The Book Corner - Review

The Breakthrough Company by Keith R. McFarland

The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers

By Keith R. McFarland
Crown Business, 2008

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The Breakthrough Company is an astute analysis of what makes the difference between companies that become stars and the “also-rans” we never hear about.

Author Keith McFarland does not take a “flavor of the month” approach to leadership. The book, which is already ranked as a top business best seller by The Wall Street Journal, is based on a five-year study of some 7,000 growth companies. I appreciated the well-chosen and insightful vignettes, such as the one in which the author compared two companies with very similar beginnings-one became an exceptional performer and the other just barely survived. You might wonder how two companies in the same business located just a few hours apart could have such different performance records. From his face-to-face interviews and careful analysis, McFarland teases out the critical factors. Another example worth the price of the book is the story of how the executives at Intuit bested Microsoft in the small business accounting market.

The Breakthrough Company does not claim to be about leadership or ethics, but it is. The chapter on Building Company Character caused me to rethink my understanding of corporate culture. McFarland writes that the one characteristic common to all the breakthrough CEOs studied was charisma: “Charismatic leaders inspire us with their character.” His discussion of the roots of the word “charisma” is inspiring! Drawing on the writings of the early 20th Century sociologist Max Weber, he defines charisma as “a devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person.” Then McFarland writes “Character is sacred… Character cannot be faked.” It was at this point, half-way through the book, I decided to make it a required reading for all of my MBA students.

McFarland, a one-time Associate Dean at the Graziadio School of Business and Management of Pepperdine University, had a reputation for easily establishing rapport and trust; in The Breakthrough Company he accomplishes just that. While every page conveys important information, the tone is like a candid conversation over a cup of coffee.

A very full index and extensive reference notes will satisfy the academic reader. That McFarland conveniently provides a summary of key ideas at the end of chapters will be a great help to my students! I am recommending this book to my executive clients and friends.

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