Tuesday, December 23, 2008

One question: Dan Carrison

I was fascinated by the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List as a kid. In those pre-digital days, the Ten Most Wanted - do not approach, they are armed and dangerous - were hung on a clipboard in the local post office. I carefully perused them to be sure none of them were masquerading as my neighbors, friends' parents, or elementary school teachers - or perhaps, just buying a few stamps to send Christmas cards to their gangs.

Dan Carrison, a partner in Semper Fi Consulting and founder of ghostwritersinthesky.com, has resurrected my interest in the list. Dan's new book (his fourth to be published by AMACOM) is From the Bureau to the Boardroom: 30 Management Lessons from the FBI. As the title suggests, the book mines the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which is celebrating its centennial this year, by the way) for business ideas.

I asked Dan about the Most Wanted list - why it was effective and whether it has any business applications. Here's his generous and thought-provoking answer:

I, too, was fascinated, as a kid with the FBI's Most Wanted posters. My first impression was always, "Those tough-looking guys don't stand a chance, with the FBI on their tail." But as I grew older, I wondered why the FBI published their 10 Most Wanted list. After all, they could keep the list as an internal document for all law enforcement agencies, and spare themselves the possibility of public criticism for not having captured a high profile criminal.

The FBI, by broadcasting the names and faces of its Most Wanted criminals, is leveraging the eyes and ears of the tens of millions of citizens who gaze upon the list. It is also creating a whole new level of oversight from the general public. The "pressure is on" to perform! I also think that once our goals are announced, they have a better chance of being achieved, through the benevolent serendipity of the universe.

This concept could work equally well in private enterprise. A Top Ten list of “most wanted” customers, if posted conspicuously, would alert all within the organization—from the boardroom to the mail room—of the desired business that is still “roaming free.” Why shouldn't that be common knowledge? It might surprise many a CEO to discover how few employees in the wide organization have even an inkling of the top targets of the sales department.

The effect could be galvanizing; the list would be a constant reminder of the most desirable accounts “out there” in the marketplace. Each “poster” would be modeled after the real thing—with a flattering photo of the CEO the company wants to do business with, some organizational stats, and a “reward” to the employee who contributes to the establishment of business relations.

Now every employee would be “in the know” and explicitly recruited in the quest. And one never knows what can happen when the entire workforce is being leveraged. For example: a clerk in accounts payable may have a friend who works in the “top tenner” company’s purchasing dept.; a delivery man may have noticed something unusual driving by the company—such as a strange truck pulling away from the loading dock, suggesting a change of vendors; an IT tech may have read something on an industry blog that portends change (and opportunity!) within the top tenner’s infrastructure.

These little bits and pieces of information could prove to be very helpful to the company’s strategists. But the information will not be communicated unless the rank and file is involved in the hunt for new business. A conspicuous Top Ten list would keep the company’s goals fresh in everyone’s mind—especially if there were to be a Reward (such as a tropical vacation for two) for information leading to the “capture” of the client.

By publishing its top ten target customers (i.e., through conspicuous ads and commercials), the company would, like the FBI, invite the pressure of the public. Stockholders would ask about the progress made in reining in the top ten accounts at every shareholder meeting. Business journalists would reference the list, and perhaps even make fun of its ambitiousness. The current suppliers of the top ten companies would be put on notice that determined competition is coming after them and not afraid to say so. And the targeted customers? They would love it!

Just imagine a CEO picking up the Wall Street Journal and seeing his/her own “Wanted” photo posted, and his company listed as the stated business goal of a vendor—publicly, fearlessly, audaciously. The impression could be nothing but positive. The name of the vendor would be forever ingrained in the CEO's consciousness. He would investigate. What kind of company are they? And look! One of the Top Ten has been “captured" and is now doing business with this audacious supplier. The CEO might call that company and ask about their experience with the bold supplier; he might tell his purchasing department to entertain a quote. He might say to himself, “Surely, a vendor willing to go to these lengths—publicly—to acquire my business would do much in the way of customer service to keep it.”

To carry this somewhat fanciful, but eminently doable, metaphor further, there would even be a certain amount of public pressure now exerted on the target customer. He might be asked by his own shareholders or BOD members, “Why haven’t you done business with this vendor who has laid his reputation on the line to work with you? Have you at least spoken to him?”

A vendor is known by its customers; that’s why so many marketing campaigns are eager to list the prestigious organizations already being served. But a vendor can also be known by the customers it wants to serve. The higher the ambition, the stronger the company looks—for surely it wouldn’t aspire to serve a premier customer if it couldn’t actually provide the service. A supplier with the courage to take on such an imaginative initiative as a Top Ten List of Most Wanted Customers would surely be a salient feature on the business landscape.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A criminogenic business world?

