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"Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big" by Bo Burlingham
Main - News
Written by Vladimir Shper   
Tuesday, 12 August 2014 10:20

I have just finished reading a book: "Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big" by Bo Burlingham. It was published in 2005 but I encountered it only this spring. It seems very important to me so below is my brief description of the book and its main idea. "Quietly and gradually … a new class of great companies has been forming …they have chosen not to focus on revenue growth or geographical expansion, pursuing instead other goals they consider more important than getting as big as possible, as fast as possible".


Generalizing their goal may be stated as making the World better for all (for customers, employees, owners, community). To this end they "have had to remain privately owned, with the majority of the stock in the hands of one person, or a small group of like-minded individuals, or – in a couple of cases – the employees". The author discusses 14 companies which he calls "The Small Giants". His criteria to choose them were:

"extraordinary privately owned companies that…

- had had the opportunity to grow much faster, get much bigger, go public, or become part of a large corporation, and they'd made a conscious decision not to;

- had the respect of those who might otherwise be their harshest critics, namely their peers and their competitors;

- had been singled out for their extraordinary achievements by other independent observers".

"People who choose to stay private and closely held and to place other goals ahead of growth get two things back in return: control and time. The combination equals … the opportunity for freedom". The author included in his book "those who had made most creative use of it". All of them had some mysterious quality – he named it "mojo". To have mojo means the following:

- the founders and leaders had recognized the full range of choices they had about the type of company they could create. They hadn't accepted the standard menu of options as given. They had allowed … to question the usual definition of success in business…;

- the leaders had overcome the enormous pressures on successful companies to take paths they had not chosen and did not necessarily want to follow…;

- each company had an extraordinary intimate relationship with the local city, town,, or country in which it did business doing much more than usual concept of "giving back";

- they cultivated exceptionally intimate relationship with customers and suppliers, based on personal contact, one-on-one interaction, and mutual commitment to delivering on promises;

- they had unusually intimate workplaces "caring for people in the totality of their lives";

- they had the variety of corporate structures and modes of governance 'cause they had the freedom to develop their own management systems and practices;

- They have one thing in common: the passion that the leaders brought to what the company did. They love it, have a burning desire to share it with other people, they thrive on the joy of contributing something great and unique to the world.

The book describes in detail all these principles taking examples from 14 chosen companies (from different regions and very different areas of activity). Here are some citations from different places:

- "The employees are deeply loyal to and protective of the company, which had given most of them opportunities they've never had before and would never have had without it"

- "…to do what is 'right' even when it does not seem to be profitable, expedient, or conventional…The company's highest purpose … to make worthy contributions to the common good"

- "…building a sense of community – that is a sense of common cause between the company, its employees, its customers, and suppliers … rests on three pillars: integrity – the knowledge that the company is what it appears, and claims to be; … professionalism – the company does what it says it's going to do; the direct human connection, the effect of which is to create an emotional bond, based on mutual caring".

- "Real quality control takes place every minute. It has to be done right now, not later. A smaller group tends to be more quality oriented…New people who weren't working out didn't have to be fired. They'd leave of their own accord. They simply couldn't last in a small group of people w/o the support of their peers"

- "The fewer written rules the better"

- "… the biggest misconception of American manufacturers is the belief that production workers are not dependable and must be motivated and/or constrained to do quality work…We have been amazed by self-motivation and dedication to quality and productivity that they demonstrate when they are freed to develop and use their full potential"

- "I take pride in my work, great pride, and I would never compromise it, certainly not for money…The end result is not the check… It's the sense of accomplishment", etc.

The author puts a question: can a company have mojo even if it barely scrapes by? – and answers yes (in some cases). Another question ( discussed very carefully) – can such companies preserve their mojo through a process of succession? He tells how the companies described in the book did it and outlines that while it is very difficult "for a company to hold on to its mojo as it struggles to find its way in a turbulent business environment, it is infinitely more difficult to do so while simultaneously undergoing a transfer of ownership and leadership"

At the end the author writes that he thinks there are hundreds - maybe even thousands - such companies all over the country.

And I think that the path to overcome those numerous difficulties which today's world is facing (economic, political, social and so on) is to spread knowledge about such companies and help a new generation to make their choice about companies they want to create or to work in… The book has many common with the writings of Deming, with "Freedom, Inc." by Carney, Getz, with books of Semler, Hsieh, Brafman and Beckstorm, Csickszentmihaly and so on…