New releases: what's worth reading?
Mackay's back in town
Pushing the Envelope: All the Way to the Top, by Harvey Mackay
(Ballantine Books, 1999, $24.95)
If it didn't say "Harvey Mackay" on the cover, we wouldn't even mention this book, but ol' Swim with the Sharks Harvey is a brand unto himself. Pushing the Envelope is pure Mackay: breezy style, predictable advice, management insights as deep as a puddle. Still, expect it to sell. Mackay, like Zig Ziglar, can move books on name recognition alone.
This latest tome offers 90 chapters of advice on how to improve yourself, outdo the competition, raise expectations, manage effectively, and do it all with flair. When you pack that much living into one slim volume, you can expect each chapter to have maybe a shade more meaning than a fortune cookie. That's not to say that some of the advice isn't sound. It's just that so much of it is insight into the obvious. Take this pearl, for example: "Always let the other side talk first" in a negotiation. OK, fair enough, but what if both of you have read the book?
If nothing else, Mackay is a master of self-promotion. He tells you that to save time you should listen to books on tape and then gives you the phone number for Nightingale Conant, which he calls "the biggest and best" source of them. Well, he doesn't mention it, but Mackay's taped books are a Nightingale Conant staple. Then again, learning to self-promote, network, and connect at every turn is central to his whole rap. He's merely practicing what he preaches about pursuing every opportunity--indeed, running it into the ground.
Mackay does point readers to some really good titles with the oomph his book doesn't have, suggesting The Real Heroes of Business...and Not a CEO Among Them, by Bill Fromm and Len Schlesinger (Currency/Doubleday, 1994), which chronicles 14 employees across the country who provide exemplary service; and Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ronald A. Heifetz (Belknap Press, 1994), which is indeed one of the best books on leadership written in many years.
To be fair, Mackay can be a hoot, and sometimes that's all you want one of his books for. He can even laugh at his own breed, as he does in a wonderful send-up in chapter 9. Laid out as a screenplay idea that was rejected by his real-life moviedirector son, the chapter describes a befuddled, aging CEO who spouts management wisdom--when he can remember it--to young whippersnappers seeking advice. "Dig your well before you stub your toe...wait a minute, that's not it...," he fumbles. Hilariously accurate.
Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscape and Its Battle with Microsoft, by Michael Cusumano and David Yoffie
(Free Press, 1998, $26)
You've already heard about this book, even if you haven't seen it in the stores. The authors were threatened with a subpoena by Microsoft as the company was going into court to fight the Justice Department. Bill Gates's minions wanted access to tapes of the authors' interviews. The judge denied the request, and the publishers rushed the book into print while the headlines were fresh.
While that little battle has garnered a lot of press, not much has been said about the book's actual contents. Well, they're fascinating. The book is packed with the intimate details of how Netscape rose in spite of having to battle behemoth Microsoft. The gist of the authors' take is that being fast is not enough. If you want to compete and win on Internet time, you need smart tactics and a grasp of the more traditional principles of the pre-Internet world: vision, leadership, innovation, quality, barriers to entry, and so on. Microsoft and Netscape experienced setbacks, the authors conclude, because of "failures in execution." They add that both Microsoft and Netscape are guilty of having been too greedy (Netscape for cash, Microsoft for market share).
The stresses and problems of Internet giants may not relate directly to your company, but this saga will reaffirm the core values we all treasure. It shows that execution is everything--and that being fast is often just another way to ramp up the risks.
Fine--if you're running Frog Inc.
Five Frogs on a Log: A CEO's Field Guide to Accelerating the Transition in Mergers, Acquisitions and Gut-Wrenching Change, by Mark Feldman and Michael Spratt
(Harperbusiness, 1999, $40)
We mention this book solely to provide an object lesson. Feldman and Spratt advise lots of CEOs of large corporations as part of their work for PricewaterhouseCoopers (a mergerized mouthful if there ever was one), and those consulting habits show. The book is anecdotal and clever without being practical or useful, even if you're actually contemplating a merger. You will, however, learn the riddle of the five frogs on a log, which in the interest of saving time, we offer here: Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left? Five. Because there's a difference between deciding and doing. "Execution," the authors tell us, "is always more difficult than it seems."
Here's the lesson: Smart advice is timeless. If you do want a quick take on making effective decisions, then consider the very short chapter "The Effective Decision" in Peter Drucker's Managing the Non-profit Corporation (HarperCollins, 1990). Drucker writes sharply about the evils of reaching consensus too quickly, the dangers of not doing your homework, and the fact that decision making always involves risk taking. He also observes that "far too many decisions remain pious intentions." Even more memorable than the frog story. --Jeffrey L. Seglin
Tim DeMello, founder, chairman, and CEO of Streamline Inc., a homedelivery service based in Westwood, Mass.
LAST BOOK READ:
Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, by Howard Schultz with contributor Dori Jones Yang (Hyperion, 1997, $24.95). "Schultz writes well about how you can get your employees to be passionate about what you sell."
FAVORITE BOOKS READ THIS YEAR:
Two tales of corporate giants: Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company and Career, by Andrew S. Grove (Currency/Doubleday, 1996, $27.50), and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow (Random House, 1998, $30).
BEST IDEA FROM A BOOK:
"Grove writes about what he calls 'strategic inflection points.' He basically advises you to maintain a constant state of cautious optimism about your business. Forget your successes. What happens when you get knocked on your ass? Grove says you can get a great benefit out of a major hit to your business. You'll emerge at the other side of the situation a whole lot better. You'll be stronger, and you'll have seen your business from a whole different perspective." --Mike Hofman