I've been following Bernard Madoff's story in the New York Times and Reuters. They say that Madoff has admitted to a $50 billion fraud based on Carlo Ponzi's simple, but timeless pyramid scheme. In the process, Madoff, the former chairman of the NASDAQ, allegedly suckered highly sophisticated investors with too-good-to-be-true returns and perpetrated a business crime that rivals the Enron scandal. The story reminded me of a short book review I wrote for Business 2.0 back in Dec. 2005, when it was still a magazine, titled "Coming Soon: More Scandals."

(Business 2.0) – In the 1990s, corporate America became "a two-bit securities scam." That's the premise of Pump and Dump, a comprehensive history of new-economy scandals, out this month from Rutgers University Press. Authors and sociologists Robert Tillman and Michael Indergaard posit that, in recent years, the two sides of Wall Street merged--the one inhabited by big bankers, and the shady side defined by the "pump and dump," the practice of promoting stocks just long enough to profit from them. (In one grisly example, the book tells of two online stock promoters who were murdered in a Mafia-style execution.) As Congress gutted industry regulations and investor protections over a period of 25 years, the seamy side became the norm. The power brokers behind WorldCom, Enron, and dotcom IPOs all embraced the pump-and-dump idea: Get rich by shifting risk to someone else.

The new-economy crash, the book concludes, had less to do with irrational exuberance than with the birth of a criminogenic business environment. Given loopholes in Sarbanes-Oxley and the organizational change that still linger, the authors predict that new schemes will emerge. If you thought corporate scandals were history, Pump and Dump will make you think again.

A criminogenic business environment? Seems like that's a concept worth mulling over as the Madoff story unravels and the current financial crisis continues to evolve.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Ignorance was bliss

Queen of business communication Dianna Booher has written a new book, Booher's Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors (McGraw-Hill), which is precisely what the title promises. It also comes with an invitation to test your "grammar IQ" online at Booher'sRules.com. Of course, I couldn't resist that. I answered the 25 multiple-choice questions and some of them were tough. I figured I probably missed one or two, but what the hell, copy editors and proofreaders need to earn a living, too. Then, I got my score...76 percent! Now, I'm reading the book.

Monday, December 1, 2008

s+b's Best Business Books 2008

I had the pleasure of working with a great team of writers while editing this year's Best Business Books special section in the Winter 2008 issue of strategy+business. Congrats to all the Best Books authors and the essay writers. The entire pdf is available here; my intro is below:

Social critic John Ruskin once wrote, “Life being very short, and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books.” Agreed, but that’s easier said than done when the production output of business books exceeded 7,600 titles last year.

Our annual review can help. It whittles the towering stacks down to three dozen books, covered in 10 essays written by a stellar group of commentators, including distinguished newcomers to this magazine like Margaret Wheatley and seasoned veterans like James O’Toole.

In choosing the year’s best business books, we made long lists of likely candidates, but each writer selected which works to read and review for himself or herself. That makes the connections and contradictions between these essays all the more unexpected and interesting.

For example, Nell Minow, cofounder of the Corporate Library, points out that biographies and memoirs are always subject to inherent bias in the selection and presentation of facts. We see this bias in the contrast between Ted Sorensen’s memoir, Counselor, one of Minow’s selections, and the portrait of Sorensen that Robert Schlesinger paints in White House Ghosts, one of Michael Schrage’s picks as a best book on rhetoric.

Another example: Wheatley and Carole Schwinn’s passionate and provocative essay on capitalism and community reviews books that explore the collision of the Western economic perspective and globalization. The theme reemerges in Kishore Mahbubani’s The New Asian Hemisphere, a selection of former Economist editor Marc Levinson in his essay on globalization, and then surfaces again in Pankaj Ghemawat’s Re­defining Global Strategy, a selection in the strategy essay by IMD Professor Phil Rosenzweig.

The business ramifications of digital technology echo through Catharine P. Taylor’s insider’s review of marketing books and the essay on innovation by New York Times Magazine contributing writer Jon Gertner. And it returns again in Clayton M. Christensen’s Disrupting Class, a selection in the essay on books about human capital by strategy+business Contributing Editor Sally Helgesen.

Ultimately, choosing best books in any genre is a wonderfully subjective pursuit in which the only opinion that really counts is that of the individual reader. You may agree or disagree with our choices for this year’s best business books, but be assured they are all worthy of your quiet hours.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

No nepotism required

Hey! Google Alerts emailed me an unexpected link to my nephew, Nick. Nick took a course in Peru last summer and he brought back a thoughtful, honest, and engrossing story about the trip titled An Open Window--and I'm very happy to report that I can say that as a reader and editor, not just as an uncle. You can read about what he discovered on a bus trip through wheat fields high in the Andes here.

