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.