Cultivating a “Good to Great” culture of discipline to grow your company

For many entrepreneurs, self-discipline comes somewhat naturally. After all, discipline—combined with a lot of hard work and determination—is usually what brings successful business owners to their first stage of success. But when it comes to growing a business, entrepreneurs can no longer just rely on their own self-discipline to take their organizations to the next level. Companies that want to successfully grow and scale are not only led by self-disciplined leaders, but also cultivate a culture of discipline within the company. 

As author and business expert Jim Collins has stated in his Good to Great books, “A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.” Collins defines three areas of focus when it comes to discipline: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action. It’s these three broad areas that need to come together for companies to hit that breakthrough point where they can truly accelerate growth.

Understanding the three areas of discipline in business

It’s important to remember that a culture of discipline doesn’t equate to dictatorship. Good discipline isn’t about forcing specific behaviors or rules, but rather creating systems and processes within the company that keeps teams motivated yet accountable. 

Disciplined people

If you want a disciplined team, it certainly helps to hire staff who are already self-motivated and conscientious, especially when it comes to leadership or management positions. No matter what philosophy your company adopts when it comes to management structure, the reality is that discipline must come from the top down. It’s company leaders that set the tone and culture of any business, and lack of discipline at the management level can easily amplify any problems among staff.

When it comes to choosing the right leaders for your company, Collins often speaks of identifying those with “Level 5” leadership qualities, the people who have a blend of professional humility and high-reaching ambition—but more for the organization rather than themselves. These are the rare types of people who will praise their team when things go well, yet hold themselves responsible when things go wrong. It’s these types of leaders who will best be able to instate a culture of discipline within a company. 

Disciplined thought 

When it comes to setting a strategy for business growth, Collins recommends disciplined thought in the form of the “Hedgehog Concept.” In the Greek parable between fox and hedgehog, the fox knows a little about a lot of things, while the hedgehog knows a lot about one thing. “All good-to-great leaders, as it turns out, are hedgehogs,” says Collins. That’s not to say that the hedgehog is simple-minded, but rather that they are able to transform complex elements into simple but profound ideas. 

The Hedgehog Concept involves looking at the whole of your company and simplifying into one single organizing idea that drives your business strategy. There are three key questions: 

  • What can my company be the best at? 
  • What is the key metric driving our economic engine, as defined by “profit per x”? 
  • What are my core people deeply passionate about? 

Answering these questions with the “brutal facts,” as Collins calls them, is the best way to come to a clear focus and goal. Sometimes that means confronting realities that you might not want to hear—perhaps you realize that your brand isn’t strong enough to expand locations and you should instead focus on growing brand loyalty, or you’ve been measuring “profit per store” instead of “profit per customer.” Or perhaps your sales staff values a supportive teamwork-based structure over a competitive commission model. By being disciplined and honest in thinking through these questions, and not getting distracted outside opportunities, you’ll arrive at the “Hedgehog Concept” that will help you determine where to direct your energies for growth. 

Disciplined action

Once you’ve defined your main company focus and strategic plan, it takes disciplined action to execute it. Many companies fall short when it comes to seeing long-term growth plans through, as it is easy to be distracted and take action reactively rather than proactively. As Collins would say, don’t just create a “to do” list, but also a “stop doing list.” Essentially, don’t try to undertake anything that doesn’t fit into your long-term growth plan, and certainly don’t make rash decisions—don’t try to rush new products to market simply because your rival is doing it, don’t try to expand your business without a proper strategy, and don’t hire for the sake of filling a team. 

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be any experimentation or risk-taking. Rather, businesses should try to build a culture of freedom and responsibility, but within a framework. This means defining specific goals, reporting across all key metrics, and analyzing results and using them to iterate your strategy. Regular reporting and analysis is absolutely key if you want your business to stay on track. This helps to keep management and employees accountable for their actions, and can help company owners identify small problems before they grow into big ones. To do this requires excellent internal communication (and in many cases, a well-integrated tech infrastructure). 

Moving the flywheel

Together, these concepts form a strategic foundation that help companies feed their “flywheel,” another popular Collins concept on accelerating growth within business. A flywheel generally takes a lot of force to get moving, but once it is moving fast enough, it generates its own momentum. In order for the wheel (the business) to gain great speed, all forces must be pulling in the same direction with the same focus. This is where creating a culture of discipline in a company can really give the flywheel the moment it needs to take off.