Sunday, September 11, 2011

(No.169)'Think And Grow Rich' by 'Moving The Cheese'

As one who spent much of the business part of his working life employed at life insurance company head offices, and having earned three university degrees -- all non-business, I was in amused agreement with something Conrad Black said to the Globe and Mail in a recent interview (Sept.2, 2011).

Asked about business schools he said that "The whole profusion of business schools is in a large measure a reaction that businessmen feel they are looked down upon as not being a learned profession. Commerce really isn't an academic subject. Go work in a business and work your way up ...."

The late Howe Martyn, a Canadian who had been both a senior executive and later Professor of International Business at American University in Washington,D.C., wrote several dozen columns for the magazine I founded and edited as a spare time avocation for some years, The Canadian Journal of Life Insurance. Howe's columns appeared under the ongoing sobriquet of "Economie Sardonique". He used to say that Harvard University's business school had been responsible for ruining more businesses than Carter had pills.

During my years as a 'salaryman', to use the Japanese appellation, I can remember the passage through company corridors of management fad after fad. I remember a CEO who, for a time, seemed -- along with much of the big business community -- much taken with 'the Japanese model'. Articles and consultants discoursing on how and why we should ape Japanese business were as numerous as fleas on a stray dog. Sounds rather silly in retrospect as one contemplates today's still stagnant debt pool which is the Japanese state-driven economy after a decade -- and counting.

At least the Japanese model constituted for a time a rather grand point of reference unlike so many of the other faddish approaches to the running of business that burdened executives with, among other things, time-wasting sessions with various consultants and HR types. I avoided them whenever I could come up with a plausible excuse or conflict but with limited success.

I was reminded recently of this often useless sort of activity, still very much a part of today's 'trendy' big business environment, the kind of thing that helps account for the ongoing deficiencies in the management of large financial services companies among others. A current member of a life insurance company's head office management 'team' wrote to to comment on a column I had written reviewing several books: "The Great Stink (and other vacation reading)", column No. 160, posted on July 17, 2011.

"I could never get into these 'business books', " he wrote, "where the writers basically all say the same thing ... and make millions doing so because there is a multitude of people out there (names won't be used ...) who think these books tell the latest and the greatest new leadership style, i.e., Who Moved My Cheese?, Good To Great, etc., etc., etc. Books given to us by our illustrious leaders, books that have yet to be cracked open even once !!!"

My correspondent makes a good point: lots of business books are distributed within companies as part of efforts to be seen to be supporting and furthering the process of teaching and enhancing management skills. "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson and James C. Collins' "Good To Great: Why some companies make the leap ... and others don't" are simply part of the past decade's stream of business books which hold out the prospect if not the promise of helping those in business maximize their potential.

In the 1980s and 1990s business fads promoted the wisdom of management consultants (an oxymoron surely) joined to 'New Age' thinking: for example, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Corey.

But such supposed manuals for success are nothing new; there have been popular vade mecums in the U.S. and Canada for many decades. In the Great Depression of the 1930s in his book "Think and Grow Rich", Napoleon Hill supposedly encapsulated principles which had made Andrew Carnegie a wealthy American baron of business. In the 1950s Norman Vincent Peale produced "The Power of Positive Thinking" which can still be found in some bookstores.

In my experience and observation over the years -- both in and out of the companies by which I was employed -- the most effective "habit" of executives who rose to the top of the greasy pole was, more often than not, the ability to be a "highly effective" corporate politician. But that business reality will not staunch the flow of trendy books bought by management class salarymen looking for advantage or even escape. As examples consider the recent bestseller by Timothy Ferriss: "The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich"or the current "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek.

What senior business management needs, especially in the financial services sector (quod vide the Wall Street shambles of 2007-8), is a great deal more in the way of useful understanding of and skill at the actual business they are in. Bean counting has its limitations. Admittedly such a development would mean hiring fewer consultants to do the jobs executives are already being paid to do.

How likely is such a trend to develop simply because so many in companies' senior managements have demonstrated ongoing incompetence?

About as likely as Prime Minister Harper publicly acknowledging that attracting fewer than 40% of Canadians' votes in the last federal election does not actually constitute receiving 'a mandate from Canadians'.

by Alastair Rickard




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