By the way, Nick's an English major, who is graduating from VCU next month. I'd guess that my brother is ready to give up his long-term lease on the kid and given this sample of Nick's work, I think any magazine would be lucky to take over payments.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

An Insider's Guide to Deal Making

I've been immersed in M&A for much of 2008 - not making deals, but helping edit two books about them. One of them has been released, and thanks to the economics of e-books and the beneficence of Booz & Company and strategy+business, you can download it for free!

The CFO as Deal Maker: Thought Leaders on M&A Success is a unique collection of interviews with 15 CFOs of major companies in diverse industries. These are M&A insiders who been involved in some of the biggest deals in recent years: Jose Antonio Alvarez, who helped Spain's Banco Santander grab a piece of the $98.5 billion acquisition of ABN Amro; Mutlaq H. Al-Morished, who engineered Saudi Basic Industries' $11.6 billion acquisition of GE's plastics division; and, Aditya Mittal, who managed Mittal Steel's $38 billion acquisition of Arcelor. Add in the interviews with the CFOs at Johnson & Johnson, Telefonica, E.ON, Henkel, BASF, etc., and you've got an M&A dream team.

These interviews are impressive not just for the credibility and experience of the subjects, but also for their content. Each subject was interviewed by a team composed of Booz & Company M&A experts and a professional journalist. The result is a set of very tight and pithy interviews that are filled with practical, actionable ideas. Admittedly, having been involved with the project, I'm prejudiced, but it won't cost you anything to see if I'm just blowing smoke.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Managers as directors

I've long been curious about the parallels between managing business projects and directing movies and plays. It seems like the work has many similarities: ad hoc teams; one-off goals; short-term timelines; fixed budgets; nebulous decision rights and chains of command. I've even got preliminary notes for a management book based on the study of highly successful directors -- Hitchcock, Lean, Capra, Spielberg -- gathering dust in my file drawer.

So, I enjoyed reading the new paperback edition of Notes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director's Chair (Walker & Company) by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich. Written for stage directors, it's a slim book of brief lessons (most are just a paragraph or two), many of which are applicable to anyone responsible for leading a project or people. Here's a couple:

7. Learn to love a play you don't particularly like. You may be asked -- or may choose -- to direct a play that, for any number of reasons, you don't think is very good. In such cases it is better to focus and build on the play's virtues than attempt to repair its inherent problems.

65. Never, NEVER bully...either by shouting or sarcasm or, worst of all, imitation. It will get a laugh and make an enemy. Using imitation to show an actor what he's doing wrong is allowable when all else has failed; but do it, if you have to do it at all, privately.

73. Know your actors. Some like a lot of attention; others want to be left alone. Some like written notes; some spoken. Get to know them. It doesn't have to take long. It's a good investment that will pay enormous benefits later.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Being from Jersey...

and of Italian heritage to boot, my natural reaction to verbal attacks is to outshout the opposition. Typically, this is an unproductive, if perversely satisfying, strategy. So, I read this press release from Cathy Lewis about dealing with desk rage by David Wolf, author of Relationships that Work, with interest.

Wolf is a life skills coach and a workplace communications specialist, who founded the Satvatove Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to transformative communication. Here are his tips for handling desk rage -- other people's and your own:

When someone rages at you:

Blank out your emotions. Stay emotionally neutral. Take a breath, keep your voice low and slow, and don't take it personally. His rage is not about you. It's about him. Don't let fear or your own anger take hold.

Restate, restate, restate. Restate in your own words, as best you can, what you just heard. Don't add judgments or interpretations. For example, the raging coworker says, "You screwed up my presentation by not having the report I asked you for! We're gonna lose this client, thanks to you!" You might respond, "I know you're furious with me. You're upset that I didn't have the report you requested, and you think this could jeopardize our client contract."

Be a mirror. Each time he comes back at you, accurately reflect back what he just said. He'll quickly see you're not his enemy, and that you're listening to him and understanding him. Watch how this simple technique converts hostility into reasonable dialogue.

When you’re feeling rage at someone else:

Just the facts, ma’am. Simply state the facts of what happened. Don't interpret or analyze them. For example, you might say, "You agreed to be at work on time, and to call me if you were going to be late. Three days in the past week you arrived more than a half hour late--and one of those days was a staff meeting where I really needed your assistance."

Give it a feeling. Next, use "I" statements to express how you feel. For example, "I am frustrated by this and feel disrespected." Avoid "you" statements, such as “You made me angry.”

