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InReview – Issue 36

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan; New York, Crown Business, 2002; viii, 278 pp.

Larry Bossidy is the retired Chairman and CEO of Honeywell International. Ram Charan is a CEO advisor and former professor at Harvard Business School and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

There are lots of books on strategy and leadership. By contrast, this book is about achieving results from strategy, about followup, and meeting commitments. It is an outstanding book about a very important, often neglected topic.

Execution is more than a set of top-down commands–“It’s time to execute.” This book lays out specific steps that any leader can follow. Rather than say we will grow the business by 25 percent next year, it is important to ask the next set of questions. How will we do this? What people, information, and resources are required to do this? When this is done, there are other questions to ask. Have we created a culture that will allow the steps to take place? Are reward systems in place that reward not just performance to goals, but how the work is done?

In a practical way, this book spells out steps that would allow any business leader to execute. But execution is the key, not just talking about it. The book is well illustrated with real business examples, both successes and failures. I wish I had had this book to read ten years ago in my prior business experience. I also wish several of my former bosses had read the book.

That said, the book has a few weaknesses, which are more easily seen at this point in time. Some of the positive examples used in the book, particularly Dick Brown at EDS, are held up as the model of execution. Yet things have not gone well at EDS more recently, with Dick Brown being forced to step down. Similarly Bossidy’s mentor, Jack Welch of GE, is held up as a great example of execution. Yet a recent, outstanding interview with new CEO Jeffrey Immelt in Fortune magazine (April 5, 2004), indicates a new direction is now being followed at GE. Rather than depending solely on execution, Immelt is building the future of his company on innovation, a subject about which this book is silent. Perhaps this will be rectified in Bossidy’s upcoming new book, Confronting Reality:Avoiding the Trap of Yesterday’s Solution, due out in October 2004. I am eager to find out.

I am not intending to second-guess the book with 20/20 hindsight. Rather, I point to the flaw of defining one single requirement for any company leader, whether it is execution, vision, strategy, innovation, ethics, or any number of very important areas where a company leader must be strong.

In spite of the one-dimensional weakness of this book, execution is a vital component for any company. Don’t miss this one. Just don’t take “execution” as the only business area requiring attention.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich; New York, Henry Holt and Co., 2001; 230 pp.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 12 books and a frequent contributor to Time, Harpers, and The New Republic.

For this book, she went “undercover” as a person trying to live on a minimum wage. In three different geographic locations in the U.S. (Florida, Maine, and Minnesota) she tried to make it as a waitress, a hotel maid, a house cleaner, and a retail sales worker at Wal-Mart. Her goal was to see if a person would be able to “get by” on minimum wages, and her conclusion was no.

The book is filled with insights into circumstances that many of us will never experience. Transportation, housing, and meals are all extremely difficult to attain with when one has almost no resources. Having an education would seem to offer the ability to cope, but Ehrenreich found her education was neutralized by the difficulty of her situation. Her first person accounts are humorous, insightful, poignant, and challenging. It was difficult to comprehend the lack of management ability in managers that may well characterize the minimum wage world. This is not a pretty picture of life and work in America.

In spite of the insights Ehrenreich offers in this book, I found it more frustrating than helpful. In the midst of this experiment in poverty, she insists on living alone, having a car, and eating at fast food restaurants. I expect that making it on a minimum wage job would not allow any of these things, at least at the beginning when there are so many “startup costs.” Further, she shows very little business insight (into running a cleaning service, for instance) but this does not keep her from critiquing costs, management practices, etc. And I couldn’t help but think about the book The Color of Water, a success story from a far worse position than Ehrenreich ever was in.

Business people should read this book in spite of these concerns. She raises some very legitimate issues that need to be heard. The problem is, the distractions I have pointed out may drown out the needed message.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First by Shel Horowitz; Northampton, MA, AWM Books, 2003; xiv, 160 pp.

This remarkable little book offers radical, creative ideas for business and marketing, for a business world that will be unfamiliar to many. Horowitz looks for an alternative to the dog-eat-dog world of winners and losers by promoting a strategy of win-win.

He takes the position that market share is not the key issue (I win, they lose). Rather, the business should set goals for business, revenue, and customers that can make it successful regardless of what competitors do. He thus develops marketing strategies for teaming with customers, partners, even competitors.

The book is filled with illustrations of companies finding ways to be heard on the Internet, connecting with potential clients in a cost effective manner, and creating unusual and effective partnerships. Most of the focus is on small companies, though the book is sprinkled with some big company examples (e.g. Saturn, Ben & Jerry’s). True to his word, the book is filled with ideas and resource references for his own work (both free and fee-based) and for his competitors.

This is a very personal book. Horowitz’s lifestyle, training in journalism, and passion for a frugal life of abundance come through every page. Yet he is very willing to consider ideas that differ from his own, bringing in points from competitors and critiques to challenge his own argument.

Nonetheless, this book may leave many unconvinced. He touches only briefly (chapter 10) on the problem of trying to work with those from the “I win means you lose” school, but I believe this is a tougher problem for large companies than he acknowledges. I also believe his viewpoint is strongly biased by his personal, individual consulting experience, and may not generalize as readily as he thinks to the larger business world.

But these are not reasons for any business person to skip this remarkable book. I believe the ideas are very broadly applicable (though I would not go as far as Horowitz), and every business person should be confronted with this other way of doing business. I highly recommend this book.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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