Book review: An old-fashioned uncle at your elbow, by Ram Charan

This seasoned globetrotter knows business well, but he hands out the obvious among the nuggets, says Nigel Nicholson.

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Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty: The new rules for getting the right things done in difficult times

Ram Charan

McGraw Hill £16.99

On your next flight, how would you like to find yourself sitting next to a talkative and avuncular Indian gent who spends the flight lecturing you about how to run a business in a recession? His words give hope there is something you can do, and he won't talk about what might hurt you.

That's what you'll get by buying Ram Charan's latest book. Better make it a short-haul flight, for this volume is small, slim and has wide margins. To chance upon the man, you'd better fly first-class, because Charan is the guru of choice for global leaders, and spends 300 days a year hopping between clients.

But what Charan evidently has is fast fingers and a keen eye for the market, for this is the first of no doubt many books that are going to tell us how to survive through recession and come out ready to fly when the gloom lifts. The title politely calls this an 'era of economic uncertainty'. I guess he didn't know how bad it was going to be when the book was put to bed, yet the contents are appropriate to the times. They are not, however, geared to any particular market.

For all the book's sagacity and good sense, this uncle at your elbow is a tad old-fashioned. He is confident, familiar, light and practical. He understands business realities well. But the model of business it presents is traditional - not a whiff of the new economy in the way he sees his audience.

His advice also wanders quite often into the realm of the obvious. Even though the book is short, it manages to be repetitive. No bad thing, perhaps, since this is important stuff; and there is real value in the general themes and many of the observations. To paraphrase, they are: tighten up systems; re-evaluate priorities; get closer to the gunfire; devote lots of attention to your key... anything, really; get back to fundamentals while mapping and responding to new reality.

The book is organised around the classical functions of the corporation. He starts with a general observation about running with cash efficiency and heightened 'management intensity'. Yes, our overloaded managers have to find more than 24 hours in the day. Leaders have to have a bunch of qualities that look very much like the ones people have always asked of them: integrity, inspiration, and realism. You must be bold, reassess your top team, simplify and focus.

Sales and marketing folk should: up their market intelligence; be selective about key customers; target communications; and link better with leadership. The advice for CFOs is less bland and much sharper. The finance function, he says, must, among other things, collaborate more closely with HR in rethinking compensation and performance measurement. The CFO must also train management about the balance sheet and keep the board informed. Ops people need to simplify product lines, outsource, reduce inventory and pay attention to employee motivation, especially in service industries.

Not much here one can say nay to. The blandness returns in advice for R&D: 'make the best use of resources'; 'confront obsolescence'; 'tighten links to sales and marketing'. In the few pages on supply chain, he makes good points before moving on to discuss what he quaintly calls 'the staff functions' - ie, HR, legal, PR and IT - with just a paragraph or two on each.

His chapter on boards has the air of knowing what you would expect from someone who is regularly busking for them, and contains some good nuggets. In 106 lightly loaded pages, that's it.

What's missing? Well, for someone whose feet barely touch the ground between assignments, I suppose we shouldn't expect him to seem interested in relationships and human emotions through recession. The book is cool, clinical and task-focused. That will come as a relief to many no-nonsense bosses, but to implement most of his ideas, they will have to secure co-operation, mobilise hope and find empathy with the afflicted. Barely a hint of such matters here.

Do you need to read the book to get his points? For many readers, it will at best offer reassurance that you are doing the right things. For others, it will be a really helpful pointer to what you should be doing and saying. Executives need hand-holding at such a time and this is not a bad book for the purpose. Just don't expect too much.

Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, is co-author of Family Wars (Kogan Page, 2008)

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