Book Review- The Breakthrough Company


The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers
by Keith R. McFarland (Crown Business, 2008)

As a newcomer to Hollywood, Brad Pitt spent his days in a giant chicken costume, not as an actor, but as an employee of El Pollo Loco.

Jerry Seinfeld worked as a light-bulb salesman and peddled jewelry on the streets of New York before making his breakthrough as a comedian.

Prior to gaining celebrity status, Whoopi Goldberg worked for a mortuary, giving cosmetic treatment to prepare bodies for open-casket funerals.


Breakthrough is the bridge from anonymity to stardom. It's the pathway from average to highly-acclaimed. In The Breakthrough Company, author Keith R. McFarland explores how businesses transition from ordinary to extraordinary.

An endorsement on the book's dust jacket, "Good to Great for those small enough to think big," accurately sums up of the book. Indeed, McFarland shares Jim Collins' passion for research and penchant for extracting pearls of wisdom from a sea of data. In fact, McFarland cites a conversation with Collins as a major inspiration for his decision to write The Breakthrough Company.

As the basis for the book, McFarland conducted an exhaustive study on small, unknown companies that made big leaps to become industry leaders and Wall Street darlings. Along the way, he identified several commonalities of breakthrough performers, and he spends the bulk of the book expounding on those qualities.

McFarland posits that small companies can learn behaviors to increase their odds of achieving breakthrough. In the brevity of this review, it isn't possible to flesh out the many rich concepts he offers. However, here's the shortlist of his brightest ideas:

Crowning the Company (Chapter 3)

Entrepreneurs inhibit breakthrough when they crown themselves as the sovereign leader of the company. Instead, leaders who inspire breakthrough, "Serve their companies instead of having their companies serve them."

Building Company Character (Chapter 5)

A statement of values is worthless unless the values are put into practice. A company's habits of behavior are what count. "Everything else is just PR."

Navigating The Business Bermuda Triangle (Chapter 6)

Like the famed Bermuda Triangle, startups have a danger zone in which they may lose their way and never be heard from again. This area is the stage of growth at which the benefits of being small must be scaled into sustainable advantages - regardless of size.


It's worth restating how the meticulous research undertaken by McFarland contributes to the force of his ideas. His leadership observations rest on a bedrock of in-depth analysis rather than personal opinion or popular theory. Keen insights, at times counterintuitive and surprising, spring forth from his incisive investigation of breakthrough companies.

John Maxwell, Wired, 05-22-08

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