Books: Will tough guys always come first?

This title of this readable book may be misleading, but its sporting message hits the nail on the head, says John Ritblat.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

HARDBALL

By George Stalk and Rob Lachenauer; Harvard Business School Press £14.99; MT price £13.99; To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

This intelligent, readable and short book (158 pages) has a misleading title. The term 'hardball' derives, of course, from baseball. The authors explain: 'A hardball move is when a pitcher faces an aggressive batter and sends him a message by throwing a 98-mile-an-hour pitch high and inside. That is a tough, perfectly legal, and very effective hardball move.'

Fortunately, authors George Stalk (a director at Boston Consultancy Group) and Rob Lachenauer (chief executive of GEO2 Technologies) favour more subtle approaches to achieving business success than the naked aggression suggested by their hardball definition. Some readers may feel uneasy at their relentless concentration on winning, by which they mean the full-blooded pursuit of strategies that will gain competitive advantage. Yet the book notes that it is perfectly possible for a hardball company to pay attention to the apparently softer topics of employee empowerment, corporate culture and corporate governance within the context of a strong and clear business strategy.

One unusual hardball example covers an apparently soft topic, customer care, in the guise of the provision of high-quality car servicing by Ford and its dealers. Often regarded as a nuisance, it can be a strong marketing tool, but a lot of people have to be convinced in lots of different ways before the benefits are accepted and then realised. Achieving change in a large organisation calls for an entire range of hardball qualities, including drive, ingenuity and persistence, as is well explained here.

The authors warn that the great challenge that a successful company faces is self-satisfaction, which breeds complacency and decay. Another car manufacturer, General Motors, has been through a few success/weakness cycles, yet still had the energy to shock the car market after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 with a campaign to 'Keep America Rolling' by offering 0% financing on all its vehicles.

Of course, the real objective was to 'Keep GM Rolling' at the expense of weaker rivals that could not afford to match GM's offer. The ramifications of this bold but hazardous move form one of the best chapters of the book.

Does every fully researched plan succeed? Of course it doesn't, and the book reports failures too. Correctly judging the industrial logic for a merger is one thing, but taking over another company can bring unexpected risks. In this case study, asbestos litigation wiped out the logic. I will leave it to readers to discover the importance of attendance at funerals and what it takes to provide a reliable supply of customised coffins quickly.

Two recurring themes are the importance of spotting 'anomalies' in your business field, and the menace of apparently insignificant 'compromises'.

An anomaly, for instance, may arise when there is one market where outperformance is consistently achieved. How can that success be replicated elsewhere?

Compromises can arise when a company copies some features of a competitor's initiative but misses key elements, such as a low-cost airline clone that devoted expensive resources to allocating individual seats instead of using a first-in, first-seated arrangement.

For property companies, there are several powerful messages. A successful strategy will usually be consumer-driven, not producer-driven. Property development can be an ego trip, but pays off handsomely only when it offers tenants what they want in terms of space, amenities, design and location.

Even in a market with ample availability, tenant-attracting buildings will lease up first and at good rents.

One policy advocated by the book, which British Land has pursued for many years, is that businesses that engage in the mergers and acquisition process should create their own internal capability in this field. This is not to say that investment bankers should be shunned, but controlling their exuberance and fee-hunger is more easily executed by those who are experienced. The authors point out that the best advisers are often outside professionals, as their remuneration is not dependent solely on whether the deal proceeds.

Hardball's final lesson isn't intended, but is clearly a 'compromise'.

Don't use your own country's sporting metaphors abroad: never again will I tease a foreigner about bowling a maiden over.

John Ritblat is chairman of the British Land Company

THREE OF A KIND

THE PROVERBIAL KICK; Motivator: Be your best and beyond; Frances Coombes; Hodder & Stoughton £4.99

A short but comprehensive book aimed at those 'who haven't got the time (or money) to attend a long training course'. It's packed full of questions and exercises to start readers thinking about why they lack motivation and what they can do about it, plus plenty of case studies to provide inspiration.

MOTIVATE TO WIN: How to motivate yourself and others; Richard Denny; Kogan Page; £9.99

The author has been described as 'the guru of motivation'. This book is certainly full of practical advice, and Denny packs as much into a chapter as others manage in an entire book. The no-nonsense tone may appeal to those wary of other self-help tomes. As well as good points on personal motivation, the book has a strong emphasis on motivating others. Good for both managers and non-managers.

A BIAS FOR ACTION

Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal; Harvard Business School Press; £18.99

This isn't strictly a book on motivation, but an extended essay on the importance of willpower.

Bruch and the late Ghoshal have written a powerful text, which states that the difference between successful and unsuccessful managers is that the successful ones are those who actually take steps to achieve their goals. The remaining 90% procrastinate or spend time on meaningless tasks that don't move the company forward. An inspirational read.

- best of its kind

- could be useful of minor interest

none: avoid.

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