BOOKS: SMALL GEMS IN THE BRANTUB - Asking 80 MDs the secret of their success sounds like a useful exercise, and it did yield some pearls of wisdom ... if you can find them, says Nicholas Coleridge

BOOKS: SMALL GEMS IN THE BRANTUB - Asking 80 MDs the secret of their success sounds like a useful exercise, and it did yield some pearls of wisdom ... if you can find them, says Nicholas Coleridge - Fast Track to the Top; by Ros Taylor and John Humphrey;

by NICHOLAS COLERIDGE, managing director of the Conde Nast magazinegroup
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Fast Track to the Top; by Ros Taylor and John Humphrey; Kogan Page pounds 13.99

One wet afternoon a couple of years ago, I was visited at my office at Conde Nast by Ros Taylor, co-author of this manual about executive strategies, to be interviewed for her book. She explained that she was talking to 80 MDs to discover the secrets of their success, and subjected me to a long, dullish questionnaire, comprising such brain-teasers as 'What advice would you give to an aspiring manager?'.

Taylor struck me as a bright, efficient, professional woman of the sort who thrive in management consultancy and human resources. A bit short on jokes, and convinced that, with the right advice and training, anybody can end up as the CEO. I got the impression that my ad hoc management techniques were shocking to her, particularly when I revealed that I make a 'To do' list every morning on the back cover of my cheque book.

Two years later and here is the book: 284 pages of large type with plenty of bar charts and SWOT analyses. The authors have interviewed an impressive roster of captains of industry, and I admire their perseverance. Charles Allen of Granada, Adam Broadbent of Arcadia, Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse, Sir Richard Greenbury, ex-Marks & Spencer, Brian Larcombe of 3i and Sir Bob Reid of Bank of Scotland are just six chosen at random. Six more are Joseph Wan of Harvey Nichols, Nicola Horlick of Societe Generale Asset Management, Ramon Pajares of the Savoy Group, Sir Rocco Forte of RF Hotels, Sir Ian McAllister of Ford and Sir Clive Thompson of Rentokil. A convincing cross-section of movers and shakers, all sharing their secret tips for reaching the top.

The trouble is, their words of wisdom are mind-bogglingly dull. Banalities abound. Asked what was the principal thing he had to learn in order to become successful, Sir Clive Thornton replies: 'Nothing in particular, though I am learning all the time.' This book is full of such dreary, uninsightful quotes.

It is depressing to think that the authors spent more than 100 hours (plus travelling time) visiting these interesting bosses but gleaned so little. They have no gift for extracting the revealing quote or telling aside. If they'd included Osama bin Laden in the survey and secured an exclusive interview in his executive cave, they'd have asked him his advice for aspiring managers.

I wish we had been allowed to hear much more from the CEOs, speaking in their own words, rather than jargon, generalisations and flow charts.

It is hard to gauge exactly who Fast Track to the Top is intended to be read by.

I can't picture any genuine future CEOs bothering with it.

Another annoying feature of the book is its enthusiasm for psycho-geometric tests. The MDs were invited to look at five different shapes - a square, circle, rectangle, triangle and squiggle - and choose which one best described them. Well, you weren't going to catch me out on that one. No way was I choosing a square, with all its conventional connotations! I went instead for a circle, which apparently means I am 'friendly, nurturing, co-operative, expensive, manicured, jaunty and liable to have a power handshake'. Do public companies really spend good money on these daft games for their executives? If so, tell me which ones and I'm selling up.

If you really search, there are some small gems in the brantub. How I agree with Larcombe of 3i, who says: 'When you become a CEO it dawns on you that nothing you say to people is any longer private.' And Tim Melville Ross, a former DG of the Institute of Directors: 'Over the years I learnt there are two types of people - 'radiators' and 'drains'. Radiators give of themselves with enthusiasm to any project, whereas drains consume energy with negativity and moaning. Surround yourself with the former and you will succeed.

Of course, you have to be a radiator yourself.'

I like the fact, too, that Sir Christopher Harding of Legal & General sends more than a thousand Christmas cards every year, regarding them as a key networking tool. I send only 400 myself, and now understand where I have been going wrong. Must try harder.


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