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Published: January 12, 2002

 
 

Straight from the Brain

Professor Tedlow selected entrepreneurs who are no longer living because he wanted to be sure of the judgment of history on their contribution to society. Although he acknowledges that some believe Jack Welch to be the greatest businessman of the 20th century, the author suggests that the jury is still out on his legacy at GE (the book was published just before the collapse of the Honeywell Inc. takeover). Indeed, Professor Tedlow cheerfully pleads “guilty” to the charge that historians know what they know only because hindsight is 20-20. In a field dominated by fads and quick fixes, he argues that a study of business history can prompt an executive to ask of each new “solution,” How really lasting is this approach, this idea, this company?

It’s difficult to detect any patterns common to the lives of the seven entrepreneurs profiled in this book. They were all risk takers, innovators, and experimenters who saw opportunity where others saw only constraints. Adversity in youth and the sense of being “outsiders” seemed to fuel the intensity and passion that they all displayed, but the sources of this energy varied.

In Andrew Carnegie’s case, for example, the fuel seems to have been his impoverished background and an asymmetrical relationship with his parents. He was the son of a shy, placid father whose career would be directionless and a mother who lived in what the author describes as a state of controlled rage. “Life had dealt her a heavy blow. She would get back her own and more than her own.” In 1848 the family borrowed money to emigrate from Scotland to America and ended up in “Slabtown” — Pittsburgh, the city that would become the center of the steel industry. Here her eldest son would be the instrument of her redemption: Andrew Carnegie had the energy and optimism that fitted perfectly with the spirit of the era. “Next to Carnegie,” writes Professor Tedlow, “Norman Vincent Peale was a clinically depressed pessimist.”

One suspects that the same could be said of Jack Welch, who, interestingly, also describes his intensity and passion as being fueled by his relationship with his mother: “…many of my basic management beliefs — things like competing hard to win, facing reality, motivating people by alternately hugging and kicking them, setting stretch goals, and relentlessly following up on people to make sure things get done — can be traced to her.”

It’s a recipe for tough love, but where there isn’t love it can be very tough. In Giants of Enterprise, Professor Tedlow quotes a respected executive at Revlon who recalls a meeting when he tried to remonstrate with CEO Charles Revson’s bullying behavior. Revson reached over, put his hand on the executive’s, patted it, and said, “Look, kiddie, I built this business by being a bastard. I run it by being a bastard. I’ll always be a bastard, and don’t you ever try to change me.” The executive soon left the company.

If ever I get to be CEO,” Jack Welch once said, “I’ll kill this strategic planning process because it’s all BS.” And when he became CEO, that’s exactly what he did. “People first, strategy second” was his mantra, with strategy itself being seen not as a lengthy action plan but as “the evolution of a central idea through continually changing circumstances.” One feels that Jack Welch would like Strategic Thinking for the Next Economy. The book consists of a selection of recent articles from the MIT Sloan Management Review edited by Michael A. Cusumano and Constantinos C. Markides, who are professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the London Business School, respectively. The concept of strategy has come a long way since Mr. Welch took over as CEO of GE, and the articles in the Cusumano–Markides book document its progress.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Works mentioned in this review.David Boyle, The Sum of Our Discontent: Why Numbers Make Us Irrational (Texere, 2001), 200 pages, $24.95.
  2. Diane Coyle, Paradoxes of Prosperity: Why the New Capitalism Benefits All (Texere, 2001), 316 pages, $27.95.
  3. Michael A. Cusumano and Constantinos C. Markides, Strategic Thinking for the Next Economy (John Wiley & Sons Inc., Jossey-Bass, 2001), 317 pages, $19.95.
  4. Richard S. Tedlow, Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built (HarperCollins Publishers, HarperBusiness, 2001), 512 pages, $30.00.
  5. Jack Welch with John A. Byrne, Jack: Straight from the Gut (Warner Business Books, 2001), 496 pages, $29.95.
 
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