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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2003: Values

Because Bronson’s approach to his subject is anecdotal, it can be criticized for not being representative research, but the book’s bestseller status and the writer’s popularity as a speaker indicate he has struck a chord. One reason is that everyone likes a good story, and it’s certainly Scheherazadian. When Joe, a banker, becomes a superintendent of a school system through a series of flukes, will it work out? When Claude, a marine biologist, acknowledges he dislikes nature and loves people, what will he do? The improbable answer: He enters dentistry school and winds up happy as a pig in mud. What about Kurt, a silver-spoon type under pressure to take over his family’s ball-bearing company? Well, he defies societal and familial pressures and becomes a street cop. And then there’s Bryce, a geologist who works for Big Oil, covering up companies’ misdeeds. When he loses out in some fierce politicking by his colleagues, he leaves his company for a position with the county, policing those he once worked with and earning a quarter of the money. For those of us with gray hair, there’s Sidney, a 70-year-old research chemist who follows his bliss to become a lawyer. Ah, people in their infinite variety.

Most of Bronson’s subjects don’t rip large holes in their life easily. Sidney faced monolithic age discrimination, and he wasn’t doing it for the money, as is the case for many who switch careers in midlife to become lawyers. Although Sidney chose chemistry in a fit of youthful pique, he had always pined for the puzzling challenges of the law. Bryce’s ex-colleagues at the oil company taunt the former geologist for his lack of wealth, and they try to seduce him back to his old job. And although he might now be on the side of the angels, he has to deal with government bureaucracy. He makes his peace with it, but with great difficulty.

Anyone who’s suffering from nagging career dissatisfaction, no matter his or her age or experience, would benefit from Bronson’s book. These are case studies that bring all kinds of thoughts out of hibernation, even if the problems discussed are not identical to one’s own. Any managers interested in knowing what’s on the minds of other employees would do well to read it, too.

There is another reason for managers to read what Bronson has to say. He does not just write about the pursuit of happiness but argues that companies, to stay competitive, should encourage their employees “to find their sweet spot” because “productivity explodes when people love what they do. We’re sitting on a huge potential boom in productivity, which we could tap into if we got all the square pegs in the square holes and round pegs in round holes…. It’s a huge economic issue.” Although productivity is already booming, at least in the U.S. economy, the implication of Bronson’s book is that the boom would be even stronger and longer if managers could better understand the mind-set and discontents of their employees.

In his “square peg, round hole” argument, Bronson echoes an argument made by London Business School’s management guru Sumantra Ghoshal. Ghoshal has long urged companies to stop making employees conform and instead “release their entrepreneurial hostages.” Of course, this contradicts the typical corporate imperative that says to rise through the ranks, employees must make sacrifices. And let’s not forget the typical callousness of corporations, as one of Bronson’s subjects reminds us: “In the U.S. the trend in the labor market is to make you disposable. I was a replaceable commodity. That’s no way to live a life. I lived in fear.” Much would have to change for Bronson’s and Ghoshal’s ideals to prevail, although a predicted shortage of college-educated workers as baby boomers retire might force this change. This demographic crisis will create a seller’s market, and employers are going to have to reckon with employees’ needs, including their selfhood.

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