Need and want. Finally, tell the person what you need or want, using "I" statements again. So you might say, "I want an assistant who is respectful and responsible. I need you to honor your agreements."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Experience doesn't pay?

I came across this passage in an advance copy of a book by Fortune editor at large Geoff Colvin. It's titled Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (Portfolio). Won't be out until mid-October, but its seemed timely on the heels of the Olympics:

Most of us would be embarrassed to add up the total hours we’ve spent on our jobs and then compare that number with the hours we’ve given to other priorities that we claim are more important, like our families; the figures would show that work is our real priority. Yet after all those hours and all those years, most people are just okay at what they do.

In fact the reality is more puzzling than that. Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started. Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud—a fairly important skill for an auditor—than were freshly trained rookies. When it comes to judging personality disorders, which is one of the things we count on clinical psychologists to do, length of clinical experience told nothing about skill—“the correlations,” concluded some of the leading researchers, “are roughly zero.” Surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.

The most recent studies of business managers confirm these results. Researchers from the INSEAD business school in France and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School call the phenomenon “the experience trap.” Their key finding: While companies typically value experienced managers, rigorous study shows that, on average, “managers with experience did not produce high-caliber outcomes.”

Bizarre as this seems, in at least a few fields it gets one degree odder. Occasionally people actually get worse with experience. More experienced doctors reliably score lower on tests of medical knowledge than do less experienced doctors; general physicians also become less skilled over time at diagnosing heart sounds and X-rays. Auditors become less skilled at certain types of evaluations.

What is especially troubling about these findings is the way they deepen, rather than solve, the mystery of great performance.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Manufacturing's big picture

Make or Break: How Manufacturers Can Leap from Decline to Revitalization, a new book in a new series that McGraw-Hill is publishing with strategy+business, was among the first editing projects I lent a hand on at Booz & Company. It was good to get immersed in manufacturing again; I haven't spent much time on the subject since my days as a contributing editor at Industry Week and the book I wrote there, America's Best, which described the state of the art in manufacturing back in the first half of the 1990s.

Since those days of TQM and teams, manufacturing, in the U.S. at least, seems to have been in long, slow decline -- a function that many companies simply outsourced to low-cost countries and subsequently ignored. And although there have been plenty of tightly focused books on Six Sigma and the Toyota production system and outsourcing in recent years, I can't recall any big-picture books the likes of Schoenberger's World-Class Manufacturing, which is now out-of-print. It is as if manufacturing isn't a strategic level, senior management concern even in many product companies.

Anyone who thinks that's odd should read Make or Break (the book's website is here). In it, Booz partners Kaj Grichnik and Conrad Winkler describe the major issues, capabilities, and key decisions that define world-class manufacturing in today's global environment. I know that sounds like cover copy, but after all of the manufacturing books on tools and techniques, getting the big picture is a big deal.

Oh, and here's a link to a short s+b article by the authors that offers some insight into the "make or break" decision at the national level, in case there are any politicians out there who are still interested in a healthy economy.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Better late than...

I just posted my first entry in nine months, so to offer "I've been busy" as an excuse for abandoning this blog seems a stretch. But it's all I've got.

I blame Art Kleiner. In addition to my freelance work and ghostwriting, I joined strategy+business, Booz & Company's publishing unit, as a half-time editor of books last September at his invitation. This is as close as I've been to real job for 20-odd years, so it has required some adjustment in lifestyle. It has also been an amazing experience: editing other writers and working with the highly professional s+b staff has taught me a lot about the craft; exposure to expert Booz & Company consultants specializing in areas such as human capital, marketing, manufacturing, sourcing, and M&A has taught me a lot about business.

In short, it's been great and I've got tons to blog about. So, I'm gonna try to post more regularly...really.

In support of plain English

Who knew there was a National Plain English Day? There is, in the UK at least, and last December, the Local Government Association celebrated by publishing the LGA ‘non-word’ list, 100 words that all public sector bodies should avoid when talking to people about the work they do and the services they provide. Words on the list include: coterminosity, empowerment, multidisciplinary, place shaping, and sustainable communities. The LGA suggests that unless "local authorities talk to people in a language that they can understand then the work they do becomes inaccessible and reduces the chances of them getting involved in their local issues."

Chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Simon Milton, said:“Plain English Day is a timely reminder for all of us that we can not, must not and should not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases...Why do we have to have ‘coterminous, stakeholder engagement’ when we could just ‘talk to people’ instead?“

The list is back in the news this month because a local council in England wanted to ban the word "brainstorming" to avoid offending epileptics and replace it with "thought showers."

It's a good lesson for business writers, consultants, and managers, too. Although I would hate to give up "stakeholder" which has always reminded me of killing vampires.