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Passion, People and Principles

Good to Good

post # 360 — April 20, 2007 — a Careers, Managing, Strategy post

A lot of business advice, including my own, is often based on the assumption that people want to get somewhere. After all, the best-selling business book ever is “Good to Great“, which replaced “In Search of Excellence” in the all-time sales league.

But here’s an interesting question: what about people and firms that, quite consciously, make a choice that they don’t want to pursue “Olympic Gold.” They want to do good work, serve their clients well, while making a decent living.

Do business authors and consultants have anything to offer such people? Is there business advice out there for those without profit-maximizing, glory-seeking objectives?

If not, is most business literature profoundly misleading, because it assumes objectives that many real people do not have?


Eugene said:

A couple thoughts come to mind. First, although most of this literature doesn’t say it directly, it seems to imply that if you pursue the Olympic Gold you’ll find success which equals fullfillment and happiness. While it may lead to sucess – it definately does not ensure personal fullfillment or happiness. The other side of the coin is the principle that if you are not growing as a buisness you are dying. I see the tension that these two concepts create in many small businesses and among their owners.

From my 30 years experience in business it seems like if you are not working deligently at growing, you are likely experiencing decline, and the beginnings of an end to your business. Nothing wrong with that, if it is intentional and you understand where real personal fullfillment and happiness come from.

There is business literature out there about running a business from a balanced life perspective but it probably isn’t on the bestseller lists.

posted on April 20, 2007

Stephen Ruben said:

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? One ….but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

No incentive no progress. If I’m happy driving a dirty car passing a car wash has no value to me

Change takes effort and commitment. So you can spray the windshield from the driver’s seat but that does not a clean car make.

posted on April 20, 2007

Carl Singer said:

Not to get caught in a battle of cliches but consider the former Army ad phrase: “Be all that you can be.”

Many companies and the individuals that make them work strive towards being the best that they can be given some set of actual or perceived constraints — for example, investment capital.

Some consider the constraints permanent and binding, and thus work on things they can impact — say, attitude towards customer service, employee morale, process improvement.

Some see if they can grow by breaking out of the constraints — say, more creative financing, partnering, etc.

Some are in “countdown mode” — I retire in 3 years and I complacency suits me fine.


Re: Balanced life — some people may not want “balance” — keeping busy is all they know. Perhaps the definition of “balance” is very personal and individual.

Not that one data point is sufficient but consider this case.

I recently met with a long time friend who owns considerable residential real estate — his business is two-fold: “development” — finding, purchasing, renovating new properties and “management” — maintaining, renting his current portfolio. He spends perhaps 10 – 12 hours daily in his business, essentially a one-man operation (he has a highly efficient secretary, gal Friday, a maintenance staff, etc.) but he’s the only “decision maker.”

He’s being offered a buyout that essentially would make him a passive investor making a similar income but, in essence, doing no work. After lots of introspection he’s come to the conclusion that this is of no interest — “I don’t golf” was his frustrated response.

An alternative suggestion of outsourcing his property management so he could focus on “development” thus freeing more time for family and charity work was worth chewing on. Especialy attractive was that this was a “reversable” decision — he could always transition to the status quo ante.

Perhaps a good way of determining our own, personal balance is the trite — what would I do if I won the lottery? Not what would I buy — but what would I DO.

posted on April 20, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Can I repose my question to try and guide the discussion to the bit that fascinates me? (You’re allowed to say no.)

For me, the interesting questions (at least in this thread) are not about achieving a balanced life. My question should have read as follows:

Suppose someone doesn’t want to “be all s/he can be.” Suppose they don’t wan their company to be the fastest growing, most profitable. They want to be good and solid but not tryharder than that. What then, does that mean for:

a) How they manage

b) How they Hire

c) How they market?

d) Any other necessary business management policies?

posted on April 20, 2007

David Ewing said:

When I got out of college I used to work for a company that embraced this kind of philosophy. They went out of business. Was this 100% the cause? No, but I can say it was never fun to be an employee in a low ambition organization. So I left. I think ‘Good to Good’ contributed heavily to a massive talent drain of others too as the top people left to go for the Olympic gold and bigger challenges. When that happened ‘Good to Good’ became ‘Good to Good Enough’. The rest of the dominos fall predictably from there.

posted on April 20, 2007

Carl Singer said:

David (Ewing)’s point re: “good enough” is very well taken.

David (Maister)– re: reposed question — it’s a toughy (pardon my erudite use of Latin.)

Let me pose some more questions.

