Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't - Jim Collins

October 2nd, 2007

Good to Great by Jim CollinsTHE CHALLENGE
Built to Last, the defining management study of the nineties, showed how great companies triumph over time and how long-term sustained performance can be engineered in the DNA of an enterprise from the very beginning.

But what about a company that is not born with great DNA? How can good companies, mediocre companies, even bad companies achieve enduring greatness?

THE STUDY
For years, this question preyed on the mind of Jim Collins. Are there companies that defy gravity and convert long-term mediocrity or worse into long-term superiority? And if so, what are the universal distinguishing characteristics that cause a company to go from good to great?

THE STANDARDS
Using tough benchmarks, Collins and his research team identified a set of elite companies that made the leap to great results and sustained those results for at least fifteen years. How great? After the leap, the good-to-great companies generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general stock market by an average of seven times in fifteen years, better than twice the results delivered by a composite index of the world's greatest companies, including Coca-Cola, Intel, General Electric, and Merck.

THE COMPARISONS
The research team contrasted the good-to-great companies with a carefully selected set of comparison companies that failed to make the leap from good to great. What was different? Why did one set of companies become truly great performers while the other set remained only good?

Over five years, the team analyzed the histories of all twenty-eight companies in the study. After sifting through mountains of data and thousands of pages of interviews, Collins and his crew discovered the key determinants of greatness -- why some companies make the leap and others don't.

THE FINDINGS
The findings of the Good to Great study will surprise many readers and shed light on virtually every area of management strategy and practice. The findings include:
- Level 5 Leaders: The research team was shocked to discover the type of leadership required to achieve greatness.
- The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity within the Three Circles): To go from good to great requires transcending the curse of competence.
- The Culture of Discipline: When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magical alchemy of great results.
- Technology Accelerators: Good-to-great companies think differently about the role of technology.
- They Flywheel and the Doom Loop: Those who launch radical change programs and wrenching restructurings will almost certainly fail to make the leap.

"Some of the key concepts discerned in the study," comments Jim Collins, "fly in the face of our modern business culture and will, quite frankly, upset some people."

Perhaps, but who can afford to ignore these findings?

This was a very interesting book for me to read. I have to imagine that I am in a pretty narrow target market for this book, though the concepts may be broadly applied. I work for a small business and can see many opportunities to put this book's findings to work.

The book tells the various stories of companies that made a transition from a market participant to market leader and saw sustained success for at least 15 years. The author was able to identify a few common factors between these companies, and he and his research team present them as a model for us to follow.

I had but one small issue, which is probably not information that contributes to the rest of the research. They detail radical decisions made by upper management, sometimes completely changing the face of an established business. I figure there must be a largely disproportionate number of business that fail when they made the same or a similar move. I would have liked to see some detail behind how those successful companies came to make that decision. The decision itself was largely overlooked.

Like many "business" books, I feel that much of what was written here was largely common sense. They weren't necessarily ideas that I have had or would have come up with on my own, but as I read them they seemed mundane in analysis. It made the reading slow going, but there was a silver lining -- for instant gratification, each chapter ends with a few pages of main concepts extracted from the text.

There was some very insightful research in Good to Great. The common elements identified were relevant and practical. It would not be an easy model to follow, but if it were it would defeat its own purpose to isolate those corporate characteristics that set successful companies apart. If you have ever wondered what steps you should follow to take your company from Good to Great, this is a book you should read (even if it is just the chapter summaries).

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October 1st, 2007
Ruth Reichl - Tender at the Bone - 274"At one time I worried that the people who made gin would stop making it, and that I would be left with nothing to drink. To guard against that I hid gin all over the house. Just knowing it was there made me feel a little better."

Book of the Month - October, 2007

September 25th, 2007

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara GruenThough he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickey train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out -- orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive "ship of fools." It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act -- in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was there only hope for survival.

Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continued to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.

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September 11th, 2007
Mitch Albom - For One More Day - 152It's such a shame to waste time. We always think we have so much of it.

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

September 10th, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwanIt is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at the University College in London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence's response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence's anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite.

Ian McEwan has caught with understanding and compassion the innocence of Edward and Florence at a time when marriage was presumed to be the outward sign of maturity and independence. On Chesil Beach is another masterwork from McEwan -- a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.

For my first bite at the McEwan apple, I was quite impressed. On Chesil Beach was beautifully written and I loved what he wrote...for the most part. I feel the book is best talked about in two parts: 1) the wedding day 2) the rest of the book.

