Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hua Hu Ching, Fifty-two

I tend to find ancient Chinese texts inscrutable, but then a gem pops up, like this one from Brian Walker's translation of the Hua Hu Ching, which is ascribed to Lao Tzu:

"Do you think you can clear your mind by sitting
constantly in silent meditation?
This makes your mind narrow, not clear.
Integral awareness is fluid and adaptable, present
in all places and at all times.
That is true meditation.

Who can attain clarity and simplicity by avoiding the
The Tao is clear and simple, and it doesn't avoid the

Why not simply honor your parents,
love your children,
help your brothers and sisters,
be faithful to your friends,
care for your mate with devotion,
complete your work cooperatively and joyfully,
assume responsibility for problems,
practice virtue without first demanding it of others,
understand the higher truths yet retain an ordinary

That would be true clarity, true simplicity, true

A shortlist of naming reads

My research for a recent article on trade and brand naming yielded a shortlist of books that are worth checking out whether you find yourself involved in a naming project or are simply curious about how great names are coined:

Alex Frankel's Wordcraft is a New Yorker-style treatment that uses high-profile naming efforts, such as Viagra, Blackberry, and Accenture, to introduce and explore the subject in an entertaining, accessible way.

Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland teamed up to write The Making of a Name, which offers encyclopedic coverage of the discipline of naming and earned a permanent spot in my reference library.

And finally, Igor International, a San Francisco-based naming boutique with some great names to its credit, offers a free 90-page PDF titled Naming the Perfect Beast, which describes how that firm approaches the naming process and is well worth the download.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Business reporters bite, too.

Certain business journalists have been getting criticized for hitching free rides on private jets and taking Asian junkets from the companies on which they report. Everyone is angry that they are suckling at the corporate teat. So, I was happy to see a more positive view of the ilk in the lead story in this week's Working Knowledge e-letter from Harvard Business School. (Get a free subscription here.)

HBS prof Gregory Miller analyzed corporate financial scandals and was surprised to find that 29% of the time the business press beats the SEC to the story. Further, when scandals do come to light, business journalists, in both the mainstream media and the trades, add a great deal of new knowledge to the investigations. His conclusion: Business journalists are pretty good watchdogs.

That makes me feel better about never getting offered any of the really great swag.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Coca-Cola's moral purpose?

Consultant Nikos Mourkogiannis writes in his recent book that the key to corporate greatness is having a "moral purpose" and then, suggests that Coke needs a new one:

“The Purpose of Coke was, in my view, to provide freedom in a bottle.

And a powerful purpose it was. Talk all you want about Ronald Reagan bringing down the Berlin Wall, there are other factors. Blue jeans. Rock music. And Coke. Indeed, as the Wall was crumbling, Coke was shipping truckloads of Coke to Eastern Europe.

Strategies must be re-examined every few years. If a company is lucky, Purpose is forever - or, at least, for two or three decades. And that seemed to be the case with Coke in the 1980s and 1990s. Freedom was spreading around the world. And Coke was always there, a celebration of that freedom, a kind of pop champagne.

Cut to 2003, and America's invasion of Iraq. The President's advisors spoke of being welcomed with flowers; one can imagine Coke loading cases of soft drinks for Basra and Baghdad. But then everything went wrong. America's traditional allies sat on their hands. Civil war followed. The liberators were described as imperialists, invaders, colonialists.

That harsh assessment has persisted ever since. And around the world, hostility to America has been extended to products that symbolize the United States. What does Coke represent now? As a global brand, it's the pause that refreshes -- that is, the pause that refreshes oppressors. Freedom? For a taste of that, Muslims drink sodas produced and distributed by their religious brothers. And, in Europe, other companies have begun to believe that Coke's market share just might be vulnerable.

Can Coke find a new marketing strategy to address this changed perception? I think not. Such a strategy would be hostage to ongoing political and military development. Coke could not hope to find a message powerful and seductive enough to change negative perceptions.

Coke has had a long run with its global Purpose. Now it is time for a new one. And although, as a consultant, I like getting paid for advice like this, here is the answer, free of charge--water.

Consider: back when Coke became a global brand, one of its selling points was that it was safe to drink. In places where the local water might be risky to drink, Coke was a beverage you could trust-- it didn't make you sick.

Now, in many places, water is once again an issue. This time, it's not just purity, it's scarcity. What Coke needs to do abroad is what it's already doing in America--wean consumers off sugar-based drinks, sell them 'healthy' beverages.

Coke, in short, needs to make its Purpose a socially redeeming one: alleviating thirst around the world."

A moral purpose sounds great, but I'm not sure about the reasoning that underlies it. First, both of Coke's purposes sound more like market positioning to me. Was freedom ever the company's purpose? And trading two bucks for a bottle of Coke's Dasani water might allieviate your thirst, but isn't profit Coke's purpose? Second, I tend to agree with Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand and economist Milton Friedman that making money -- within the proper bounds -- is a moral purpose in itself. So why exactly does a company need some other purpose?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

No easy fix for healthcare

Last week, President Bush offered his plan for getting our runaway healthcare system under control, which, in turn, signaled the commencement of the usual hubbub that arises anytime anyone messes with the status quo in this country. Unfortunately, the debate over the efficacy of the President's plan distracts us from the main issue: our healthcare system, like many others around the world, is going to "hit the wall" in the near future.