In a dynamic, COMPETITIVE, marketplace can a company maintain itself in a steady state, no growth, no change posture. Is this synonymous with the not wanting to “be all that you can be”

To DM’s questions — For lack of competition, if you’re the only guy selling water at a remote desert oasis. (Monopoly?) and you’re satisfied with good (only)

1 – you manage as you always have — change isn’t even considered.

2 – you hire those who will conform to your philosophy and not waste your time with new ideas or suggestions.

3 – again, you market as you always have — no change

4 – a policy that guards against internal change. BUT, perhaps, someone in the crow’s nest to see if competition is on the horizon.

Consider the few local “mom & pop” stores that today survive against the big chains. To overgeneralize, although they stayed the same, perhaps for decades or generations, they weren’t “good enough” — they were always “outstanding” in terms of service and quality that breed customer loyalty. But even that would not guarantee survival — change, perhaps finding a niche where they still could compete, adding services (such as free delivery) have allowed some to continue, perhaps thrive.

I’m thinking of the demise of the local grocery store and the local hardware store.

posted on April 20, 2007

Ed Kless said:

I can’t agree with the premise of the question, revised or otherwise. I just can’t see the tombstone reading, “Here lies Ed, he was good enough.”

I see what you are saying David, but when I talk about this with people, I try to remind them that excellence is not perfection, it is the pursuit of perfection. We will not attain it, but we need to pursue it.

Not wanting to better oneself is evil. Note I am not saying that all organizations need to grow and get bigger. I do not think the growth for growth’s sake is good. As Ron Baker says, that is the definition of a cancer cell. But, growth and pursuit of betterment are not the same things.

Carl is right, this is what is responsible for the death of the Mom and Pop stores, not Walmart.

posted on April 20, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Boy, you guys are tough!

posted on April 20, 2007

Carl Singer said:


I’m sure you’ll agree that “tough” is the leader who fights complacency.

There are several examples of small businesses that have thrived through excellence. Too bad most are too busy “doing” to document the keys to their success.


posted on April 20, 2007

Lance Dunkin said:

I don’t know how this quite relates, but it has been said that more isn’t always better. Some say that the point at which your income reaches a level that covers your expenses and allows for some luxuries that additional income has a sharp diminishing return.

At that point, it seems you are better spending your time in areas that add more happiness to your life.

So in the case of a small business owner that reaches that “financial happiness threshold,” could he/she not slow down the development? Unless of course (which seems all too likely), that business growth (and not the money that comes with it) has a high marginal benefit of happiness.

Ceasing to grow might also cause the business to cease in general, which would put someone under that “financial happiness threshold.”

Whether any of that makes sense or not…one thing I do believe is that those who expect growth to be unlimited (whose expectations are too high) will always be let down. So while good to good may be a bad thing, a good to infinity expectation will lead to misery.

I think if you can set an expectation that meets your financial needs and meet or surpass it, not only will you have an income to make the most of your life, but you will feel successful as well. If your goals are unrealistic, you’ve worked harder than you needed to financially and you feel like a failure, too.

To add (or take away) more–along the lines of marginal benefits, growth can be defined so many ways–even if we are satisfied with good to good or good to a little better financially–don’t we all really want good to great from the perspective of the type of work we do and clients we serve?

posted on April 20, 2007

Charan Atreya said:

“Do the best I am capable of doing” – that has been my motto. If I can perform a task in say 30 minutes, I will look for ways to complete it in less than 30 minutes. Every minute that I gain is a minute earned – earned to do something else.

Even if they are not gunning for the “Gold”, their competition is. Say this organization is at position “x” and its competitor’s position is “x 5″. The competition now advnaces to “x 10″. This contended business will have to move to “x 5″ just to retain its relative position.

The premise is that “the business wants to do good work and serve their clients well”. In light of advances by competition and in order to retain those same clients, the business will have to move forward. But competition is not going to hand out their advantage on a platter.

I think not rooting for the “Olympic Gold” is a sureshot receipe for disaster.

posted on April 21, 2007

Richard Becker said:

Hi David,

You raise an interesting idea, but the conversation seems to have shifted from its original intent, er, maybe. First and foremost, I don’t believe someone who doesn’t want to “be all s/he can be” is usually the type to start a company or work as an independant contractor, at least not the type that we seem to be talking about here.

That said, I’m thinking the bottom line is that different companies have different objectives and the measure of success for some might not be the measure of success for others. None of them is right or wrong. They are just different.

I look at all these different valuations — staff size, profit margin, gross sales, quality product, market leadership — and they just don’t add up. These are all valuations as defined by other people, especially those working for the examples highlighted in “Good to Great” and “In Search of Excellence.”

