What can you learn from a CEO's autobiography?
Blame it on Iacocca. Ever since Bantam Books published the memoirs of the Chrysler Corp. chairman in 1984, every executive with a gold pen-and-pencil set has wanted to write The World According to Me. (Word that Iacocca is about to do another book will only intensify that interest.) Trouble is, even a quick reading of the current crop reveals a sad fact: these would-be Churchills utterly missed the reason for Iacocca's success. Chairman Lee's musings on the auto industry may or may not be cogent. What makes Iacocca work isn't the philosophizing; it's the bedrock appeal of the man's Walter Mitty-style life.
Here's a son of an Allentown, Pa., hot dog peddler who, through smarts and determination, becomes a major force at Ford Motor Co. At the height of his success he is KO'd by none other than Henry Ford II himself, who gives "Well, sometimes you just don't like somebody" as the reason. But then, in the best tradition of heroes everywhere, Lee dusts himself off and (with substantial help from Uncle Sam) proceeds to save Chrysler, Ford's ailing rival. Hollywood couldn't have scripted it any better.
It's just this sense of drama that's lacking from the other business autobiographies now on the shelves. Take Hammer (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1987), the autobiography of Occidental Petroleum Corp. chairman Armand Hammer. Hammer's life has scarcely been dull: in 1921, after the Russian Revolution, he provided the Soviets with badly needed medical supplies, and ever since has acted as a high-level intermediary between the United States and the USSR. But his story has no hint of tension, passion, or intrigue. The Russians won't accept U.S. medical help for Chernobyl's radiation victims? No problem. Hammer dashes off a quick note that persuades Mikhail Gorbachev to let the doctors in. The State Department can't free imprisoned journalist Nicholas Daniloff? Hammer huddles with Soviet Ambassador Dubinin and foreign minister Shevardnadze, and Daniloff is free.
Hammer's a business leader too, of course, but the business part of his life gets equally short shrift. When Hammer was in his twenties, has father's drug company suddenly faced overwhelming demand for tincture of ginger. Mixed with ginger ale, the tincture created "a powerful ginger-ale highball" -- a concoction, back in the days of Prohibition, that could lead to overnight commercial success. Hammer's job: locate a new supply. Two paragraphs later he has cornered the market, and he doesn't say how.
Boone, the autobiography of T. (for Thomas) Boone Pickens Jr. (Houghton Mifflin, 1987), is as frustrating as Hammer. You'd think the man who terrified Gulf Oil, Phillips Petroleum, and Unocal, among others, would have fascinating stories to tell. You'd we wrong. There is exactly one intriguing piece of information in the book's 304 pages. For all of Pickens's noble talk about launching takeovers for the good of small shareholders, he began his first raids because his company, Mesa Petroleum, had lost barrels of money drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. There's no quicker way to come up with cash, it turns out, than greenmail. Aside from that nugget, the reported $1.5 million his publisher paid Pickens produced a dry hole.
An Wang, chairman of the computer company that bears his name, got a lot less for his book, Lessons (Addison-Wesley, 1986) -- a pity, since he appears to be the only chief executive-scribe giving away his royalties. (The beneficiary: Wang Institute of Graduate Studies.) Never mind, he too disappoints. The saga of a Chinese immigrant who earns a Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard, starts a company, and guides it onto the Fortune 500 ought to have made a great book. But Wang's detached style -- the written equivalent of a monotone -- makes him sound bored with his own story. Here's Wang on the death of his mother: "Just a few days after . . . I received far more devastating news. . . . My mother's health had declined during the past few years and now she was dead." If that's all the emotion generated by the death of one of the people to whom the book is dedicated, you can imagine Wang's discussion of how he helped develop magnetic memory cores.
As disappointing as these biographies are, the all-time booby prize has to go to Going for It! (William Morrow & Co., 1986). In fact the best thing about this book by Victor ("I liked the shaver so much I bought the company") Kiam, president and CEO of Remington Products Inc., was this: when it came out last year in hardcover, its publisher offered a money-back guarantee to any reader who didn't like the book. We're here to report the publisher can be trusted. After reading hundreds of pages of platitudes about entrepreneurship ("You can't sell anything you wouldn't buy yourself"), we asked for -- and got -- our money back, minus the postage and sales tax. Now, the paperback version is out, and the guarantee gone. In its place is a 10-page Entrepreneurial Aptitude Test. Sample question: Have you established a) only a rough plan for accomplishing your goals? Or b) a detailed plan of how to accomplish your goals? We'll ask Bill Gates and Fred Smith to take the quiz before they start their next companies.
Is the whole field also-rans? Not quite. A classic of the genre is Ray Kroc's Grinding It Out (reissued in paperback by St. Martin's Press), the author's story of building McDonald's Corp. Any man who played piano in a bordello, who sold swampland in Florida during the land boom (and defends the practice), and who then created one of America's great corporations is a man you want to know better. Unlike the other authors, Kroc the writer sounds like Kroc the entrepreneur. From the awkward title (which has less to do with hamburger than with Kroc's attitude toward work) to the crusty conversational tone, the book has a ring of authenticity that's missing from its competitors.
It's authenticity, too, that distinguishes the one good book of the recent crop: Odyssey (Harper & Row, 1987), by Apple Computer Inc. CEO John Sculley. Sculley's rise up the corporate ladder at PepsiCo, his wooing by Steven Jobs, and his risky decision to join Apple are by now familiar. What makes the book interesting, though, is what he found (and did) after he got to Apple. His love affair with the boy wonder, Jobs, sours. The company starts to fail -- and for the first time Sculley is plagued with self-doubt. If Sculley were writing a typical CEO autobiography, he'd sweep his difficulties under the rug. Instead he chronicles them, thereby giving readers that all-too-rare glimpse of the human and organizational conflicts within a corporation. What's more, you know that he and Apple are still grappling with the problems he encountered and the opportunities he decided to pursue. So the book has a behind-the-headlines flavor you won't find in less timely stories (see box, "Odyssey's Odyssey").
Odyssey does come complete with the obligatory business preachings -- apparently all CEO jobs now carry a license to lecture -- but they are separated into tutorials that appear at the end of chapters. Feel free to skip them. They don't make the book. The drama does.
Finally, if you insist on reading The World According to Me!, read the original: the book by that very name written by comedian Jackie Mason. Yeah, we know, there isn't much about business in it. But it's funny. Here's Mason explaining how a Jewish mother, embarrassed that her son is a truck driver, deals with the problem:
"Does your son drive a truck?"
"Drive? I wouldn't say he drives. He sits in the truck, he don't drive it. I wouldn't say he drives it. How would it look a truck is moving and there's nobody there? So in case it goes out of control, he controls it. He's not driving -- he's controlling it. . . . That's it! He's a controller in the trucking business!" The book is short (only 95 pages with lots of pictures) and entertaining. That's more than we can say for most of its competition.