We must fundamentally change our healthcare system, say the experts at IBM's Center for Healthcare Management. Its costs are out of control. We already spend 16 percent of the nation's GDP, more than $2 trillion annually and more than any other country, on healthcare. In 2005, they point out, that amount was more than the entire individual GDPs of all but five of the world's nations. Further, we don't get a very good return on our investment. The World Health Organization ranks the performance of the U.S. healthcare system 37th in the world.

The problem is that we need systemic change that must be approached in a systematic way (remember Deming). To get an idea of what that would entail, you might want to read IBM's white paper, Healthcare 2015. Editing it gave me an entirely new perspective on the healthcare dilemma; it also made the shortcomings of the anemic solutions we're typically offered dismaying clear.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Getting to know Walt

If you're of a certain age, you may have memories like mine of the whole family sitting in front of the TV on Sunday evenings. In those days, the the main event was Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, which Walt himself hosted and which my family watched in glorious black and white.

In that pre-Michael Jackson world, Walt seemed like the kind of adult a kid might actually enjoy hanging out with, especially if you could hang out at Disneyland. Oddly enough, 40 years later, I got a chance to hang out at Disney World when the company's corporate training arm asked me to work with them on a customer service book, and I did actually enjoy it.

One of the things I discovered on the job was that Walt's TV show was simply a means to an end. In the early 1950s, he had an idea for a new kind of amusement park. His brother Roy, who held the company purse strings and was convinced that this was just another of "Walt's screwy ideas," would not finance it.

But Walt would not drop the idea. He formed a new company, which he financed by borrowing against his life insurance and selling his new vacation home. Eventually, he found a bank willing to lend him some more seed money and Roy, finally bowing to Walt's fixation, got on board. Then, ABC came knocking. Anxious to build its marketshare with a Disney show, ABC agreed to invest a few million dollars in Disneyland as part of the package and Walt's dream became a reality.

Walt used his hugely popular TV show to promote Disneyland to a nationwide audience. The park opened to sell-out crowds and ABC fanned the flames by televising the event. Soon, every kid in the country had to go to Anaheim and the Walt Disney Company was off on a long run of profitable growth.

Walt's been on my mind again lately because I finally got around to Neal Gabler's fine new bio of the man. It's readable, comprehensive (633 pages plus a couple of hundred pages of notes), and objective, which is great news -- most Walt bios are either funded by Disney or written by people who have axes to grind.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Where's J.P. Morgan when you need him?

Did you know that J.P Morgan tried to roll-up the U.S. auto industry back in late 1907 and early 1908? Former GM communication exec William Pelfrey tells the story in Billy, Alfred, and the General (Amacom). The emerging auto industry was bracing for a shake-out when Buick's Billy Durant tried to broker a deal in which the Big Four -- Ford, Maxwell-Briscoe, Buick, and Reo -- would merge in a U.S. Steel-type scheme under the auspices of Morgan and Company. It was Henry Ford who threw a spanner in the works by refusing to invest in the new company's stock and demanding a $3 million cash payment. Durant moved ahead on his own, merging Buick with Oldsmobile under a newly formed holding company named General Motors.

Today, Ford announced it lost $12.7 billion in 2006 -- the biggest loss in its 103 years -- and doesn't expect an upturn until 2009. GM is having a better year, but it took its big hit to the tune of $8.6 billion last year. Maybe what's left of Detroit should be looking for a modern-day Morgan.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Historic business at Jamestown

For some unknown reason I grew up thinking that this country was founded by the Pilgrims in their search for religious freedom. I was quickly disabused of that silly notion after relocating a couple of miles down the road from Jamestown Island in Virginia. That's where the first permanent English settlement in the New World was established in 1607 -- 13 years before the Mayflower bumped up against Plymouth Rock.

I also discovered that spirituality was not the primary impetus behind the founding of this nation. Jamestown's colonists came here to make money and they were sponsored by the Virginia Company, which wanted a material return on its investment.

Jamestown has been in the news the past couple of years because archaeologist Bill Kelso discovered the remains of the original 1607 fort, a site most experts believed had eroded into the river long ago. He and his team have recovered thousands of artifacts that relate to our entrepreneurial roots, including the nation's first 'factory,' containing evidence of industrial activities such as glassmaking, metallurgy, pipemaking, as well as an accounting office. All of which have led Kelso to conclude in his new book that the first Jamestown settlers were not as lazy as historians have previously suggested.

