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Best Business Books: CEO Memoirs

Ernest Hemingway, CEO: When Executives Become Authors

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Would it make sense for Hewlett-Packard’s board to appoint Tom Peters as its CEO, or for General Motors to install Peter Drucker at its helm, or for IBM to give Stephen Covey a shot at running its shop?

If management gurus and best-selling authors seem miscast for those executive roles, that’s probably because there’s little correlation between having the ability to write clearly on the subject of corporate leadership and being a successful CEO. Yet, over the years, when the CEOs of such companies as HP, GM, and IBM have dipped their pens in ink, enthusiastic book buyers have made their scribblings bestsellers. Apparently, many readers believe top executives are as capable of writing useful books about management as they are at running big businesses.

That may explain why a first-time author like Jack Welch got a publisher to fork over a $7.1 million advance for his new memoirs (working the back of an envelope, that’s some 20 times the heftiest advance Peter Drucker ever pulled down). But it’s harder to fathom the shared belief of both publishers and book buyers that CEOs have something new or valuable to say — and, if they do, that they can communicate it effectively.

Having recently plowed through more than a dozen CEO memoirs, I’ve concluded that the publishing and purchasing of such books represents the triumph of hope over experience. With precious few exceptions, books by top executives are ego trips, at worst, and thin gruel, at best. Presumably, we turn to executive memoirs because we want to learn to be better leaders ourselves. There’s the rub. The art of becoming a leader has more to do with insight than with mastering a set of how-tos, and writing a good book requires more understanding than it does experience. Most executive authors are long on experience but short on insight (and draw blanks when it comes to the introspection that makes for great autobiography). Thus, the only value we should expect from executive memoirs is a little practical advice based on experience. Oddly, most books in the genre fall short within this dimension, as well. So what we get for our money is platitudes and self-serving war stories. Below, I review a few exceptions to these rules. But, sadly, these are among the few diamonds to be found in a vast pit of coal.

Doers, Not Thinkers
That few CEOs are insightful about their craft should not be surprising. After all, they are paid to be doers and not thinkers. This isn’t an antibusiness rap: The same holds true for politicians, actors, artists, and athletes who write books. In general, people who are extremely talented at doing something are seldom as adept at theorizing about it or at teaching their skills to others.

Consider an unintentionally hilarious interview with the late sculptor Alexander Calder, which is occasionally replayed on public television. The artist is asked to explain the thought process that went into the creation of his famous mobiles, those fantastic works composed of pieces of brightly colored metal Calder dangled magically on thin pieces of wire, one under the other, in precarious balance. “Sure,” Calder growled, “you take a hunk of metal and some shears, and then you keep cuttin’ the metal ’til the damn thing ain’t tippy when you hang it.” Like many creative geniuses, Calder could innovate, but he couldn’t articulate.

The same was true for the late David Packard, cofounder of Hewlett-Packard. Packard was as much an innovator in his field as Calder was in his. Packard created a marvelous corporation that he led brilliantly over some three decades, during which he introduced numerous managerial techniques — Management By Walking Around (MBWA), for example — that have become standard operating procedure in many businesses. In light of his manifest accomplishments, Packard’s 1995 memoir, The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company, is paradoxically unsatisfying. We go to the book expecting to learn more about the reasoning behind MBWA, why he adopted it, how he practiced it, and its pitfalls and appropriate applications. But we don’t find answers there. Not only does Packard fail to offer a clear exposition of his influential leadership practices, he doesn’t provide practical advice. To gain both insight and useful information about the “HP Way,” we are better off reading one of the many accounts of the corporation proffered by management gurus over the last two decades.

The Packard paradox has been endemic to executive memoirs, starting with the first example of the genre, A New View of Society, written in 1813 by a visionary textile entrepreneur, Robert Owen. In an era when “dark, satanic mills” were the norm, Owen took young children out of his Scottish factory and put them in a school he funded. He invented day care, unemployment insurance, contributory sickness and retirement plans, and a credit union. He reduced his employees’ workdays from 13 to 10 hours, gave them job security during recessions, and established their right to appeal supervisors’ ratings of their performance. Most radical of all, he provided a clean, safe working environment. As a result, Owen became fabulously rich — and he shared the wealth with his employees.

