Books: The bosses in your pocket - There's plenty of inspiration in these potted life histories, but don't believe everything the big CEOs told the authors, says Luke Johnson. Lessons from the Top by Thomas J Neff & James M Citrin Penguin pounds 9.99

Books: The bosses in your pocket - There's plenty of inspiration in these potted life histories, but don't believe everything the big CEOs told the authors, says Luke Johnson. Lessons from the Top by Thomas J Neff & James M Citrin Penguin pounds 9.99

by LUKE JOHNSON, chairman of Belgo's restaurant chain
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This is a chunky management book of over 400 pages written by two headhunters from Spencer Stuart. They both specialise in finding chief executives, and have used their interviewing and analytical skills to identify why some individuals are good at running companies.

They talked to 50 top American bosses and the results are in Lessons from the Top. Both authors used to be management consultants, but the interviews are not critical or negative - they are essentially little hagiographies.

This is, I suppose, only to be expected.

One of the useful features of the book is that you can dip in and out of it. This is not really a narrative work - it has 50 short chapters and some introductory and concluding material. I think few business leaders have time for lots of reading, so a book that can be perused occasionally for nuggets of advice is a good idea.

The profiles stand on their own. Most are of interesting people like Michael Eisner of Walt Disney, Andy Grove of Intel and Charles Schwab of the eponymous stockbroker. There are inevitably some duds, such as Elizabeth Dole - obviously only there because she's female and her husband is a presidential candidate - but most are heavy-hitters. The players work in a decent variety of industries - from retailing (Don Fisher at Gap), to airlines (Herb Kelleher at Southwest), to manufacturing (Alex Trotman at Ford), and everything from pharmaceuticals to software along the way.

This would all suggest there is much anyone in business can learn from Lessons from the Top. In a sense that is true, because most of what is said is pretty obvious. For example, among the 10 overall lessons to be derived from the giants of American industry is that you should have a positive attitude. I would imagine most of us already know that. Another common trait among the 50 heavy-hitters is that they are intelligent.

It would be worrying if Neff and Citrin came back from their chats and said that the people running America's businesses were stupid.

The other great qualities that the participants share include a passion for business, a high energy level and 'inner peace'. I cannot agree with the third of these characteristics - most successful entrepreneurs I know are restless and forever searching for the next challenge. They tend not to be relaxed, tranquil individuals - but stressed people who thrive under pressure.

I guess all the interviewees put on a good show for the authors.

Another common trait is apparently 'strong family lives'. Again, my observation is that big bosses are far more likely to divorce and get themselves a trophy wife than most men - and they will probably be too busy to spend much time with their children. Once more, I suspect the 50 participants did not highlight this for the authors.

But I am being rather unfair. I think this is a much better book than the large run of such management texts. It has a list of really big names as effective contributors. As ever, the most readable parts are where each boss gives their potted life history, and explains how they came to be running the show. The book tells how Gap started as an unofficial Levi's jean franchisee, but eventually went into own-label products when they decided Levi's didn't know how to design women's jeans. It covers Bernie Ebbers, president and CEO of MCI Worldcom, who started out as a teacher in Mississippi, then became a motel owner before starting a small phone company in 1983.

The biggest issue for the British reader is that this book is exclusively American. Although many of the companies featured, such as IBM, have huge international operations, they all developed in the US Business there is different from business here, and it is easy to say that the same lessons do not apply. Despite that shortcoming, the book is a worthwhile purchase for any actual or aspiring business leader, since it includes plenty of excellent advice and inspiring stories in a handy format.

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