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 / Fourth Quarter 2001 / Issue 25(originally published by Booz & Company)


Climbing to Greatness with Jim Collins

He waited two years to find out what that question would be. Then, at a dinner party in San Francisco, a management consultant collared him and complained that Built to Last was “useless” for companies that didn’t start out great. What advice did Mr. Collins have for mediocre companies that wanted to dramatically improve themselves? Were they doomed forever to second-class performance?

Now there was a question: How could he help people go from mere goodness to greatness? This question was particularly compelling for a perfectionist like Mr. Collins, who had spent his life championing greatness in himself, his wife, his students, and the world around him — a man who is still sorting out with his wife whether to have children, because they believe that people who aren’t willing “to commit absolutely to being great parents have no business bringing a child into the world.”

He chose for his research team bold, curious students who wouldn’t settle for just any answers. “He always looked for people who could tell him, ‘Jim, you’re wrong,’ ” recalls his associate Brian Bagley. “He told me he was worried that, because I was a Mormon and an Eagle Scout, I’d follow orders too well.”

The team took the name Chimps, because of Mr. Collins’s own spirited chimpanzee-like demeanor. Chimps, they decided, were good role models: They are unruly, irreverent, energetic, creative, and, most of all, inquisitive. Pictures of Curious George began to appear around the conference room. Altogether, 21 Chimps worked on the job, usually five per year, performing such tasks as analyzing stock-price statistics, gathering articles, scheduling and conducting interviews, doing massive amounts of coding, and fact checking the numbers in the book. They read and coded every published article they could find about the 11 good-to-great companies, while researching 17 other companies they had selected for comparison.

Though the Chimps never all met together until Mr. Collins held a “Chimp Summit” late last year, during the project, the Chimps on duty met at least weekly to try to make sense of what they had discovered. Mr. Collins had final say, but he depended heavily on their insights. Indeed, the Chimps were all passionately committed to the idea of greatness and held collective responsibility for their conclusions.

It was the Chimps who championed the inclusion of the Level 5 Leadership concept, because they noticed the CEOs of companies they had worked for and studied shared these qualities. Mr. Collins, with his skepticism about the connection between leadership and corporate success, resisted listening to what the Chimps had to say, until they demanded he start paying attention to the data. “We’ve all made choices in life based on what we’ve learned here,” says Chimp researcher Leigh Wilbanks. “At my first job out of business school, I looked at the top and asked, ‘Is there Level 5 Leadership?’ Then I said, ‘Okay, this is not where I belong.’ ”

Questions, Not Answers
Already, there is one nascent investment fund hoping to specialize in the 11 good-to-great companies. A few consulting firms are beginning to develop good-to-great practices. But Mr. Collins is not working with, or endorsing, any of them. He refers to his own clients as “students” and calls his work “teaching.” Meanwhile, the good-to-great companies are largely unaware that they have been included in this elite group of high performers, and for many, the events that Mr. Collins lionizes seem like ancient history.

“Colman Mockler [former Gillette CEO and a Level 5 Leader profiled in Good to Great] died 10 years ago. The members of the team from those days are simply not still here,” said a representative from Gillette, declining a request for an interview. “I frankly think the current management is more focused on the return and recovery of the Gillette business.” Other good-to-great companies, including Nucor and Abbott Laboratories,  have also experienced difficulties, whereas some continue to demonstrate their remarkable performance gains.

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  1. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001)
  2. James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperBusiness, 1994)
  3. Jim Collins, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” Harvard Business Review, January 2001; Click here
  4. Jim Collins’s Web site: Click here
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