The Daily Deal, March 29, 2000
Judgement Call Corporate
by Susan Webber
collection of essays by high-profile chief executives promised cutting-edge
insights, but delivers mostly prosaic thoughts
How does one judge a book written by consultants? This question may
seem curious, since at first blush, books by consultants are no different
than other business books. Yet one crucial distinction exists. Consultants
publish to enhance the marketing of their services. In most cases, this
objective dovetails with the goal of serving the reader.
There are, however, exceptions, and Wisdom of the CEO is one of them.
The book, by G. William Dauphinais, Grady Means, and Colin Price of
PriceWaterhouseCoopers seeks to capture and distill top level insights
on the "agenda for the global economy for the next few years" through
29 essays, each written by the chief executive of a major corporation.
These chapters are grouped into eight topics, such as Organization,
Shareholder Value, E-Business, Disruptive Technologies, and Knowledge
Management. Each topic has an introductory essay from PwC.
This genre has inherent conflicts. Although it is never stated, these
CEOs are either clients or close contacts, which makes them prospective
clients. As a result, the writers obviously want to show their subjects
in a favorable light. Indeed, others who have written this type of work
have done so explicitly to deepen top-level relationships. So it is
not in PwC's interest to ask tough questions or challenge pat answers.
The book is serving two masters, its CEO participants and its readership,
and the needs of the CEOs compromise the quality of the experience for
A few bright spots nevertheless stand out. Michael Dell of Dell Computer
has a wonderful piece on hypergrowth, in which he takes refreshingly
iconoclastic views, for example, arguing the dangers of benchmarking
("It can cost them their uniqueness and intensity"). Another is Ralph
Larsen of Johnson & Johnson, whose article which extols radical
decentralization as a means for promoting growth. He does not appear
to be saying anything novel until he recounts when, as a 30 year old
manager facing a possible strike, he called headquarters for some advice
and was told, "Well kid, I'm sure you'll do the right thing" and was
disconnected. And Michael Reuttgers of EMC goes into specific and very
useful detail about how his company identifies and involves lead users
in product development.
At the other end of the spectrum is an essay by Michael Armstrong of
AT&T, which is a disingenuous bit of work. He claims to have arrived
at AT&T's broadband strategy in 90 days, and conveniently forgets
that he turned to broadband only after his overtures to America Online
were rebuffed. He feels he is role model for getting to know customers
by meeting with four large customers at least twice a year. Reuttgers
of EMC, by contrast, meets with 500 customers annually. And Armstrong
talks about a "management team" when AT&T is known for senior level
Taken as a whole, while there is nothing terribly wrong with Wisdom
of the CEO, there is not much to recommend it, either. For the most
part, it lacks noteworthy insights. There's a flat quality to most of
the essays. It's not that the CEOs haven't tried to articulate what
is distinctive and interesting about their experience - the articles
seem genuine - but too much of what they say is familiar. Reading the
book, I suddenly had great sympathy for equity analysts, who must listen
over and over to companies selling them on how well they are doing and
hear more or less the same strategic and tactical ideas repeatedly.
These shortcomings may result in part from the selection of CEOs and
subject matter. Even though five of the eight topics are about change
in some form, the mix of CEOs is skewed more towards the old economy
than the new. Cutting edge players might have fresher perspectives.
And it seems coy at best to include James Schiro of PwC among the chosen
Similarly, the focus sometimes seems off. Organization, one of the sections,
is the ongoing development of formal and informal mechanisms to attract,
motivate, and orchestrate the activities of employees. In recent years,
increased tight labor markets and higher employee expectations have
made the "attract and motivate" part of the equation unprecedentedly
important. Only one of the essays, by William Henderson of the U.S.
Postal Service, addresses this issue squarely. Unfortunately, since
the service improvements he claims to have achieved (including that
97% of the mail in New York City is delivered next day) is wildly inconsistent
with my experience, it undermines his credibility.
Other CEOs talk about "passion" but only Nobuyuki Idei of Sony, in discussing
innovation, seems to have a sense for what it really means. Similarly,
a related topic - Knowledge Management - has largely fallen out of vogue
and seems misplaced in a book that purports to be forward-thinking
Finally, there is almost no mention of social issues, such as managing
tensions between shareholders and other constituencies, or what role,
if any, corporations should play vis-agrave;-vis education, given declining
Wisdom of the CEO is a compromised work. These CEOs know that too much
candor, either individually or institutionally, is not a pro-survival