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Published: October 11, 2002

 
 

Best Business Books 2002: Ethics

Jennings writes with charm, and gives a taste of the discomfort of being an ordinary, intelligent woman on Wall Street, where “women were about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag.” That alone gives her novel interest, and it is coupled with the fact that she speaks from experience: Jennings has done time as a speechwriter on Wall Street.

Her observations about the selfish and deceptive faces of capitalism are most telling when she writes about the gulf between what the company thought it believed in and the way it behaved. There is, for instance, a memorable passage in which, after Russia’s default, a banker breaks the corporate code of platitudes by demanding to know, at an in-house meeting to rally the troops, “Why was so much of our capital invested in a country that has never had a market economy … a country run by gangsters?” The chief executive responds, “It’s a risky world. Always has been, always will be.”

Jennings also neatly catches the tone of grandiose pseudo-altruism that so often pervaded corporate presentation in that era. The company launches a new advertising campaign under the slogan “Niedecker Benecke. Building the Globe. Building Tomorrow.” The head of corporate public relations outlines Niedecker’s plans to finance schools, hospitals, power plants, highways, and railroads — and to play its part in making every nation competitive. “Now, what were the take-aways from our discussion?” he asks patronizingly. “Niedecker is serving humanity, sir,” replies the heroine with ingratiating irony. “At its beck and call.”

However, Jennings’s most memorable and moving passages are not about capitalism and corporate ethics. They describe the wreckage of Cath’s husband, Bailey, by Alzheimer’s. Here, her prose comes alive. Back at the bank, she never really makes her criticism of corporate life bite hard, as Tom Wolfe did with his “Masters of the Universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), or in the way that Anthony Trollope did in his magisterial novel of corporate greed and business failure, The Way We Live Now (Chapman and Hall, 1875). Both these writers, whose books are worth turning to again today, understood perfectly the male gender’s peculiar blend of arrogance, stupidity, and greed.

Perils of Myopia
Larry Elliott and Richard Schroth’s analysis, David Kuo’s memoir, and Kate Jennings’s fiction all in their different ways show the perils of the short-term approach to business that puts almost unbearable pressures on corporate managers. Conditions change in unpredictable ways, and even when times are good, development of new markets and new products is long and slow. Wall Street may want results in weeks, yet most companies take months, many quarters, or years to change.

Chuck Martin’s Managing for the Short Term: The New Rules for Running a Business in a Day-to-Day World (Doubleday, 2002) also analyzes the clash between short- and long-term timetables. Martin, who runs an executive think tank called the Net Future Institute, is in the rather old-fashioned business of discovering new rules for corporate survival — in his case, for managing within shorter time frames.

His is the only one of the five books reviewed here that has an instructional tone. (How-to-do-it books poured off the presses during the boom years; now, business gurus generally distance themselves a little more.)

Martin has talked, as authors of such books tend to do, with myriad bosses to discover how they see the world. The long term, it seems, is somewhere between two and five years; the short term, the quarter or the year. For some, such terms are mutable. “I am a sales VP,” said one of Martin’s interviewees. “I see life in 90-day increments. My joke is that strategic planning for me is where I am going to have dinner tonight.”

 
 
 
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