You'll surely hear more about Jamestown this year, the 400th anniversary of the landing (if you didn't already notice). It's worth a visit if you're in the area -- for the amazing job that's been done to present the results of the James Fort dig to the general public and to meditate on the business roots of this nation.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A good apology

Leading executive coach Marshall Goldsmith's new book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, hit #1 on today -- an impressive feat for any book, let alone a business book. Surely, one reason why the book is #1 is that you don't have to be an exec -- or even at work -- to benefit from it. I particularly liked Goldsmith's simple, smart advice on apologizing. He writes:

Once you're prepared to apologize, here's the instruction manual:
You say, "I'm sorry."
You add, "I'll try to do better in the future." Not absolutely necessary,
but prudent in my view because when you let go of the past, it's nice to hint at
a brighter future.
And say nothing.
Don't explain it. Don't complicate it. Don't qualify it. You only risk
saying something that will dilute it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Can you say work-for-hire?

John McDonald was a long-time editor at Fortune and the ghostwriter of Alfred P. Sloan's My Years at General Motors. McDonald's posthumous book, A Ghost's Memoir, recounts his collaboration with Sloan and the story of how GM's lawyers, convinced that Sloan's memoir would hurt the company in its ongoing antitrust battle with the US government, tried to kill the book. Sloan agreed to bury it, but McDonald sued GM to force publication and won.

Notwithstanding the fact that McDonald's chutzpah in taking on the world's largest corporation resurrected what turned out to be a classic of the business genre, the story serves as an important cautionary tale for anyone thinking about hiring a ghostwriter. Make sure you own full rights to your book! It's called a work-for-hire contract and it ensures that the ghost can't force you to do anything with it that you don't want to do. There are couple of more tips on hiring and working with a ghost in this article I wrote for Chief Executive last year.

Stevens on Sales Excellence at WebEx

Just a heads-up for sales pros: H.R. Chally CEO Howard Stevens will be discussing the book we wrote together, Achieve Sales Excellence, and the 7 competencies of world-class salespeople in a free, interactive WebEx seminar on Tuesday, January 30 at 1pm EST. Howard's company discovered these competencies as a result of a unique, fourteen-year study of over 80,000 business customers. The finding that intrigued me enough to undertake the book was that these customers rated the salesperson as the most important element in their buying decisions -- over price, quality, reputation, etc. You can register for the hour-long event here.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Shed your delusions

Back when everyone thought that computers everywhere would turn into pumpkins at the stroke of Year 2000, a UK publisher hired me to write a book profiling 21 companies that would surely prosper in the 21st century. Al Ries, the marketing guru, contributed a couple of pages of pithy and entertaining commentary for each company.

Yesterday, Free Press sent me a new book titled The Halo Effect by another pithy commentator, IMD prof Phil Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig mauls books like the one I wrote with Al, especially two infinitely more successful ones, In Search of Excellence and Built to Last. In fact, he checks the subsequent shareholder return and market performance of Peters and Waterman’s 35 Excellent companies and Collins and Porras’ 17 Visionary companies and discovers that the majority of them did not measure up to the S&P 500 average. Worse, the majority of the companies that Collins and Porras used as negative examples actually outperformed the S&P 500.

Why are we so lousy at predicting corporate success? Rosenzweig pegs the problem to nine delusions, of which the primary one is the so-called Halo effect. Namely, "many of the things that we – managers, journalists, professors, and consultants – commonly think contribute to company performance are often attributions based on performance,” he writes. I’m just happy he didn’t get his paws on my book.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Moonwalks as management feats

Until recently, if you asked me to name the heroes of the U.S. space program, I would have chosen astronauts -- guys like Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Then I read Inside NASA, an academic press book reporting a study into the culture norms within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration conducted by American University professor Howard McCurdy. McCurdy interviewed hundreds of NASA insiders, and one of the questions he asked was whom they considered the heroes of the space program. He heard names like Hugh Dryden, Robert Gilruth, Robert Seamans, George Low, and Abe Silverstein. Who were they? “When asked to identify the heroes of the American space program,” writes McCurdy, “NASA engineers and scientists interviewed for this study invariably named their top managers.” Managers as the heroes of the Space Race? That's what got me going on the book I'm working on now, a look at how NASA managed to put a man on the moon.

The main repository, by the way, for material relating to how Apollo was managed is the NASA History Division -- lots of free e-books to read, too, if you happen to get bitten by the space bug.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Are you an Alpha?

Conference Board Review asked me to review Alpha Male Syndrome (HSBP) by Kate Ludeman & Eddie Erlandson, the founders of Worth Ethic Corp down in Austin. The best part of the assignment was the free online assessment the authors are offering on their website. It supposedly tells you whether and what kind of alpha (fe)male you are, and your alpha strengths and weaknesses.

As usual with any kind of business-related personality assessment, I totally failed. I'm down in the dregs of the Alpha Male barrel. Seriously, I scored 4.1 out of 100 in the overall alphadom. Even non-Alphas kick sand on me. Better yet, my score improves significantly when you just consider Alpha Male flaws. So, basically, when the chips are down, I can make matters worse. Hey ho, who wants to be an Alpha anyway.

But try it for yourself. It's really worth the 15 minutes, it's good for laughs, and who knows you might get lucky and learn something about yourself.