UK: A treasure trove for seekers - superchiefs.

UK: A treasure trove for seekers - superchiefs. - The Superchiefs.

by Peter Benton.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Superchiefs.

By Robert Heller.

Mercury; 318pp; £19.99.

Review by Peter Benton.

One reason why the military analogy appeals to writers on management topics is that, in war, it is usually possible to work out a relationship between the actions of a leader and their consequences. Dramatic, compressed in time and examined by both sides, accounts of battle can come close to what actually occurred. Even in the genre though, there can be plenty of room for alternative interpretations. Tolstoy though that the personal influence of Napoleon on the outcome of the battle of Borodino was so slight that "whether Napoleon had or had not a cold in his head was of no more interest to history than the cold of the lowest soldier of the commissariat".

Well, if there can be more than one opinion on how generals win battles, it is far more difficult to sort out why things go right or wrong - or right for a time, and then wrong - in the corporate world. Robert Heller is specially qualified to make the attempt, being formidably well informed, and with a memory - or filing system - in which 20 years of observation are interrelated. Superchiefs follows many business adventure through their cycles: popular yarns like the Jaguar revival, ending in the denoucement of that devastating summary by the man from Ford. So many ways of presenting a case. I remember, in British Telecom, being disturbed by the different quality of the "facts" on which decisions had to be made. We set out a spectrum: at one end was "I have personally checked and believe this to be true", at the other "the advertisements speak well of it". Heller's book comes close to the first.

Heller gives us a refreshingly open-eyed view of the superchiefs (and aspirants), stamping questionmarks on some well praised men. Is Lord Hanson a grand arbitrageur, spotting discrepancies in value and price, or a super manager? "The Hanson method is strictly run of the mill", according to the author. He spots some notable converts, too; in the '90s Jack Welch of GE is said to be attempting to "win by ideas, and not by whips and chains". Sustained praise goes to the leader and businesses that keep the momentum of strategy going through the years: Coca-Cola in the US and Japanese like Toshiba. I would add Kuji Kobayashi to the list. For 28 years he has led NEC with his vision of C and C, computers and communications.

Heller saves his fiercest blows for those western business leaders better known for their greed than their performance - and hits, in passing, at the compensation committees of subservient or interested non-executive directors. Ross, of TimeWarner and Johnson, of RJR Nabisco, are handled roughly, with the financial facts on parade. It's curious though, that no thoughts appear on the effect of such shenanigans on the relationship between the leaders and the led. The old army dictum that "an officer should look after his men before he looks after himself", is surely just as relevant to the network organisation of the future. The ethic of mutual responsibility really matter when individuals are "empowered", as the jargon has it.

While this book does recognise the new importance of the humane, and has a good chapter on values, there is a strongly clinical flavour about it - almost as the though zoologist Heller were reporting his observations on the social behaviour of African chimpanzees. He has a fine pair of binoculars, but not much empathy for the people responding to the superchiefs he describes. After addressing a large audience in Prague recently, I was mobbed by the Russian delegates because I had referred to fear. That struck a chord which dispassionate business analysis could not reach. Those human fotbles and passions are going to matter more in the future.

Heller has some harsh words for matrix management, and rightly. The book has a matrix problem of its own though. It is powerfully based on well-researched case studies. Each story has its moral. Yet the theme of the book as a whole is diffuse. I would have welcomed a final chapter that knitted all the carefully spun strands into something more like a philosophy for managers in the '90s. Robert Heller has the raw material for that - it's all here. We know, however, where Heller stands on most of the major issues of the day. He is as sound as we would expect. And the rich evidence he presents will delight anyone writing in the area, or on the lookout for amazing tales that have been checked by the lawyers. Superchiefs is a book of great qualities, full of treasure for those who seek to understand what really happened in periods of triumph, stamina, deceit and disaster that make industry so stimulating for the observant. Since our own personal success in a turbulent world depends on judging the forces at work on us, it will pay to read this book. Because many other people will.

Peter Benton is former director general of BIM.

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