Anyone who has ever read Paradise Lost knows that things gone wrong make for catchier story lines than things going right. That's why Milton's Satan is a more memorable character than any of the good guys in his epic. Four of this month's notable business books offer entertaining and edifying stories of failure and, in the process, they triumph over Milton's malady and offer roadmaps to success.
In When Giants Stumble (Prentice Hall, $26, 0735200599), business historian Robert Sobel reviews the past century in American business to bring us the sad stories of companies long forgotten (discount retailer E.J. Korvette, auto maker Kaiser-Frazer and others), and of institutions that have been wounded but are still with us (the New York Stock Exchange, Schlitz and Pabst beers).
Sobel categorizes the giant blunders of these titans into a list of 15 deadly sins of corporate leadership. They range from the Blunders of Hubris, Ignorance, Nepotism, and Nonstrategic Expansion to the Blunders of Cutting Corners, Standing Pat, Isolation, and Dependency.
The author has a gift for teasing out lessons from disasters that might otherwise seem like ancient history. From pioneering Osborne Computer Corp., we learn that a company can get it all right predicting accurately that IBM-compatibility and laptop portability would become desirable features in PCs and still get it all wrong. Osborne built bug-ridden products, alienated strategic partners such as distributors, and died unmourned in 1982, before the PC revolution had taken off. The Blunder of Ineptitude, Sobel calls it.
And from Packard Motor Car Co., we learn that squandering the intangible value of a brand name can kill even a long-established company. In 1928 there was nothing on the road more stylish and status-laden than a Packard. By 1948, after misguided efforts to sell more cars to the masses, Packard was just another mid-range make, and by 1958 the company was history. Sobel labels this error the Blunder of Downward Brand Extension.
It's impossible not to feel for these stumbling giants. Visionary entrepreneurs like James Ling of LTV Corp. and industrial dynasties like the Schwinn family of bicycle makers may have nobody to blame but themselves for what happened to their enterprises, but there is still a tragic dimension to the amount of heart and soul invested in ultimate failure.
Sobel writes with empathy for the blunderers. He could have turned out an interesting but facile book by merely narrating what went wrong at these companies. Instead he has produced a truly valuable study by analyzing why each lousy decision seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
A question you'll keep asking yourself as you read Sobel's book serves as the title for a volume from product development expert Robert M. McMath What Were They Thinking? Money-Saving, Time-Saving, Face-Saving Lessons You Can Learn from Products That Flopped, just released in paperback (with Thom Forbes; Random House, $13, 081293203X). McMath distills his four decades of new-product observations into a textbook on bad ideas. The Milton principle holds true once more: McMath's vivid prose brings marketing failures to life as though they were characters in a novel.
If you had the misfortune of oily hair, would you advertise that fact in the supermarket by purchasing Gillette's For Oily Hair Only shampoo? Have you felt the need lately to buy a 48-ounce jug of Maxwell House Brewed Coffee, so you can just pour a cup and microwave it? These what-were-they-thinking hall-of-famers have taken their places in the gallery of dead products that McMath has been collecting for nearly 30 years. He has 80,000 now, and the collection keeps growing as more than 25,000 new consumable items hit the shelves in the U.S. every year most doomed to quick extinction.
Like Sobel, though, McMath is not content merely to chronicle failure. His book is full of nuggets of wisdom. He shows us, for instance, that an errant concept is not always a dead end. What was Kimberly-Clark thinking when it saw Kleenex's main purpose as removing cold cream? No telling, but give the company credit for shifting its marketing plans when consumers decided to use Kleenex as disposable hankies. With instructive examples like these and opinionated but astute analysis, McMath has produced a marketing bible likely to enjoy a long shelf life.
What were they thinking when they gave such a cumbersome title to one of the year's most memorable business books? If You Want to Make God Really Laugh, Show Him Your Business Plan (Amacom, $22.95, 0814404987) is a combination of stand-up comedy and dead-serious business sense from former Burger King CEO Barry J. Gibbons. Get past the title, and you're in for the funniest biz read since Jerry Della Femina's From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor (Simon ∧ Schuster, 1970, out of print).
Interspersed with the author's zany asides are his 101 Universal Laws of Business, a set of precepts illustrated by episodes from a career spent managing large operations on both sides of the Atlantic and watching business plan scenarios turn to dust. Both the humor and the rules project an insider tone, as though Gibbons were addressing a closed-door gathering of fellow corporate chieftains on a golfing retreat. Gibbons is frank about his own failures as a manager.
He has clearly learned from those shortcomings, developing a refreshingly humane vision of management in the process. Imagine if his universal law of motivation caught on nationwide: Pay people till their eyes water, share with them the value they add, trust them, and avoid doing dumb things that demotivate them. Plenty of bosses would view such notions as heresy. That's why there's still so much misery today in our supposedly enlightened workplaces.
For a guy who admits to being rich and satisfied with himself, Barry Gibbons displays a surprising humility in this book. I don't think he would claim it as a virtue to be humble about leading an organization; I think he'd say it's a necessity, given the certainty that the CEO will embarrass himself or herself at some point. And when that moment comes, he or she had better be able to laugh about it.
In Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role (Harvard Business School Press, $24.95, 0875847501), consultant Dan Ciampa and Harvard professor Michael Watkins have plenty to say about what can go wrong from the start. They, too, are doing a Milton, focusing the minds of aspiring executive readers by presenting examples of disasters in the careers of people just like them.
People don't often talk on the record about why they got fired. But they do in this book (anonymously), as do many who have endured lesser career reversals and emerged from them as stronger leaders. This valuable guide to surviving at the top draws on interviews with dozens of high-level executives in business, government, and academia. Ciampa and Watkins let these managers speak for themselves in lengthy quotes that provide enough context to understand each element of leadership under discussion from securing early wins in the first weeks on the job to building coalitions and projecting self-image.
The interviewees speak with a candor rarely if ever found in statements to the press from members of the corporate elite. Equally valuable, though, are the authors' analyses of the myriad threats sure to beset the new EVP or CEO. It's no good for the newcomer to rail about office politics, communication gaps, or institutionalized barriers to change in the workforce. The leader needs to understand why these challenges arise, and what elements of his or her own style may be making them worse, in order to overcome them. This book can help the recently promoted cope with those frightening career moments that arise as soon as you get what you're after.
Briefly noted: two July books try to get inside the heads of employees and employers. Workplace psychologist Leonard Felder's well-received 1993 book Does Someone at Work Treat You Badly? is out in a new paperback edition (Berkley, $13, 0425165124). Felder retells the traumas endured by his counseling clients at the hands of schemers, screamers, sexual harassers, and other walking job hazards and tells of the techniques that helped victims gain the upper hand. New from British business psychologist Sandi Mann is Hiding What We Feel, Faking What We Don't: Understanding the Role of Your Emotions at Work, which explores why we all wear happy, hostile, caring, or uncaring masks at work from time to time.
Also of note this month: William F. Joyce's MegaChange: How Today's Leading Companies Have Transformed Their Workforces (Free Press, $28, 0684856255), a manifesto for a management theory based on assumptions of human capability instead of human limitations. And, from Hollywood biographer Bob Thomas, Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire (Hyperion, $14.95, 0786884169) tells the story of the other Disney, Walt's brother.
Nashville journalist E. Thomas Wood is the author of Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust (Wiley).