Had Owen also been able to explain effectively the rationale behind his practices to his fellow leaders of the Industrial Revolution, the world might have been spared the trauma of Marxism. But, alas, Owen was no storyteller. Not only was his prose style overblown and his presentation of subject matter quirky, he was incapable of putting forth a rational argument that other businessmen found convincing.

Sloan’s Value System
It turns out that writing is a core incompetence of many a great executive. A century after Owen’s death, GM’s fabled CEO, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., addressed that all-too-common shortcoming with a generic solution: the ghostwriter. Sloan’s “as told to” 1963 opus, My Years with General Motors, stands today as the clearest expression of the managerial philosophy that dominated American corporations for most of the 20th century. Sloan (and his ghostwriter) got it right: Sloan documents in insightful, authoritative, and useful detail how, under his leadership, General Motors grew from a nearly bankrupt enterprise in the early part of the century to the world’s greatest industrial corporation when he retired in 1956.

To the contemporary reader, what is particularly striking about Sloan’s book is its unintentional expression of a value system. Only in the writings of F.W. Taylor is there such a relentless commitment to the engineering world view. Profit and growth are stars in his firmament of values, but efficiency is his Polaris. Sloan’s language is that of the calculating engineer working with calipers and a slide rule, his words as cold as the steel he bends to form cars: “economizing,” “utility,” “facts,” “objectivity,” “rationality,” and “maximizing” constitute his working vocabulary. He writes:

And since, therefore, no one knew, or could prove, where the efficiencies and inefficiencies lay, there was no objective basis for the allocation of new investment.… [So we developed] statistics correctly reflecting the relation between the net return and the invested capital of each operating division — the true measure of efficiency.

Sloan’s bugbear is the human element that threatens to gum up the efficient operation of his intricately organized and smoothly functioning corporate machine. In the book’s one acknowledgment of his family life, Sloan makes a passing reference to his wife (he abandons her on the first day of a European vacation in order to return to business in Detroit). And only two individuals at GM are portrayed in human terms. The first is Billy Durant, the entrepreneur who masterminded the creation of the company, who is dismissed by Sloan as a relic of outmoded thinking: “Mr. Durant was a great man with a great weakness — he could create but not administer.”

The second is the researcher Charles F. Kettering, who is treated with gentle disdain for his failed attempts to develop an air-cooled engine. Sloan details at painful length how Kettering’s attempt at creativity was simply bad business, concluding that “it was not necessary to lead in design or run the risks of untried experiment.” And true to his word, GM was never again a technological leader. Instead, it became the domain of the engineer and not the creative scientist, the arena of the marketer and financier and not the innovator, and, especially, the world of the administrator and not the entrepreneur.

To this day, My Years with General Motors remains the definitive text on how, in the early 1920s, Sloan solved the problem of how to organize a giant corporation by decentralizing manufacturing and, at the same time, centralizing corporate policy and financial controls. With this stroke of genius he laid the groundwork for an organizational model that dominated American industry for more than half a century. More important, he advanced a managerial mind-set — and set of values — that has pervaded the world of big business over the four decades following World War II.

Up the Humanist
It wasn’t until 1970 that a successful corporate leader would write a bestseller that offered a philosophy of management contrary to Sloan’s. That iconoclast was Robert Townsend, whose Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits turned Sloan upside down by advocating “the human side of enterprise,” a concept put forward in 1960 by the scholar Douglas McGregor. Townsend also embraced Peter Drucker’s dictum that effectiveness was a more appropriate managerial metric than efficiency. Although Townsend gave due credit to McGregor and Drucker, more remarkable than the granting of generous acknowledgments was the fact that here, at last, was a CEO who wrote his own book.

