How bosses should write books – The Economist

CHIEF EXECUTIVES are not, it goes without saying, the world’s most natural writers. They do not rise to the top without laserlike ambition, a trait that rarely leads to literary reflection. To achieve success, they have to murder their straight-talking selves and master corporate twaddle instead. They need neither fame nor fortune—the main reasons writers go through the agonies that they do. And when they do write, as a business publisher admits, you often “weep for the trees”. Think only of Jack Welch’s paean to great (ie, his own) leadership called “Winning”. Its first pearl of wisdom is: “Winning in business is great, because when companies win, people thrive and grow.”
Your browser does not support the <audio> element.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
So it is with trepidation that Schumpeter celebrates the flourishing of a genre at which most book-lovers would shudder: the CEO memoir. True, it has its drawbacks. The authors are mostly white, male and middle-class. They are neither Hemingways nor Dostoevskys. There is no sex, drugs and only middle-of-the-road rock ’n’ roll. And they can afford the best ghostwriters so it is hard to tell how much is their work anyway.
That said, the genre has many things going for it—especially when the authors are founders of successful firms who, by definition, have mastered the art of telling a good story. It has recently hit its stride with books by Phil Knight, who co-founded Nike, in 2016 and Stephen Schwarzman, co-creator of Blackstone, in 2019. Its newest addition is “Play Nice but Win”, the story of how Michael Dell built the PC company named after him that would eventually change the way computers were made and sold. Ignore the boy-scout title. The book is acidly funny, nail-biting and fast-paced. It is also blessed with a villain from central casting: Carl Icahn, activist investor and publicity hound, whose sparring with Mr Dell gives the story its bite.
Moreover, for those interested in business, such accounts provide a ringside seat for observing some of the big dilemmas of recent decades: staying private or going public; prioritising shareholders or stakeholders; building hardware or software. In a world of unreadable business books and overpriced business schools, it is worth taking CEO memoirs seriously. If nothing else they help expose what most self-styled business gurus get wrong.
The first trait the books celebrate is competitiveness. The memoirs bristle with it. These are not win-win firms created to make the world a better place. Business, as Mr Knight puts it, is “war without the bullets”, fought one sale at a time, which someone inevitably has to lose. In 1988, when Mr Dell was 23 years old and Compaq was his biggest rival, he placed a billboard outside its headquarters in Houston, Texas, with an arrow pointing west towards Austin, where his own four-year-old company was based. “158 miles to opportunity”, it read. In “Shoe Dog”, Nike’s former boss writes about the importance of being first into China to gain an advantage over its competitors. “What a coup that would be,” he writes. “One billion people. Two. Billion. Feet.”
The second factor is how character affects business. In most such books, personality is overshadowed by bloodless abstractions: visions, narratives, missions. In reality, businesses are built by people with flesh-and-blood strengths and weaknesses. Of course, all entrepreneurs crave success. But part of Mr Dell’s genius lay in realising that his triumph would come from complementing his cocky young self with colourful elder statesmen who understood the pitfalls of building a business at lightning speed. The laconic Mr Knight’s sidekick was Jeff Johnson, an oddball so enthusiastic about selling trainers that he wrote endless letters to his exasperated boss. He never got a response, yet the affection between the two men helped make Nike what it is. A cast of Wall Street characters brightens Mr Schwarzman’s book. One of the most memorable is Jimmy Cayne, boss of Bear Stearns, who pigheadedly refused to write a cheque that could years later have saved the bank from collapse.
Third comes candour. Be honest about failure as well as success. Founding a business always comes with what Mr Schwarzman calls “the moment of despair”: when you think you are a master of the universe, but no one else does. In Mr Knight’s case it was the word uttered by his banker that ran through his head as he punched his pillow at night: “equity”, ie, cold, hard cash he needed to inject into his firm. He had none. For Mr Dell, it was the frustration of having Mr Icahn, a master of the soundbite, accusing him of grossly undervaluing Dell when attempting to take it private in 2013. He likens it to being “smacked in the face with a flounder”.
Finally, context. The books all channel the cacophony that surrounds business, coming from employees, customers, competitors, lenders, investors and regulators. This makes keeping a single-minded focus on success so hard. When Dell temporarily goes private in 2013, Mr Dell silently waves goodbye to the “legions of whiners, back-seat drivers, kerbside experts, rear-view-mirror thinkers, and second guessers”. Mr Knight takes issue with what he calls the “bland, generic banner” of business itself. “What we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day brought 50 new problems, 50 tough decisions…and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision, could be the end.”
The lure of self-aggrandisement remains. Mr Schwarzman ends his book with pages of name-dropping. Mr Dell descends into pieties about doing good for the world. Refreshingly, Mr Knight, who in later life studied creative writing, finishes before his tale becomes a dull one of Nike’s success. And the genre has room to develop. Soon, the west coast’s middle-aged tech barons will be itching to tell their stories. The world may wince less if the CEO scribes remember the four Cs: competitiveness, character, candour and context. And if they need a ghostwriter, remember the business hacks who, unlike superstar bosses, toil in obscurity.
For more expert analysis of the biggest stories in economics, business and markets, sign up to Money Talks, our weekly newsletter.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline "How bosses should write books"
A daily newsletter with the best of our journalism
The strange knock-on effect of supply-chain bottlenecks
Organisations embrace flat hierarchies at their peril
The switch to battery power is the latest showdown between Detroit’s heavyweights
The strange knock-on effect of supply-chain bottlenecks
Organisations embrace flat hierarchies at their peril
The switch to battery power is the latest showdown between Detroit’s heavyweights
As flotations boom, we look at what is changing at a key moment in capitalism
The German capital reasserts itself as a business hub
Published since September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”
Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2021. All rights reserved.

source

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *