While We're Waiting

Consider these books -- until you hear from Jack Welch

  • Elizabeth I, CEO, by Alan Axelrod (Prentice Hall, 2000)
  • Organizing from the Inside Out, by Julie Morgenstern (Henry Holt, 1998)

If you have ever been in a nice restaurant with a restless four-year-old, then maybe you know that urgent feeling you get when you need to find something -- anything -- to keep her attention while you're waiting for the food to arrive.

A similar sense of panic has been sparked by the news that Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric (and the manager of the century, according to Fortune), is going to write a management book. Geez. You need some business books to nibble on while you wait for a big feast like that. (Publication is being timed for Welch's retirement, in April 2001.) You could always consider tomes urging you to leap into new ways of doing business -- joint ventures, alliances, and what Brandenburger and Nalebuff referred to in their brilliant book, Co-opetition (Doubleday, paperback edition, 1997). But there's a problem with that: It takes an author about a year to write a book, and publishers nearly as long to get a finished work to the marketplace. Not the best method for unveiling the freshest and boldest ideas.

So how about some classic ideas? In his new book, Elizabeth I, CEO: Strategic Lessons from the Leader Who Built an Empire (Prentice Hall, 2000), author Alan Axelrod, who also wrote Patton on Leadership, tries to draw parallels from the queen's life to ours. But lessons like "You're in a people business; it's about people, not policy" and "Duck and cover? No way" are not particularly helpful.

So it seems that for cosmic themes, the pickin's are slim until Welch hits the streets. But there are still critical, tinier issues to explore, like "What is the best way to find the top of my desk?"

Enter Julie Morgenstern, with Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office, and Your Life (Henry Holt, 1998).

Morgenstern confesses that she used to be one of the world's most disorganized people:

"From the day I was born until I had my own child, I lived in a constant state of disorder. ... I'd permanently lost everything from little stuff to big stuff: passports, birth certificates, cameras, jewelry, shoes, and clothing ... . I once spent four hours searching for a friend's car in the parking lot at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, because I hadn't paid any attention to where I had left it."

Morgenstern's day of reckoning came when she decided to take her newborn daughter out for a walk one day. Two hours later she still didn't have everything she needed to take the walk, and her daughter had fallen asleep. "I realized at that moment that if I didn't get my act together, my child would never see the light of day," she admits.

That kind of motivation, she says, is vital. You can buy all the file folders and storage bins there are, and you can follow all the rules, like "When in doubt, throw it out" and "Touch every piece of paper only once," but unless you are committed to changing, you won't.

Yet commitment alone is not enough. You need a plan, and Morgenstern provides one. The first step is to eliminate what she calls the "technical errors" in your organization strategy:

Items have no home. You can't put something away unless you have a place to put it.

Inconvenient storage. You don't put things away, because cleanup is too much of a hassle.

Having more stuff than storage space. If this describes you, you have only three options: get rid of the junk, use your storage space better, or get more space.

Complex, confusing system. "It is quite common for people to set up impossibly complicated systems, overcategorizing items and ending up with too many places to look for things," says Morgenstern.

Once you eliminate those problems, you can systematically set out to gain control. Not surprisingly, Morgenstern has reduced her philosophy to the acronym space:

Sort. In the words of Sesame Street, put like things together.

Purge. Get rid of all that old stuff.

Assign a home. Everything needs to have a place, and only one place, where it belongs.

Containerize. Morgenstern is big on putting things like, say, newspapers to be recycled into a container that also has everything else you need to deal with the task.

Equalize. This is Morgenstern's word for periodically reviewing whether the system is working for you.

The book has its limits. Morgenstern has only one chapter on time management. However, she has a book due out next month called Time Management from the Inside Out. But the relevant chapter in Organizing from the Inside Out assumes that your entire life can be compartmentalized into self time, work time, family time, and relationship time. As anyone who has ever gotten a personal call at work knows, that is not the case.

And like a true believer, Morgenstern can be a bit fanatical:

"Organizing is about designing your space so that it reflects who you are and what's important to you. ..."

But those are small quibbles. The book is helpful and extremely practical. And once you learn to reorganize your desk a bit, you'll have a place to put that Jack Welch book when it finally arrives.

Six degrees of separation of Jack
Publishing is a small world. Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone has worked with everyone else, and it's easy to trace the results of all that close contact.

Take the Jack Welch opus everyone's waiting for. Agency owner Mark H. McCormack, author of What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, brokered the deal. McCormack also has a new book out: Staying Street Smart in the Internet Age (Viking, 2000).

Agents know that their primary job is to put their clients in the best possible light, so McCormack went to one of the best writers in the business to help Welch with his book. He signed John A. Byrne, a senior writer at Business Week. How valuable a name is Byrne, author of such books as Chainsaw: The Notorious Career of Al Dunlap in the Era of Profit-at-Any-Price (Harper Business, 1999) and Informed Consent (McGraw-Hill, 1997)? Well, his reputation is so good that Dennis C. Carey and Dayton Ogden featured the writer's name on the cover of their new book, CEO Succession (Oxford University Press, 2000), even though his contribution was only a four-page foreword.

Who are Carey and Ogden? They're two senior members of the executive search firm Spencer Stuart, perhaps the leading head-hunting company in the United States and a firm that does work for (among other clients) the publishing industry.

Paul B. Brown is coauthor of Lessons from the Top (Doubleday, 1999) and a former Inc. columnist.

Executive Reader

Carlos Watson
President and CEO of Achieva, a 100-person college-prep company based in San Mateo, Calif.

Top Pick: The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox. "It's about a factory that's in trouble, but it's written like a novel," says Watson. "As the factory is revived, some classic lessons in business are revealed. For example, if you have a product that your customers really want, make sure you have enough capacity to meet demand. That is a simple lesson that companies often forget or struggle with -- think Amazon.com during the holidays."

Great Classic: "This makes me sound old school, but I really like In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. Since it was first published, in 1982, some of the companies it showcased have swooned a little bit. But what I took away from the book is that the best companies, at their peak, share some characteristics. It's not just that they've brought to market a great product; it's also that they have a great culture that attracts the best people." --Mike Hofman

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