Bob Townsend (confession: he was my mentor) was also the funniest CEO who ever made big bucks in big business; at least, he wrote the funniest executive memoir (“Reorganizing should be undergone about as often as major surgery. And should be as well planned and as swiftly executed.”). It was Townsend who, in the 1960s, made Avis “Try Harder,” and in the book he distills the essence of that corporate transformation to help other executives stop their corporations “from stifling people and strangling profits.”

Prior to Townsend, Fortune 500 companies had been headed by Sloan clones in gray flannel suits or would-be Harold Geneens steeped in finance, strategy, and dictatorial habits. Townsend’s greatest accomplishment was to turn the focus of executive attention away from administration and toward leadership.

The publishing world actually was surprised when Townsend’s easy-to-digest bits of advice were accepted as a breath of fresh air by young leaders of that time who were persuaded by his argument that it makes sense for leaders to treat their people the way they would want
to be treated themselves. Moreover, Townsend’s mocking of bureaucracy struck a positive chord, particularly because, when it came to bashing it, he practiced what he preached: “Fire the PR Department,” he wrote, famously, and ditto the law, purchasing, personnel, and other staffs headed by “VPs of.” And at Avis he did!

The New Leadership
To Bob Townsend, a leader is one who manifests vision, integrity, and courage in a consistent pattern of behavior that inspires trust, motivation, and responsibility on the part of followers, who, in turn, become leaders themselves. And that’s the kind of leader he was. Over the following decades, it became clear that Townsend had been the first of a new breed of corporate leaders: men and women who evaluated the success of their leadership not only in terms of efficiency, but also by humanistic metrics. These new leaders considered themselves successful when they were developing their followers, and their measure was the extent to which those followers were becoming leaders themselves.

The most personal statement of this new philosophy was made by the former CEO of Herman Miller, Max DePree, in 1989. His contribution to our knowledge about corporate leadership was his insight that CEOs have a responsibility to develop other leaders in their organizations. In his remarkable little book Leadership Is an Art, DePree argues that one can’t accurately assess the quality of leaders by looking right at them; instead, one must examine the behavior of their followers:

The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body. The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict?

DePree believed that employees have a right to be treated with respect, a right that is theirs by virtue of their humanity, and, therefore, not one that can be either granted or rescinded by management. In essence, that was the point that Robert Owen tried to convey nearly 200 years earlier.

Over the last two decades, several CEOs have written about leadership from the same perspective as Townsend and DePree, but few have been as original, and only one (that I am aware of) has been written by the leader’s own hand. Two recent ghostwritten memoirs are noteworthy for their practicality and sound advice. Gordon Bethune’s From Worst to First: Behind the Scenes of Continental’s Remarkable Comeback (1998) describes in useful detail what he and his colleagues at Continental did to bring that airline back from the brink of extinction. Bethune destroys the myth of the CEO as a grand strategist who single-handedly devises a brilliant plan to save a company. Instead, he argues that leadership is about execution and implementation. What leaders actually do is reframe the thinking of followers, focus their attention on doing what counts, and reward them when they do it. Bethune shows that leadership is not about power or charisma. Instead, it comes down to creating conditions under which all employees routinely do what is needed to create and retain customers.

The ghostwriter did an admirable job of capturing Bethune’s attractive wit and informality, but did the CEO a disservice by failing to acknowledge that most of Bethune’s practices had been pioneered by other executives. Perhaps we can’t expect CEOs to be as generous as Bob Townsend in acknowledging their debt to scholars, but shouldn’t they recognize other leaders, especially those in their own industry, who paved the way for them?

Bethune could have easily tipped his hat to SAS’s Jan Carlzon, whose Moments of Truth: New Strategies for Today’s Customer-Driven Economy (1987) brilliantly documents the process by which he changed the culture of his airline. Indeed, Bethune might have gained credibility by mentioning Carlzon because, although he did basically the same things as the Swedish CEO, Bethune appears to have done so with greater, and certainly more lasting, effect. (Incidentally, Carlzon’s book was better edited than Bethune’s annoyingly repetitious text.)

