InReview – Issue 41

Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan; New York, Crown Business, 2004; vii, 264 pp.

Larry Bossidy is the retired chairman and CEO of Honeywell, and former chairman and CEO of Allied Signal before its merger with Honeywell. Ram Charan is a business advisor and former Baker Scholar at the Harvard Business School. Together, Bossidy and Charan wrote Execution.

Execution was an excellent book on getting things done, executing the plan. In Confronting Reality, they start a step earlier. Great execution won’t help a company manufacturing the wrong products, or delivering on a plan based on a business environment that has changed. It is vital that company executives face reality and understand the nature of the world in which they’re doing business. Sometimes this means eliminating a product line that has been a company’s “bread and butter” for many years. Sometimes it means using skills and resources to get into a different business. Sometimes it means moving manufacturing overseas.

As in Execution, Bossidy and Charan do not stop with vague suggestions. They provide a rich set of business illustrations using companies that did things well, and companies that failed to look to the horizon. They go beyond the illustrations to systemic issues that may introduce barriers to doing the right thing. For example, they identify a new set of leadership traits that are vital for operating in this new world — intellectual honesty, comfort with ambiguity, self-confidence, and courage.

Although there is a lot to like about this book, I also was troubled by its tone from the beginning. They tell the story of a manufacturing manager who was cutting costs to compete in a changing business environment. He did all that he could from his perspective, and it wasn’t enough. Someone advised him that he needed to close the plant and move manufacturing overseas. As he looked out at the dedicated plant staff, he reflected on the families represented, and how many of their kids went to school with his kids. In the end he recommended moving manufacturing overseas. He had mixed emotions, yet was thankful someone showed him a fresh perspective, saving his career.

Sometimes such decisions must be made. Yet the authors failed to explore other creative alternatives. For example, Dell recently moved some of its outsourcing back to the U.S. to improve their business model. The manager saved his career by closing the plant, but what about the people who worked for him?

This book lacks the creativity to explore break-out alternatives, not just in the above example, but in many throughout the book. The authors implicitly buy into a single focus on short-term shareholder value — a serious weakness for any business book, in my view.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life by Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson; Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, 2004; xxiv, 296 pp.

Laura Nash is a Senior Research Fellow and Howard Stevenson is the Sarofim-Rock Professor of Business and Administration and senior Associate Dean, both at the Harvard Business School. Both have authored and co-authored many other books.

In an era of superlatives and maximization, we don’t often stop to ask, “How much is enough?” The authors ask this very question, and offer significant insight to anyone interested in an answer. They conclude that most people really seek four distinct, often conflicting goals: happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy. Spending long hours in pursuit of achievement, for example, may leave little time for happiness. It may also mean that the significant things are neglected in favor of the urgent. And at the end of the day, have we contributed to a legacy worth building?

With one main goal, it is easy to remain focused. But with four main goals, there are tradeoffs. Using numerous illustrations and a detailed model, they help us picture how the tradeoffs might work when we are consciously thinking about all four areas.

For this book, they interviewed CEOs and civic leaders, and sprinkled the book with quotes and advice from others evaluating this tradeoff. The end of each chapter summarizes the key points and things to consider. This is a good book that would be useful to refer to from time to time throughout one’s career.

Criticisms? Their detailed model can be so complex that it gets in the way of solutions. The book opens with a story of a chance encounter with Jane, struggling with career issues. I admit I didn’t care for Jane’s whining, and was disappointed to find her resurfacing throughout the book. I would have preferred to hear more from the business leaders the authors interviewed.

Nonetheless, this is a book worth reading and going back to. The very act of reading it pulls you aside from the rush toward achievement, and will be personally and professionally helpful.

Reviewed by Al Erisman