Losing Your Way

“If you’ve been successful {with your company}, I want you to be completely terrified.” – Jim Collins, well-known author and expert on business leadership

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the American Staffing Association’s annual 2012 Staffing World Conference as a guest speaker.  The keynote speaker for this conference was none other than Jim Collins, one of THE leading experts on business leadership.  He’s written a number of notable books, including “Good to Great”, “Built to Last”, “Great by Choice”, and “How the Mighty Fall”.  I would venture to guess that a fair number of you have read his works and are big fans.  If you have not, and if there is only one leadership book you should read, it is his first book – “Good to Great”.

Of all the leaders I have heard speak, Jim Collins is by far the most compelling.  I literally took 10 pages of notes during his speech.  Not only does he tell it like it is, but his insights are so incredibly powerful.  These aren’t insights based on casual observation, intuition, or gut feeling.  These are insights based upon significant research – research on both the most successful companies in their space, and those who over time failed to remain successful.  Prepare yourself, because I will no doubt feature a number of quotes from Jim Collins over the coming year.

At any rate, among the quotes I picked up from this keynote address was this one – “ you’ve been successful [with your company], I want you to be completely terrified”.   Jim mentioned this statement in the context of explaining how truly successful companies can over time fall from grace – they can lose their way.  His book “How the Mighty Fall” focuses entirely on this concept, that is, how did some the most successful companies in his first study for “Good to Great” end up somehow less successful over time.

This message comes at an important time for many business leaders.  The fall season is typically when most companies go through their strategic planning process.  It is in this process where leadership is able to look beyond the day-to-day grind of the business and begin planning for the future.  And part of that planning includes an assessment of where they’ve been, of their strengths and weaknesses, and of what they want to be in the next three to five years.  And while many companies may be tempted to celebrate their past successes, as Jim Collins said, those same companies should be completely terrified of what they could become should they not stick to a path of consistency, discipline, and a constant focus on improving their company.

So I thought I would share this quote with you so that you might never lose sight of the perils you could face if you take our eye off the ball.  And to add clarity to Jim Collin’s quote, here are the five stages Jim claims a company typically goes through when it begins to lose its way:

  1. Goes from being successful to being arrogant.  “We are successful BECAUSE of what we do”.  The day you start thinking that because you have good values it will inoculate you from bad decisions, is the day you start the downward path.
  2. When hubris transitions to undisciplined pursuit of more.
  3. When you start to deny that you are in risk or peril.
  4. When you respond to that fall by grasping for a silver bullet.
  5. And finally, when you capitulate to irrelevance or death.


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