In that first part, the wedding day, we have a man and woman who are as awkward with each other as they are in love. They fumble through conversation before fumbling at each other's clothing. They have never had difficulty communicating, but there is one glaring oversight in their conversational past: he could not wait to get into bed with her and she did not want to ever get into bed with him. The chapters that chronicle that day were rife with sexual tension and apprehension, and they were often pretty descriptive.

(I can accept that Americans are typically considered prude by the rest of the world, and if you have ever been uncomfortable by adult situations and bizarrely literary sexual euphemism in text you may have to skip over a few paragraphs.)

To characterize the second part of the book, that which did not occur on the couple's wedding day, I would consider it beautiful in its simplicity and innocence. The care with which McEwan handled their relationship as it budded through the soil was perfectly gentle. I really enjoyed how much of the story revolved around both Edward and Florence's families. Their separate family dynamics showed how they found solice in each other's company; they were each other's escape into a new-found reality.

On Chesil Beach was wonderfully tragic, if tragedy can be wonderful; (a little) funny; and all-around superbly written. Ian McEwan has been a celebrated author for many years and if On Chesil Beach is representative of his earlier work it is not difficult to see why he has received such praise.

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September 7th, 2007
Arturo Perez-Reverte - The Club Dumas - 170"Have you ever noticed yourself smile? You look like an old soldier."
He shifted slightly in his seat, embarrassed. "I don't know how an old soldier smiles."
"Well, I do." The girl's eyes darkened. She was searching in her memory. "Once I knew ten thousand men who were looking for the sea."

The 2007 Man Booker Prize (Shortlist)

September 6th, 2007

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction represents the very best in contemporary fiction (from the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth). One of the world’s most prestigious awards, and one of incomparable influence, it continues to be the pinnacle of ambition for every fiction writer. It has the power to transform the fortunes of authors, and even publishers. In 2004, not only did Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty reach the bestseller lists, but previous winners The Life of Pi (2002) and Vernon God Little (2003) were also amongst the bestselling books of the year. Congratulations to last year's winner Kiran Desai for her novel The Inheritance of Loss.

Darkmans by Nicola BarkerDarkmans by Nicola Barker
The Gathering by Anne EnrightThe Gathering by Anne Enright
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin HamidThe Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Mister Pip by Lloyd JonesMister Pip by Lloyd Jones
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwanOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Animal's People by Indra Sinha
The Complete 2007 Nominee List

Love is A Mix-Tape - Rob Sheffield

August 30th, 2007

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob SheffieldWhat is love? Great minds have been grappling with this question throughout the ages, and in the modern era, they have come up with many different answers. According to Western philosopher Pat Benetar, love is a battlefield. Her paisan Frank Sinatra would add the corollary that love is a tender trap. Love hurts. Love stinks. Love bites, love bleeds, love is the drug. The troubadours of our times agree: They want to know what love is, and they want you to show them. But the answer is simple: Love is a mix tape.

In the 1990s, when "alternative" was suddenly mainstream, bands like Pearl Jam and Pavement, Nirvana and R.E.M. -- bands that a year before would have been too weird for MTV -- were MTV. It was the decade of Kurt Cobain and Shania Twain and Taylor Dayne, a time that ended all too soon. The boundaries of American culture were exploding, and music was leading the way.

It was also when a shy music geek named Rob Sheffield met a hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renee, who was way too cool for him but fell in love with him anyway. He was tall. She was short. He was shy. She was a social butterfly. She was the only one who laughed at his jokes when they were so bad, and they were always bad. They had nothing in common except that they both loved music. Music brought them together and kept them together. And it was music that would help Rob through a sudden, unfathomable loss.

In Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob, now a writer for Rolling Stone, uses the songs on fifteen mix tapes to tell the story of his brief time with Renee. From Elvis to Missy Elliott, the Rolling Stones to Yo La Tengo, the songs on these tapes make up the soundtrack to their lives.

Rob Sheffield isn't a musician, he's a writer, and Love Is a Mix Tape isn't a love song -- but it might as well be. This is Rob's tribute to music, to the decade that shaped him, but most of all to one unforgettable woman.

The story is of the power of music and one tragic loss. The author lost his wife unexpectedly and pieced together a book about their relationship in its before, during and after stages. Each chapter is headed by the tracklisting of a mixtape -- a customized amalgamation of songs, however random -- they had made. I was somewhat under the impression that the chapters would be more about the mixtapes they made together and less mile markers in the chronological tour of their relationship. The songs set the tone (somewhat) for the chapter to come, but there isn't necessarily any cohesion between the song choices themselves and the following few pages.

