A potpourri of business booksThis month a potpourri of business books come under review. We'll feature a rarely seen novel of business, a brand-building primer, a case study of an employee-friendly company, and a look at the dark side (financially speaking) of two-income families.
Fiction first. Why, you might ask, is corporate life so infrequently chronicled in fiction? After all, for most of us, work occupies the majority of our waking moments. Surely, even in the grey regularity of corporate routine there are transcendent moments, intermittent dramas that can as accurately illuminate character as can scenes set in more exotic locales. Perhaps it's as simple as work not seeming . . . exciting. And for that body of fiction that seeks to provide escape from the everyday, describing what most of us go through every day just doesn't fit the bill. And then there's that truism that writers of all stripes have constantly drummed into them: write what you know. It's a good bet most novelists know more about the trappings of academia, writers' colonies, and their own unrelenting four walls than they do about the corridors of corporate life.
Stanley Bing is writing what he knows when he writes about business. The author of a consistently clever column for Fortune, Mr. Bing is that rare breed: corporate animal and deft writer. The book's jacket describes its author as a mole inside corporate America since the days when greed was good. Lloyd: What Happened: A Novel of Business is Mr. Bing's fictional report from the front.
Mr. Bing's expertise extends to the corporate suite, the land of expensive suits and expense accounts. He knows headquarters, where everybody's well paid but doesn't have enough, where everybody's worried about the next month's numbers and the good impression being made by a rival down the hall. It's the world of middle managers tilting toward upper management, where people seem to spend more time managing their careers than they do managing their divisions. It's the world of flow charts, spread sheets, memos, and e-mail proposals. How about the company's actual products? Someone else's job.
The novel's conceit is to follow a calendar year in the career of a mid-life, mid-level executive. They are 12 months of particularly robust personal and professional upheaval. Our protagonist, Lloyd, is a quite imperfect but likable fellow (perhaps more to male readers than female). His ethics are situational, his moral code extremely questionable, but his intentions are vaguely good. (Believe it or not, the downtrodden of this book are middle managers at a large corporation whose incomes easily put them in the top financial tier of all Americans.)Lloyd's early-in-the-book dilemmas will strike a chord with many baby boomers. He's got a lot going for him (good job, nice family), but is it enough? He seems to be running in place, trapped in a job he's not sure he likes, with obligations that permit no exit. He's unable to connect to the creative young man he was, a young man who would never recognize the person Lloyd became 20 years later.
Don't get the wrong impression. This book is not doom and gloom. All this corporate and personal angst is conveyed via light and bright writing. Yes, this is a look at the anomie and amoralism of modern corporate culture, but it's not an ideological screed. While more than willing to display their own shortcomings, the fictional middle managers depicted here are generally a sympathetic lot.
This is a business novel, but Mr. Bing doesn't trust business alone to pull the reader through more than 400 pages (the novel is too long). There's more than a dollop of sex and much longing for sex. There's even the threat of physical danger as the book veers toward a madcap and unrealistic finale. (I don't want to reveal too much plot). Suffice to say that full-throttle plot aside, Mr. Bing precisely captures the nuances of the workaday white-collar world, the limits to business friendships, the lack of connection to people and products. This is an imperfect book and an implausible one at times. Some characters don't fully come to life, though Lloyd certainly does. He is an engaging central character, and his saga is an entertaining and educational one.
From fiction to factsGood Company: Caring as Fiercely as You Compete (Addison-Wesley, $25, 020133982X) is the story of a company grounded in positive human dynamics. Hal P. Rosenbluth is the chief executive officer of Rosenbluth International, a global travel services firm based in Philadelphia. With co-author Diane McFerrin Peters, who used to be the company's top communications officer, Rosenbluth details the employee-oriented management style he says spurred the company to financial success and global growth. As a service company, Rosenbluth firmly believes in listening to customers and in empowering employees closest to the customer to make meaningful decisions.
In 1992, the company underwent a reorganization that, among other things, significantly flattened the hierarchy and put systems into place that identify employee strengths and leadership potential. Interestingly, Rosenbluth International puts the human resources function at the center of what it's about, not shunted off to the side with no real power as is the case at many companies. Rosenbluth practices what is often only preached: that a company's employees are its greatest asset. That's a truth particularly applicable given today's tight labor market.
While Rosenbluth International is the main focus of this detailed management study, the authors also describe enlightened employee practices at 14 others companies that, along with Rosenbluth International, were cited in the 1992 book The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. These companies include Hallmark Cards, Hewitt Associates, Mary Kay Inc., and Lands' End.
One criticism of the book is that it is too rah-rah. Managers also learn from mistakes. Were there employees who couldn't cut it in the new organizational set-up? Were some reluctant to take on decision-making responsibility? Such questions go largely unanswered.
In addition to treating employees well, companies in today's crowded markets have to find ways to break through the clutter of advertisements and information to reach consumers. That's where Send 'Em One White Sock: And 66 Other Outrageously Simple (Yet Proven) Ideas for Building Your Business or Brand (McGraw-Hill, $18, 0070526680) comes in. It's a compendium of practical brand-building ideas from two veterans of direct marketing.
With one page or less devoted to each one, authors Stan Rapp and Thomas L. Collins list 67 tried-and-true ideas from successful companies around the world. The second part of the book provides fuller descriptions of the innovative marketing and service programs these companies employ. The downside of this format is that the second section seems somewhat repetitive after the one-page teasers. On the plus side, the ideas presented are flexible and varied enough to be applicable to companies of all sizes in a broad range of businesses. Companies cited range from an upscale Minneapolis men's clothier to giants such as Ralston Purina and Andersen Windows. The authors don't spend much time with the Internet, but what they do say is on target. They see the World Wide Web as a place for companies to fill the gap between advertising and sales, using the limitless Web to provide gobs of information about products and services.
Direct marketing becomes relationship marketing through the creation of frequent buyer clubs, the launching of contests, and other methods of building customer loyalty and customer data bases detailing specific interests. Okay, I know you're dying to know, so here briefly is the story of the one white sock that forms the basis of this book's intriguing title. A New Zealand airline included a single white sock in its direct-mail effort to get people to renew membership in the airline's frequent flyer club. The renewal required a significant fee. The company promised two more white socks would be sent to the club member if he or she renewed. This fun offer promised two more socks so that the member would still have a pair even if a washing machine or dryer ate one of the socks. The promotion resulted in a 92% renewal rate.
One of the great issues facing couples with children is the work/family crunch. There never seems to be enough time or energy to do everything well (or even passably). Most often women bear the brunt of this dilemma, handling the bulk of child-rearing and housecleaning responsibilities while more and more also hold full-time jobs. Sure there are exceptions, but they are still just that. In Two Incomes and Still Broke? It's Not How Much You Make, It's How Much You Keep (Times Business, $14, 0812929896) author Linda Kelley doesn't take sides in the cultural/sociological battle about whether both parents should work. Obviously, economics are a compelling factor for many. What Ms. Kelley does offer is a detailed look at the real, after-tax, after-job-related-expenses financial benefit of a second wage earner in the family. She offers worksheets to help you figure out your own situation. The bottom line is that second incomes usually net less than they seem.
Though she doesn't take sides, readers might conclude that Ms. Kelley's own route (part-time work as a second earner) is the most financially logical and perhaps a better parenting choice. But the author insists the spouse most often at home also has to do heavy lifting on serious household budgeting and comparison shopping (some would say penny pinching). It's not a universally desirable lifestyle. This book will make you take a hard look at what it costs to work, not just work's financial rewards.
Neal Lipschutz is managing editor of Dow Jones News Service.