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Published: June 10, 2008

 
 

Books in Brief

The mensch of corporate turnarounds, the earthy language of “Neutron Jack,” the work–life balance of Mormon executives, and the cognition of effective leaders.

 

The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies
By Steve Miller
HarperCollins, 2008, 272 pages
Photograph by Rick Schwab

CEOs rarely tell you anything about the roles that their spouses play in their lives and the contributions spouses make toward their success, and they never tell you about their first sexual encounter. Delphi Corporation Chairman and CEO Robert S. “Steve” Miller does all these things in The Turnaround Kid: What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies. Throughout the book, he makes it clear that his wife, Maggie, who died in 2006, was his partner in business — as a truth teller, evaluator of people, and ethical advisor — as well as in marriage. Miller sees his series of high-profile jobs as being held by “us” rather than “me.”  

Steve Miller was born to a wealthy professional family in Oregon that had amassed its fortune over three generations in the lumber industry. With a law degree from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford, he served his apprenticeship in the Ford Motor Company during the “whiz-kid” era of the 1960s. After extensive experience with burgeoning responsibilities in the Ford “Foreign Legion” in South America and the Asia-Pacific regions, he was drafted by Lee Iacocca and Gerry Greenwald (both ex-Ford executives) into the turnaround of Chrysler. He joined this 24/7 cause without even asking what he would be paid and reveled in the freedom from bureaucracy that corporate crises can bring. He honed his skills in arduous negotiations to get 400 lenders to sign off on Chrysler’s complex deal, learning to listen, explain, and treat everyone equally. In the process he discovered that turnaround specialist was the role that suited him best, allowing him to fuse work and passion while leaving the challenge of achieving a work–life balance to ever-resourceful Maggie.

With his reputation made by the success of the Chrysler rescue, Miller went on to a career of saving and rebuilding big enterprises in both the private and public sectors. The companies listed on his resume are some of North America’s best-known corporate basket cases — Olympia & York Developments, Morrison Knudsen, Federal-Mogul, Waste Management Inc., Bethlehem Steel, and, most recently, Delphi Corporation, the ill-fated parts spin-off from General Motors. (He also helped rescue the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.) Throughout these challenges Miller comes across as, to use a Yiddish term, a real mensch: the kind of guy who makes his own phone calls, meets with people in their offices rather than his, and eats in the company cafeteria, all in the interest of saving time, conveying sincerity, and building rapport.

The take-home message of this memoir is that there are talented people in troubled organizations who often have all the answers but usually are not focused on the right questions. The role of the turnaround manager is to understand and pose the key questions while freeing up the communication webs both inside and outside the organization. Steve Miller reaches for resources wherever they are to be found. For example, he relies heav­ily on his executive assistants to tell him about what’s really happening. If, as research suggests, leadership skills are best taught by tough assignments, influential bosses, and hardships, Steve Miller’s story is an excellent illustration of that learning process at work.

 


Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company
By Bill Lane
McGraw-Hill, 2008, 336 pages

English is a two-tier language, with a lofty Latinate vocabulary overlaid on an earthy, Anglo-Saxon base. For a manager, each of these layers of language has an essential role to play. When communicating “up” and requesting resources and support, the erudite, Latin-based layer lends an air of conceptual sophistication. When talking “down” for prompt commitment and action, only the Germanic layer will do.

Effective executives use both layers, but you would never know it from their writings, where they are usually on their best behavior and looking for resources and support rather than commitment. Bill Lane, Jack Welch’s speechwriter for 20 years, has done readers a service by revealing the plain, rough-spoken, Anglo-Saxon world that General Electric’s best-known CEO created. In Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company, he tells the tale of his relationship with Welch and how Lane helped Welch talk a great company into becoming even better. By the time Welch became CEO in 1981, he believed GE had become a place with too many high-flown visions, too much abstract planning, and too many “bullshit meetings.” The rhetorical component of his early “Neutron Jack” era was to do away with the vision “extravaganzas” in favor of “success stories with messages attached.” It is clear that he was ably assisted by Lane, whose combat experience in Vietnam stood him in good stead as the duo “cut through the crap.” The once hushed halls of the thickly carpeted GE executive suite became more like a war zone, with profanity ricocheting off the mahogany walls as vigorous disputes broke out be­tween the mercurial Welch and his like-minded colleagues on one side and their subordinates on the other.

It’s no surprise to learn that much of GE’s executive communication takes the form of presentations, but the extent of the presen­tation culture and the intensity with which presentations are prepared and rehearsed are eye-openers. Lane takes the opportunity to give the readers a number of pointers on how to create and deliver their own presentations: Keep them short, interesting, forthright, and candid, with a ruthless assessment of what worked and what didn’t. One question is, of course, if all the bosses right up to the top don’t practice these values, how realistic is it for you to do so? Lane tries to follow his own prescriptions in the book — with mixed results. The chapters are short, but there are 82 of them. At times the book rambles on and one wishes that the messages were more condensed, but ultimately the war stories about the dynamic Jack Welch are strong enough to carry this load.

 

 
 
 
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