Are you honest even if it hurts someone you care about? Have you ever stretched the truth for your own gain?
The disconnect can be resolved in two ways:
- You understand and accept that you don’t value “honesty” as highly as you think you do, so you rank it lower on your list in order to focus more of your time and energy on your most important values.
- If you really do value “honesty” that highly, then you need to modify your actions to align with that belief.
In either case, resolving the disconnect increases consistency, which is critical when it comes to ideologies and personal manifestos. Visionary companies display unrelenting commitment to their ideology. Values-driven individuals such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, or Mother Teresa displayed similar dedication to their beliefs, despite strongly opposing forces. In a world of constant change and moral gray areas, individuals who publicly and consistently live out their values will stand out in a significant way and – in a world of limitless choice and increased competition – that makes all the difference in achieving personal and professional success.
Built to Last proves to be a compelling read for entrepreneurs seeking to build their own visionary companies and for business professionals seeking to be a part of, (and contribute to), visionary companies. At the very least, it provides the reader with valuable insights and anecdotal stories about companies that have changed our world and touch our lives every day.