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the difference is by example.

Recently, I ran a news release about a production company owner who opened another company, Epiphany Video Group, which is a 501(c) 3 non-profit video production company. The new non-profit video production company will develop and produce social awareness public service announcements and documentaries, many of which will be written, directed, and produced by youth.

The objective is pretty clear cut: increase social awareness on underserved topics. None of the valuations I mentioned really apply here.

Could she apply lessons learned from books like “Good to Great” or “In Search of Excellence” … I think so, as long as she remembers that her objective is fundementally different from most of the companies cited in that books.

So to answer your first question… is most business literature profoundly misleading, because it assumes objectives that many real people do not have?

While I wouldn’t use words like misleading or even many, I would have to say the answer to the question is yes.

The success of any company is only to meet its objectives, even if those objectives are different from traditional measures. The real challenge for most companies, big and small, is that they have no idea what their objectives really are or perhaps, better stated, could be.


posted on April 21, 2007

David (Maister) said:

VERY helpful, Rich. I think what you say makes a lot of sense – that every organization needs a cllear sense of its purpose or objectives, and the management decisions and principles flow from consistency with those objectives.

But can we say more? Here’s a hypothetical. Suppose (a) you are the dean of the Harvard Business School, truly dedicated (along with your colleagues) to creating an Olympic-level institution. Now, on the other hand (b) imagine you are the dean of a good, solid state or regional school that wants to provide a good education to students from its community.

What can we say, by way of comparison and contrast, about how you manage? Do the same principles and practices apply?

posted on April 21, 2007

Richard Becker said:


I always love your questions; they are never easily answered.

But I think the answer might be the same. We have to look at the objectives of the business school in question and develop a curriculum that meets those objectives. Harvard Business School seems to cater to those students who are looking to join (or perhaps start) a company best characterized by the Fortune 500. Most of the principles and practices that are discussed usually apply.

From here, I have to break our hypothetical up a bit more.

If I was the dean of a good, solid state or regional school that wanted to offer an alternative business program that competes with the Harvard Business School, then I need a curriculum that presents new ideas, not necessarily for those looking to join the Fortune 500, but perhaps for those who want to start a different kind of company. Some of the principles and practices might apply, but they are all still relevant in terms of being better able to discuss comparisons and contrasts.

Now if I was a dean of a good, solid state or regional school that wants to provide a good education to students ”from its community,” that might be all together different. They might need more emphasis on the nuts and bolts of business operations, people management, etc. Stuff that “unlikely” business owners need all the time.

Going back to the second example, I think it might not be all that difficult to compete with Harvard Business School, assuming you have the right objectives and the resources to meet them. (I’m not saying anything disparaging about Harvard here, only that most MBA programs don’t cover many ideas that business people need.) So, in developing such a curriculum, I would outline the program, playing special attention to the contrasts between my program and that of Harvard. From that, develop a clear message of why it is a worthwhile alternative program, with careful attention paid to the price point (if it is comparable). (I assisted on something similiar once, but not for post-secondary education.)

Would the principles and practices be the same? While both programs might include learning traditional principles and practices, I think the real difference would be in the application of any principles and practices, traditional or otherwise.

From my experience and what I have been told working with Harvard and other business school grads is that they learn models that they then attempt to infuse into the businesses they join. Unfortunately, those models don’t always fit and they are left perplexed. (To be fair, sometimes the models fit or, at least, seem to fit). If they don’t fit, these grads are not sure what to do and go off looking for someone else’s model.

(Let’s note here that some of the most successful businesses today are successful because they created NEW models.)

To sum, the difference seems to come down teaching people best practices and the models of a business as traditional schools do … or teaching people how to THINK through unique situations and varied business environments, perhaps applying some ideas from traditional modes of thought and developing some ideas from the ground up. But isn’t that what innovation is all about?

Of course, I hope other people toss in some ideas too. I only know enough to know that I don’t know anything. That’s a joke (much like saying good clients pay their bills on your last topic).


posted on April 21, 2007

Ed Kless said:

Maybe, I am still not understanding the question here, but I don’t think it is an either/or situation. All I am suggesting is that whatever the situation, we should all be striving to make ourselves better, not bigger, just better.

In short, in answer to the last question you posed, David, the same principles apply, but the practices may be different, but they should always be improving.

posted on April 22, 2007

Amanda Horne said:


A great discussion. Interesting question.

It depends on one’s definition of excellence and greatness e.g. a company could define it in terms of a quality, customer satisfaction, healthy satisfied workforce, but not necessarily being financially #1 (the olympic gold position).

