Reviews of eight business books, including three books from CEOs on the angst and joys of building a company, three books on open-book management, and two books that look beyond the millennium.
New books from CEOs on the angst and joys of building a company
There's an interesting new trend in the ever-flowing stream of books written by CEOs. In the past every example of this minigenre followed the same formula: Here's how the CEO succeeded and how you can, too! But lately, we're seeing more revealing, heartfelt tales mixed with hands-on advice, confessional books that tell of--no, make that testify to --the very personal journey CEOs have undertaken.
The most compelling and best crafted of the lot is the only one that sticks to telling the story of the CEO's experience without delving deep into said CEO's psyche. It's also the only one written by a woman. MothersWork: How a Young Mother Started a Business on a Shoestring and Built It into a Multi-Million Dollar Company recounts how, in 1981, a 28-year-old pregnant woman started a business out of her home, selling business clothing for pregnant women. Today that business is a $300-million public company that is gobbling up the competition by acquisition.
Author Rebecca Matthias has packaged her book smartly. After describing a particular operation or strategy, she segues into a meat-and-potatoes treatment of the skills and knowledge she used to craft that approach. Valuable, practical stuff.
That's not to say that the two other CEOs don't have a lot to offer. Max Carey's The Superman Complex: Achieving the Balance That Leads to True Success builds on an article he wrote for Inc. in 1988. Carey went from Columbia football star to fighter pilot in Vietnam, then became an Inc. 500 CEO--only to double over in anxiety one day. Totally driven, he suffered from what he'd later identify as the Superman complex. His book tells the story of his trip to the brink and back, then offers basic diagnostic tools to assess whether you or others who have notions of leaping tall buildings in a single bound are suffering from the same complex.
Tom Chappell, the living personification of Tom's of Maine, has written a book called Managing Upside Down: The Seven Intentions of Values-Centered Leadership, which is even more personal than Carey's. Anytime you talk about managing your company based on your own values, it gets personal, and that's the heart of this book: "letting your deepest beliefs and values drive your business."
The book's built around Chappell's "seven intentions," which, he says, should be followed by anyone who wants to run a business based on personal values. But he frequently concludes that various business problems arose because the rest of the organization was not as focused on values as its owners were. That seems not to jibe with his stated principle that "different gifts and perspectives" build strong teams. And that's the trouble with defining a business using a CEO's values: values aren't universal.
Now, to be fair, Chappell does include some solid ideas in his seven intentions, such as the need for vision and for relying on expert advisers. But then there's the one that says you should explore who you are and the meaning of your work. That's where you might run into trouble if, God forbid, your meaning just doesn't measure up.
The need to know
Last year a study by the national Center for Employee Ownership showed that after companies began to practice open-book management, their revenues grew 1.66% faster than those of their non-open-book competitors.
It's no wonder, then, that the phenomenon of open-book management continues to blossom. The premise of Thomas Davenport's new book, Human Capital: What It Is and Why People Invest It, is that "people are not costs, factors of production, or assets. They are investors in a business, paying in human capital and expecting a return on their investment." To make human capital work effectively, Davenport believes, management must make sure that people understand how the organization becomes successful.
Jump across into the academic world of business ethics to Norman Bowie's Business Ethics: A Kantian Perspective, and you will find that he too recognizes the importance of open-book management: "The underlying philosophy of open book management is that persons should be treated as responsible autonomous beings....With complete information and the proper incentive, employees behave responsibly without the necessity of layers of supervision."
Both books reference John Case's Open-Book Management. Case, a former senior writer for Inc., wrote that open-book management "works because it says, we're all in this business together."
If you want validation that open-book management works, Davenport's and Bowie's books will oblige. But if you want a hands-on guide on how to put it into practice, Case's is still the best book out on the subject.
Thinking about tomorrow
Two new books just out want us to imagine a future that goes far beyond the overhyped turn of the century. In The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand, the coauthor of The Whole Earth Catalog, writes: "To be in business is to hustle--hustle the customer and hustle faster than the competition." As a result, market economies have become electronically accelerated, and they often reward shortsightedness.
Part of the problem is that there's just too much damn information, and the way we store it keeps changing. Brand cites Rand researcher Jeff Rothenberg, who observed that it's "only slightly facetiousto say that digital information lasts forever--or five years, whichever comes first."
So here's the big plan. Brand and fellow Long Nowers are going to build a clock in the desert that will keep time for the next 10,000 years. The other part of the plan is to build an underground library that would house books that should be remembered over that period. Both are works in progress, with the prototype for the clock unveiled earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The authors of The Minding Organization aren't building a clock or a library. But they are, in a refreshingly jargon-free book, urging managers to start thinking of organizations as living organisms rather than as static entities that can be made to succeed through excessive planning. "There is too much planning in organizations today," the authors write. We must, they argue, learn to adapt to a world characterized by chaos and uncertainty.
Founder of Be Incorporated in Menlo Park, Calif.
The Constitution of Liberty, by Friedrich A. Hayek. The French-born GassÉe says, "I come from a statist country." Of his adoptive land, he says, "I'm afraid our prosperity could cause us to forget why it came about."
The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene. "I have the worm's love for the star when it comes to math and physics. The first part of the book has a very lucid exposition of special relativity."
Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, by Peter Drucker. "He's the pope."
FAVORITE OFFBEAT PICK
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, by Bruno Bettelheim. "Almost as good as Shakespeare or RenÉ Girard in exploring the central role of myth in our lives: how we relate to others and ourselves. Ask George Lucas what he made--and how much--of the book. Or ask Steven Spielberg about how it influenced his 1971 TV movie Duel." --Mike Hofman