Is It Actually Possible To Create A 'Visionary' Company?

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith

POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 3, 2014

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"I'm most proud of helping to create a company that by virtue of its values, practices and success has had a tremendous impact on the way companies are managed around the world ... that I'm leaving behind an organization that can live on a role model long after I'm gone."

- William Hewlett, Chair, Hewlett Packard, 1990

Except, respectfully, he didn't. Not long after the retirement of William Hewlett and David Packard, those unique values, practices and manner of success - at least arguably - faded at HP. It is still an excellent company, certainly, but it's no longer a unique global role model, no longer having a tremendous impact on the way companies are managed.

I'm a huge fan of Jim Collins, and that quote was how he led off his first bestseller 'Built To Last - Successful Habits of Visionary Companies'. I just read it on my holiday for perhaps the third time, and the 'habits' Collins lauds should definitely be practiced by every company. But that's not the question. The question is this: Can those habits be 'permanently ingrained' in a company so that it can survive generations, less-than-great leadership and periods of huge change, thereby ensuring continuing excellence? I just turned 59, this is rather a large issue for me, but I'm losing faith.

Partly it's because of the list of companies Collins lists in his book. Many of them, in the twenty years since publication, have proven vulnerable and conventional rather than visionary. Or because when I read the manifestos of many older companies that attempt to write out their prescription for continued success, I think this: Yikes! (If I was to write out my advice for future generations of leaders at EllisDon, I think I'd merely quote the title of Built To Last's Chapter 7: 'Try A Lot Of Stuff And Keep What Works'. But I can't see such a messy manifesto surviving too many committee meetings aimed at building consensus.)

Not to say that there aren't powerful things that companies can do. 3M's rule that their people should spend 15% of their time on their own initiatives and innovations seems like almost a biblical commandment there, it's hard to imagine any future leader messing with it. GE's relentless focus on leadership development is perhaps another example. But there aren't many of these; despite the book's claims.

Collins is always disdainful of the 'cult of leadership' in American companies and business thinking, but I'm not so sure - especially when you look at those companies he so admires (Marriott, HP, IBM under Watson father and son). If we at EllisDon are proud of the unique culture and values we have put in place, and really believe that they are key to our future success and to the achievement of EllisDon's 'Purpose', then surely leadership succession is the most important issue, period. I like my job, but I'm also thinking the most important thing that I can do at this company in the coming years is to ensure that the future leadership team are people whom I'm absolutely convinced will be true to our values, culture and purpose, and who will swear on their mother that the next leaders that they choose will do likewise. At the very best that might buy twenty-five years if we're very lucky, but that would be great (and better than some of Collins' 'visionary' companies did). After that, I think it's pretty much a crap shoot. OK, so now I'm offside of Jim Collins. We're probably doomed.

Thanks for reading.