InReview – Issue 31

House of Cards: Confessions of an Enron Executive by Lynn Brewer with Matthew Scott Hansen; Virtual, 312 pp.

Lynn Brewer worked at Enron for three years in a variety of roles encompassing risk management, e-commerce, and financial derivatives. She is presently the chairman of the International Society of Ethics Examiners. Her self-published book is available through the usual channels.

Brewer is relatively effective at translating a difficult subject into a fast-paced, easy to follow story line. Her book presents a believable, sad commentary on corporate politics at its worst, aided by a lack of internal controls and an ethical climate that made Enron’s downfall inevitable. Though anyone with experience in a large company can understand how some of these events can happen on a really bad day at the office, House of Cards describes the worst day imaginable, repeated over and over again.

Despite this book being interesting to read, it has some weaknesses. First, the subtitle is misleading, as Brewer’s roles at Enron seemed to be at the lower management level, not the executive level. Perhaps “A View from the Trenches” would be more credible. Similarly, the back cover refers to Brewer’s background in accounting and law. Yes, she worked in support in these areas, but has no college degree or professional credentials. To her credit, she’s clear about this in the text.

In the opening chapter, she documents her difficult background of broken family relationships, broken marriages, job losses and the like. We are set up for some naive responses to various work situations, and indeed this is the case. Further, much of the “office gossip” in the book would be best left unstated. Perhaps Harper Collins decided the book didn’t meet its publishing standards, rather than the plot implied by the banner on the book’s cover: “The Book Harper Collins Signed Then Refused to Publish!”

In spite of all of this, the book offers insights about Enron (or any company without reasonable financial and ethical controls) that make it worth reading. Lynn Brewer was an observer who gives us a rough sketch from the inside of Enron. But as with any rough sketch, much of the content may be the result of the artist’s interpretation.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Accountability: Freedom and Responsibility without Control by Rob Lebow and Randy Spitzer; San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2002; ix, 258 pp.

Rob Lebow is chairman of the Lebow Company and co-chairman of Tomorrow’s Workplace, Inc. He has authored and co-authored several books. Randy Spitzer is executive vice president of Tomorrow’s Workplace. He has been involved with corporate training at Pepsi-Cola Bottlers, AT&T and Saudi Aramco.

The book’s premise is spelled out in the title. Accountability is accomplished by giving people freedom and responsibility. “Stop managing people and treat them like adults. Only hire people you trust and then trust them. Create a workplace that encourages and demands accountability; and if you have dead wood in the organization, it’s management’s fault–do something about it.”

The book is written in narrative style. Several strangers meet on a train from Denver to Los Angeles. Compartment assignments and table assignments for meals throw just the right people together, enabling a discussion of business principles. Though not to the level of The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox (the best of the narrative style business books, in my opinion), the story makes the read interesting and fun.

The sequence of conversations enables the authors to lay out their premise, illustrate it, and then respond to a series of objections. They build a good case for treating people well and driving fear out of the workplace. The key points are all summarized in tables and lists, making it easy to walk away with the fundamental principles.

I have three criticisms of the book. The first is minor. The hero of the story (a retired CEO turned consultant) is too perfect, turning the book into a hard sell. He is kind, wise, old, experienced, and even more, considerate of the waiters and support staff on the train. “Let’s let the staff clean up our table so they can take their break,” is one of many examples (p. 91). He has no doubts about his vision, and sees no ambiguities or difficulties in his proposals.

The second criticism is more substantial. The authors propose throwing out all incentive based systems, all performance reviews, even all job descriptions. People should define their own work processes and create their own job descriptions, they argue. I believe the authors are correct at one level, where the person doing the work knows more about it than anyone else. But complex products like software or automobiles require a higher-level architecture that cannot be accomplished “bottoms up.” No doubt they are aware of this distinction, but it is missing from the argument.

Finally, it seems strange for a book on this subject, written in 2002, to have no mention of Enron or other ethics scandals of recent years. The authors would likely regard these environments as chaos rather than the kind of freedom they are describing. However, if I had been sitting at the table on the dining car, this is one of many issues I would have raised. Ethics is not a subject distinct from accountability, but tightly woven with it.

In spite of these criticisms, however, this book should be read and studied. The ideas are important. While the book raises more questions than it answers, the ensuing discussions may be a significant part of the book’s value. I highly recommend starting these discussions with this book.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Terminator 3 (T3): Rise of the Machines directed by Jonathan Mostow

The Terminator mythology explores our preconscious fear that we’ll one day be destroyed by the technology we’ve created. This third film in the series takes place on “judgment day” (title of the second film), the day the machines destroy human civilization. What T3 amounts to is a mega-budget demolition derby between two terminators sent from the future–an evil one that with supermodel looks (Kristanna Loken) and an older one reprogrammed to be good (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The two terminators fight over the life of John Conner (Nick Stahl), a wayward construction worker destined to lead humanity’s future victory against the machines, but only after he marries his junior high school sweetheart who happens to be a veterinarian.

OK, this should start sounding a bit silly. And it is. Though some critics have dubbed T3 as “headier” than the other two, it really isn’t. T3 doesn’t even address a basic question that’s central to its own premise. That is, “why are the machines bent on destroying their creators?” The answer is in their programming. The machines “rise” out of a military computer network called “Skynet”–a failsafe system designed to stay on-line no matter what. So what’s the greatest threat to such a program? As with any software, human error. Therefore, to prevent such error, the threat must be eliminated. As evil as they appear, the machines are only doing what humans programmed them to do. In other words, human error created a program whose purpose is to eliminate all possibilities for human error, and therefore all humans–a conundrum that reflects the idea that destructive technologies are only extensions of our own imperfections. Since T3 seems to ignore the thoughtful implications of its own storyline, it’s worth seeing only if you’re curious about how many buildings and vehicles can be destroyed with a $165 million dollar budget. At this, T3 is a smashing success. But don’t expect much more.

Reviewed by Gerard Beenen