Thursday, April 10, 2008

"The Breakthrough Company"--wise advice for the emerging entity

I was prepared to dislike "The Breakthrough Company." The dust jacket is a garish silver. The author photograph reminded me of Svengali, and the first line of his bio read, "At the age of twenty-six, Keith R. McFarland was named associate dean of one of the nation's leading business schools." And continued, "He and his family live just downhill from the ski lifts at Snowbird, Utah."

This was a cover that screamed at you: THIS IS IMPORTANT, VITAL, DON'T MISS IT. (I mean, how could you not listen to someone who lives just downhill from the ski lifts at Snowbird?)

But you can't judge a book by its cover, nor its author bio, and "The Breakthrough Company" is a serious, substantial and useful effort. McFarland and his colleagues at McFarland Strategy Partners set out to give the "Good to Great" treatment to a different segment of companies--those that graduated from entrepreneurial status (around $10 million in revenue) to substantial size ($250 million to upwards of $1 billion).

They surveyed 1500 companies and from those picked the nine best performers, then reverse-engineered these companies to settle on six characteristics that stood out. And while I've posted before on the limitations of this type of "best practice" approach, it's to McFarland's credit that he also plays down the value of copying the template: "This is not intended to be a recipe book."

Also, the companies he is aiming at helping are still in their formative stages. A company with 250 people can still be shaped. One with 5,000 is much harder to reorient.

And with that, the characteristics McFarland highlights--e.g., "crowning the company," or putting the company's needs and priorities above the founder's--are important, and rare in companies big and small.

My favorite chapter is titled, "Enlisting Insultants," in which McFarland discusses how vital it is for growing companies to have people who can give voice to the minority opinion--either critiquing the conventional wisdom or championing an unpopular initiative. This view echoes those of Gary Hamel in "The Future of Management" as well as Traci Fenton's efforts to promote organizational democracy.

As might be apparent, McFarland can also turn a phrase. The book is well-written, with lots of great stories from the companies' leaders. And from its prominent position in my local Barnes & Noble's business section, it's probably selling a few copies.

In sum, there's a lot to learn from on an important subject. And don't let the cover bug you--the dust jacket is easily removed.

On Gary Hamel's "The Future of Management"
Shop Talk Podcast #3 - Traci Fenton on democratic workplaces

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