The Daily Deal, March 29, 2000
Judgement Call Corporate Governance

Conventional Wisdom

by Susan Webber

A 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 the reader.

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 infighting.

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 CEOs.

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 literacy.

Wisdom of the CEO is a compromised work. These CEOs know that too much candor, either individually or institutionally, is not a pro-survival strategy.