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Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

by Jim Collins

Collins, 368 pages, $11.67

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In the Author's Note of this updated edition, Jim Collins confesses that Built to Last is mistitled and what the book is really about is 'building something that is worthy of lasting – about building a company of intrinsic excellence.' Collins points out that eventually all great products and services become obsolete and that what remains are visionary companies. Any manager who is able to see the big picture and their own long-term impact on an organization will appreciate these insights on how to cultivate and manage a premiere company.

The format here is to study successful companies and their evolution. Whether it's 3M, Procter & Gamble or Walt Disney, the author uncovers timeless principles these businesses share. Instead of comparing the companies to ones that failed, they focus on B-team competitors and the contrasts between the two groups. Built to Last dispels myths that have taken hold and become gospel in the business world. They include:

  • It takes a great idea to start a great company
  • The most successful companies exist first and foremost to maximize profits
  • Companies become visionary primarily through 'vision statements'

The biggest myth that the book explodes is that visionary companies must start with a great product. It's fascinating to learn that back in 1937, the founders of Hewlett Packard decided to first start a company and then figured out what they would make. They sputtered and tinkered with a variety of products before war production in the 1940s helped them take off.

Supervisors may be surprised to read that charismatic leaders are not a staple of visionary companies. Collins cites numerous examples of people who break the archetypal model of the charismatic visionary leader. William McKnight, the gentle, softspoken GM of 3M was wildly successful. Bill Allen – the most significant CEO in Boeing's history was a shy, pragmatic lawyer.

There is no shortage here of observations from successful leaders in businesses of all sorts. A sampling of the lessons from CEOs, Managers and Entrepreneurs includes:

  1. Give it a try – and quick
  2. Accept that mistakes will be made
  3. Give people the room they need

The idea Collins is getting at here is that many roads lead to Rome. There is no proven formula for a company's long-term success. You would suspect that the book would raise the bar and intimidate, but it does just the opposite by making excellence attainable. Anyone in a managerial position will find Built to Last's guidelines invigorating and eye opening.

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