I’m not sure about specific business books on this, however Positive Psychology and its many related fields provide helpful clues and information. e.g. Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book “Good Work”; Barry Schwartz “The Paradox of Choice, why less is more”; Clive Hamilton “Affluenza” (when too much stuff is never enough); Deci’s work on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation; and research on happiness which indicates our very high expectations and difficult to reach standards impact happiness.

And…am I getting off track here?…the UK govt and opposition party are both looking at General Wellbeing as a measure instead of solely looking at GDP. If this is on the public policy agenda, this must surely have implications for the business world.

I know a company that has as its mission “good and solid” and sticks very closely to values such as high quality work and happy customers and happy staff.

a) How they manage – they manage well. They are an enthusiastic company with passion and a clear focus on quality and customer. They win awards.

b) How they Hire – people who match their values and help sustain their business

c) How they market?

d) Any other necessary business management policies? They are clear and open about communicating the truth of their business goals: not to be number 1, instead to focus on quality people, clients and to have a respected reputation. They still consider training, development innovation, succession planning – they are still striving, but not for Gold. They are healthy happy people.

posted on April 22, 2007

Patrick Lamb said:


You have hit the nail on the head. In my experience, there are two kinds of “good to good” firms. Those that consciously choose the path, as you posit. But there also are firms and companies that pay lip service to wanting to be the best, but don’t have the “fire in the belly” to actually move in that direction. I believe the vast majority of all businesses fall into one of these two categories. Were my premise wrong, I would expect to see a substantial number of great firms or businesses, but the numbers don’t support that conclusion.

I suspect you see this result in your consulting practice: at the firm retreat, you come in and deliver a brilliant message and the troops leave all primed for change and battle. Some months later, you visit with the managing partner and find out nothing much has changed. This is the “talk the talk but not walk the walk” firm. Inertia and risk aversion trump the desire to make the changes needed to be great. The real marketing challenge here is to help the firm operate in their chosen space–to survive but not thrive. The challenge begins with getting the firm to understand their true nature. If you can do this, I believe such firms can succeed, for a reason mentioned below.

The firm that already recognizes its limited objective–being good, not great–is easier to deal with because they have already passed the truth/delusion test.

Here is why there is space for both–clients are willing to accept good on lots of matters. Why? Good is sometimes less expensive than great. Frequently good is a safer pick than great. Good is acceptable when based on a personal relationship. Good firms have to market to these personal relationships and work like hell to develop them. Great firms can get business because of personal relationships too, but over time, they will get a great deal of work simply because they are great–reputation will pay.

Pat Lamb

posted on April 22, 2007

David Jacobson said:

Perhaps another way of answering your question is looking at whether a firm which does not charge premium fees can still provide great service and advice. My answer is yes, look at McDonalds and many niche service firms.

Just because a firm decides that it will price to its target market or will price according to its partners’ preferred lifestyles (good income, balanced hours) does not mean that it cannot be great. It can excel in its niche so long as all the partners agree on their business model. It is not necessarily “good but not great” because it does not have the size or trappings of a big firm.

Of course to survive over the long term such a firm needs to be innovative or have a competitive advantage. A “cash cow” will not otherwise last.

And that’s where the good businesses need help.

Eventually a cash cow business gets tired and needs to refocus or develop a new line of business.

posted on April 22, 2007

Scott McArthur said:

I like this sort of post David as it challenges the norms and makes us all think a bit more deeply about current trends. Fro me it’s like the green debate – have you been Greenwashed today by your company, family the press etc?

With regard to this particular notion – well I guess it means that those happy being good help the reast of us attempting to be great!

posted on April 22, 2007

Ellen Weber said:

Wow — what an interesting post and discussion. Maybe all the best insights are already floated on this one:-) but I’d love to add 2-bits more as a possibility.

Most people want the best – when they see the best – and find motivation to travel on it’s highway. That leaves a problem in today’s business climate where the best is abandoned for unrelenting consumerism and desperate lives.

The key is to show people what they are capable of and to inspire them to hitch their wagons to a new star. It’s a bit like the inspiration to weigh in that comes from this interesting and thoughtful blog.

All we need is a new vision to capitalize on human brainpower already present at work! Could an inspirational post and discussion like this one bring it about?

posted on April 23, 2007

Stuart Cross said:


I’ve been wrestling with your questions on this thread for the last day or so. Given your question on the two business schools, it does seem that there are some differences between the likely approach to managing the two schools. In particular, managing Harvard is more likely to be focused on external rewards and recognition; the local school more focused on internal standards (extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation may apply).

