Makings of a boss

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In his latest book Jack Welch claims to tells us ,”Straight from the Gut”,how to be a successful CEO. But do business autobiographies really offer any useful advice for managers?

A friend has finally, at the age of 50, learnt to swim. It took him that long to find a good swimming teacher.

Swimming teachers are usually good swimmers. But the very factors that make them good swimmers make them bad teachers. They have an affinity for water. My friend and I are afraid of water, with good reason, for drowning is the most common sporting accident. Good swimmers can easily co-ordinate arm and leg movements. They say “watch me” as they swim away from their students.

The skills of the swimmer are not the same as the skills of the swimming teacher. And, for the same reason, business biographies and autobiographies are not the same as management textbooks. Anyone who buys Jack Welch’s book hoping to learn how to run a business has gone to the wrong shelf of the business bookshop.

Many authors of business autobiographies wrote to instruct their readers how to run businesses or how to run the world. This was the objective of Alfred Sloan. His My Years with General Motors is the only business autobiography that may be found on a reading list in a serious business school or university and one of the very few still in print decades after the death of its author. But Sloan’s is a highly unusual autobiography. It tries to exclude any personal information about its author. Sloan was a rigorously intellectual figure, generally regarded as the inventor of the modern divisionalised corporation. He set out to write a management text.

The writing of Sloan’s arch-rival, Henry Ford, is very different. Ford wrote to disseminate what he imagined to be important insights into the iniquities of the federal government, the immorality of tobacco and the machinations of Jews.

The things we learn from such books are rarely the things their authors intend. What we learn from Ford’s autobiography is that Henry, although a business genius and the inspired founder of a great corporation, became an unpleasant bigot who was not equipped to run the huge company that bore his name. From Losing my Virginity, we learn that Richard Branson is an able self-publicist rather than a great manager. From Lee Iacocca, we learn that there are no bounds to human vanity.

Jack Welch’s autobiography contrasts with these self-serving tomes. The Welch who emerges is an attractive and engaging figure. There is a lot about golf. The possibility that a senior executive or director of General Electric might not enjoy golf does not seem to enter Welch’s mind and I suspect that driving and putting will soon be part of the MBA curriculum.

The features of good management that Welch emphasises contain nothing original: integrity and openness in discussion; concern to build committed teams by careful selection and deselection of members; an approach to problem-solving that is rational and analytic yet decisive. However cynical you feel about the reality of GE, it says much for Welch that these are the attributes of management style that he regards as important. The overall picture is of a man whom you would like to have as your boss.

And that is the real management lesson of Welch’s book. A great chief executive of a great corporation is a person whom other talented managers would like to work for. When you write that down, it seems obvious.

But it is not what happens. When you finish reading the memoirs of Ford or Iacocca, you do so with a sense of real relief that you have never been their immediate subordinate. No able person could enjoy working for anyone with such an overwhelming sense of their own rightness. And that is why such leaders find themselves surrounded by second-rate sycophants. Henry Ford ended his career able to confide only in his security chief.

Ford’s very success made him a bad developer of management talent. Success took its toll on Welch too: as time and his book go on, his reports of decision-making become ever more personalised. Welch’s account of his dealings with the European Commission over Honeywell is unintentionally comic.

The most important characteristic of a good boss of a large organisation is his good assistants. Only such leadership can sustain long-term success for the business, as it has done for GE. Welch describes the daunting task of succeeding Reg Jones, the most admired chief executive in America at the time (as Ralph Cordiner had been before him). It is likely that Jeff Immelt’s successor will face the same problem. It is to GE, rather than to Jack Welch, that we should look for management lessons.

Jack Welch, Jack: What I’ve Learned Leading a Great Company and Great People (Headline, 2001)

Alfred Sloan, My Years with General Motors (Doubleday, 1990. 1st ed. 1963)

Richard Branson, Losing my Virginity: How I’ve Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way (Virgin Books 2000)

Lee Iacocca, Iacocca: An Autobiography (Bantam books 1996)

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