What Bethune accomplished in a glamorous service industry, Nucor Steel CEO Ken Iverson equaled, if not surpassed, in a dirty “old economy” industry. In his ghostwritten 1997 memoir, Plain Talk: Lessons from a Business Maverick, Iverson explains how he and his colleagues created the most productive American steel company and, more impressively, figured out how to compete against low-cost foreign producers. In essence, they did it the old-fashioned way, as pioneered by Robert Owen and made contemporary by the likes of Townsend and DePree: In Iverson’s words, “What we did was push aside the notion that managers and employees have inherently separate interests. We’ve joined with our employees to pursue a goal we can all believe in: long-term survival.”

Nucor’s methods are twofold: participation by everyone in decision making, and concomitant participation in the financial gains (and losses) that result from the joint efforts of all employees. Although there is nothing new in that, what is unusual — and invaluable — is Iverson’s warning that, once leaders have adopted the course of participation, they must discipline themselves to stay on it. He warns managers who deviate from the path they have set that they risk creating mistrust. In the current business environment, Iverson is a managerial maverick in that he constantly thinks long term: “Can we expect employees to be loyal and motivated if we lay them off at every dip in the economy, while we go on padding our own pockets?”

Because Iverson practiced what he preached, he earned the right to boast that Nucor had the lowest labor cost per ton of steel and the highest-paid workers in the industry (and that, during Nucor’s only bad year, he was the lowest-paid Fortune 500 CEO). Although admirably concise, Plain Talk leaves the reader wanting more details about how Iverson handled the inevitable conflicts and complexities entailed in worker participation.

Almost as Hard as Learning
I have saved the best-written book for last. Katharine Graham’s 1997 Personal History, produced by her own hand, is the only book authored by a woman CEO of a then–Fortune 500 company. (In 2001, the Washington Post Company ranked 610.) It is also the only CEO memoir that treats readers as intelligent beings (rather than illiterates who need everything spelled out for them in the imbecilic style that publishers dictate as appropriate for business books). She tells her story masterfully and engagingly, and leaves it to readers to decide what, if anything, is applicable to their own careers and businesses. And, as the leader of the Washington Post Company during the Watergate era, she has a fascinating story to tell.

In contrast to other (male) executives, Graham is insightful about herself and others, introspective, willing to admit mistakes, and ready to own up to her fears and insecurities. Why is it that the men who write executive memoirs never make mistakes, never have doubts, and are unfailingly certain they are right? In my view, almost every business leader, male or female, would profit from Graham’s wise interpretations of her experiences as head of the Washington Post Company.

The only thing unique about her situation was the way Graham found herself in that job: She was thrust into the position in her 40s when her husband, the company’s CEO, committed suicide. Working from that tragic beginning, Graham documents how she set out to learn what corporate leaders must know and do in order to succeed. We are taken along as she seeks advice, listens to her people, and reflects honestly on the relative effectiveness of her own (initially halting) efforts to lead. We see how, through her willingness to change herself, she quickly grows into one of the most respected CEOs in her industry. As she becomes a leader, Graham belies the myth that one must be a testosterone-charged ex–hockey player like Jack Welch to be a strong, successful CEO.

As Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote in a tribute to Katharine Graham when she passed away last July at the age of 84, “she was The Man in the quintessential man’s town. She was so imposing and respected that even though she told people to call her Kay, they always ended up calling her Mrs. Graham. But the really cool thing about America’s most powerful woman was that she was a girl [who] loved to flirt with men and seek their counsel and chat about clothes and perfume with women.”

Parenthetically, she also caused me to question the rationale so often put forward by CEOs to justify their exorbitant salaries — to wit, that they are “indispensable.” Her ability to learn and to grow on the job should demonstrate to would-be leaders that, with the will to lead, almost anyone with integrity, humility, and respect for his or her followers can learn to be an effective leader. If nothing else, Katharine Graham shows us that with the investment of a little practice and self-discipline, running a successful company may not be much harder than writing a great book.

James O’Toole,
James O’Toole is research professor in the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. His research and writings have been in the areas of political philosophy, planning, corporate culture, and leadership. He has written 13 books, including Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom (Jossey-Bass Inc., 1995).
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