I understand how difficult it would be to pull that off, but I guess I had pretty high hopes.

Some parts of the book were beautiful in their tribute, but other parts just seemed like simple narrative. There were times when the anecdotes made Sheffield sound like he lived to a ripe old age and here he was remembering his early love. While I am sure we can get into how philosophically much more time passed in his life than ours after she died, he is still a young man. The book may have been cut down by a few pages, in fact all I really needed was some of the set up and the last chapter. In the last chapter it seemed like Sheffield finally let himself feel Renee's absence. Sharing in that, I finally began to feel for him.

For the most part, the book was enjoyable. I would argue that the inclusion of music into the story was a little over done (with countless references, name drops and lyrics spread throughout the book), but apparently that was how Rob and Renee lived. Those were the conversations they had.

The feeling I had the most while I read was that his story was a private one. I felt that he needed to write the book for his closure, to preserve her memory and to give himself perspective. While I am honored that he shared Renee with us all, I couldn't help but feel that I was intruding on something that was special to the two of them.

As previously mentioned, the final chapter could live and breathe on its own. The emotion that finally pulsed through those last few pages just about made up for its conspicuous absence earlier in the book. I never read achnowledgements, especailly when they are more than a paragraph but I read these. The last chapter spilled over into them and I couldn't help myself. I wanted to see the final goodbye and thank you written to Renee. After thanking everyone who helped write the book, I wanted to have my heart ripped out by a simple homage to Renee who will now live on forever in text. But while she was mentioned in the acknowledgements, she was never thanked. But then again, maybe that part was just too personal.

Its story, while sometimes buried under excessive music references, was sweet. The book was short; at 219 pages it is short enough to try it even if you aren't sure about it. All in all, Love is A Mix-Tape was a decent book.

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Book of the Month - September, 2007

August 22nd, 2007

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob SheffieldWhat is love? Great minds have been grappling with this question throughout the ages, and in the modern era, they have come up with many different answers. According to Western philosopher Pat Benetar, love is a battlefield. Her paisan Frank Sinatra would add the corollary that love is a tender trap. Love hurts. Love stinks. Love bites, love bleeds, love is the drug. The troubadours of our times agree: They want to know what love is, and they want you to show them. But the answer is simple: Love is a mix tape.

In the 1990s, when "alternative" was suddenly mainstream, bands like Pearl Jam and Pavement, Nirvana and R.E.M. -- bands that a year before would have been too weird for MTV -- were MTV. It was the decade of Kurt Cobain and Shania Twain and Taylor Dayne, a time that ended all too soon. The boundaries of American culture were exploding, and music was leading the way.

It was also when a shy music geek named Rob Sheffield met a hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renee, who was way too cool for him but fell in love with him anyway. He was tall. She was short. He was shy. She was a social butterfly. She was the only one who laughed at his jokes when they were so bad, and they were always bad. They had nothing in common except that they both loved music. Music brought them together and kept them together. And it was music that would help Rob through a sudden, unfathomable loss.

In Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob, now a writer for Rolling Stone, uses the songs on fifteen mix tapes to tell the story of his brief time with Renee. From Elvis to Missy Elliott, the Rolling Stones to Yo La Tengo, the songs on these tapes make up the soundtrack to their lives.

Rob Sheffield isn't a musician, he's a writer, and Love Is a Mix Tape isn't a love song -- but it might as well be. This is Rob's tribute to music, to the decade that shaped him, but most of all to one unforgettable woman.

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The 2007 Man Booker Prize (Nominees)

August 10th, 2007

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction represents the very best in contemporary fiction (from the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth). One of the world’s most prestigious awards, and one of incomparable influence, it continues to be the pinnacle of ambition for every fiction writer. It has the power to transform the fortunes of authors, and even publishers. In 2004, not only did Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty reach the bestseller lists, but previous winners The Life of Pi (2002) and Vernon God Little (2003) were also amongst the bestselling books of the year. Congratulations to last year's winner Kiran Desai for her novel The Inheritance of Loss.

Darkmans by Nicola BarkerDarkmans by Nicola Barker
Self Help by Edward Docx
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
The Gathering by Anne EnrightThe Gathering by Anne Enright
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin HamidThe Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho DaviesThe Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
Mister Pip by Lloyd JonesMister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Gifted by Nikita Lalwani
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwanOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
Consolation by Michael RedhillConsolation by Michael Redhill
Animal's People by Indra Sinha
Winnie and Wolf by A. N. WilsonWinnie and Wolf by A. N. Wilson
The 2006 Nominee List