That is not to say that running the regional school is necessarily easier, and I’m sure that many deans have benefited from the management books you describe.

I am reminded of the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, where James Stewart is unable to leave his home town of Bedford Falls and fulfill his big dreams, but ends up making a huge difference to the lives of those around him. Perhaps achieveing “Good to Good” can have a great impact after all?


posted on April 23, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, everyone, for exporing different avenues of this thread. As you guessed, this is a real-world question I have faced, not just me being provocative for the sake of being so.

I think there are a lot of organizations out there that just don’t want to putt in the extra energy or discipline to be “uniformly excellent.” They don’t WANT to have tough, stretching rules such as “Everyone must be a dynamo, actively working a personal strategic plan.”

I’m a big fan of Tom Peters, but if you follow his blog, you’ll see that he has recently been arguing vociferously that “indifference” is intolerable, and only passion is acceptable.

Now I’d sign up for Tom’s organization, one where ONLY passion was acceptable, but I’ve got to acknowledge that many (most) of my clients don’t want that kind of firm.

And the question then follows: if ou don’t, does that mean Tom’s recommendations (and Jim Collins’ and mine) on thye best way to manage don’t apply to you? If you’re pursuing different standards of excellence (paranoia?) then do you apply different management principles and approaches.

Personally, I’m wavering between the two points of view. Yes and No!

posted on April 23, 2007

Richard Becker said:

Hi David,

I think you just nailed it.

Personally, I think you are wavering between Yes and No because they are both the right answer. At the end of the day, it depends.

I have clients that are thrilled with our passion; and those that don’t want to hear about it. So, I adjust my communication accordingly and if I did not, I might not have the client.

So I guess that does mean they have different management principles and approaches, which really was your question.

Well done.

posted on April 24, 2007

Justin Evans said:

This is a really engaging thread and fantastic discussion.

I’d only like to add in a second complication raised by both your last comment, and Richard Becker’s, if only to say, maybe the most powerful question (and one I find often unanswerable) is what exactly is the “olympic gold”?

Generalizations like this, while well meaning and inspirational, are often frighteningly damaging in practice– we all know that what is a passion for excellence in one circumstance can quickly turn to a passion for destruction in another.

A situation I often face as both a manager and client manager is the very careful thinking through of what exactly constiutes excellence in a given situation. Surprisingly, I often find the answer counter-intuitive and rarely easily reducable to broad strokes like “olympic gold”…

All that to say, I think the wavering is the best position to occupy. The best answers I seem to find come from standing strong in the most difficult center of the question.

posted on April 24, 2007

Jerome Alexander said:

I take a different approach to this subject. There’s an old saying (that I’ve just re-invented), “If you want to be or stay a good company, watch what bad companies do – and don’t do what they do!” The same holds true for all managers and executives.

In my blog, I offer real life stories of what bad managers and bad executives do. There is a moral in all of this: Don’t do what they do!

If you heed the morals, you’ll do fine. What’s so bad about that? If you don’t, you’ll realize why I became “The Corporate Cynic.”

posted on April 27, 2007

Ashutosh Wakankar said:

The critical element in being good/mediocre vs. great is that it limits your choice about what you can do about your circumstances. Hence, even if you choose to be small and earn a decent living, you will have to be excellent/great with your clients to survive. You will have to be excellent/great with your employees to retain etc.

The key is to not confuse greatness with size. You can have a choice about size but not about being excellent/great. Because if you are not, you will be a result of the circumstances rather than having a choice in them.

posted on April 27, 2007

dogidoll said:

unambitious business man won’t look for more information, If he is satisfacted with his results. Or I ma mistaking again?

posted on May 3, 2007

Sandy said:

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!!”;”The best is the enemy of good” That’s the truth.

posted on May 3, 2007

Joseph Heyison said:

David Ewing hit it on the head for professional service businesses: the more entrepreneurial rainmakers will eventually leave the firm and its average income per fee-earner will spiral downward.

A “satisficing” firm can survive where there are no more lucrative alternatives or where the business-generating personnel are not motivated by compensation or relative money-making position in the community. Note what happened to large law firms once the American Lawyer started publishing profitability numbers. Rainmakers started measuring themselves against their peers and lateral movement statistics jumped.

Again, I stress: the most significant influences on professional firms are the ability to attract (or develop) rainmakers and their mobility in the relevant market. The most important management skill is to be able to lead and mediate among rainmakers. Everything else (developing juniors, strategic planning, excellence programs, brand identity) can be handled well enough (or even not at all) if that skill is there.

posted on May 4, 2007