The business book club: key lessons from Jim Collins’ Good to Great

CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS

It has sold more than three million copies since it was first published in 2001, and always pops up on lists of best business books. What can Good to Great teach us about improving workplace safety and health?

Jim Collins’ team studied 6,000 journal articles and generated more than 2,000 pages of interview transcripts in a five-year project as they researched the 1,435 largest US companies. From these they identified 11 that had excelled.

Collins explains the factors and variables that permit a fraction of businesses to move from being good to great. Sure, the label is subjective, but the book defines it clearly in terms of bottom line and people, and then goes on to show how leadership, management, personnel and operational practices, behaviours and attitudes are the keys to stellar performance.

 Andrew_Sharman_reviews_Good-to-Great_OSH_management_textCollins warns that good is the enemy of great, explaining that operational discipline (of people, thought and action) is the foundation for greatness.

We choose how our influence comes across  

Quality of leadership is key. At all levels, from competent supervision to strategic decision-making, a mix of determination and profound humility is needed.

Leadership guru Simon Sinek suggests we start by asking “why?”. For Collins it’s all about “who?”.  Rigorously selecting, encouraging and empowering people to make an active contribution every day is key. As Collins says, every bus needs a driver, but also the right people in all the key seats. And then having these people focus on the “brutal facts” by leading with great questions rather than answers, engaging in dialogue and debate, not coercion; conducting “autopsies” without blame; and building mechanisms to red-flag critical issues.

At the heart of super success is what Collins calls the hedgehog concept, doing one thing better than everyone else, like the eponymous creature rolling into a spiky ball at the first sign of attack.

Collins asks three questions: What are you deeply passionate about? What drives your economic engine? What can you be best in the world at? I suspect that “safety and health” answers all three for this magazine’s readers. 

A cautionary note here – no matter the threat, the hedgehog maintains its focus on the same strategy every time, digging in and doing it way better than anything else rather than trying lots of things and hoping one works.

A culture of discipline is necessary for greatness to flourish, catalysed by a strong sense of determination in every individual, no matter their level in the hierarchy. Collins warns that to be great we must first learn how to pause, think, crawl, walk, and then run, rather than leap on technology as a panacea.

The criticality of momentum is underlined, and how we maximise positivity (Collins calls this the flywheel) to energise staff and build commitment, or generate negativity (the doom loop) through short-term decision-making or trying to do everything at once. We choose how our influence comes across.

In closing, the book encourages sustainability through a mesh of values that transcend revenue generation and operational leadership. This, like its other lessons, is superbly relevant to the world of OSH. 


CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS 

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