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Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin, Viking Books, 147 Pages, $19.95, Hardcover, March 2011, ISBN 9780670022496
Ask yourself: in business, how important is change? How hard is change? Literally thousands of books have been written on this subject, because effective change is both necessary and nearly impossible. Now imagine yourself as a middle-aged baseball president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1940s, and you want to integrate baseball in the face of a longstanding “gentleman’s agreement” amongst owners that kept baseball segregated. You don’t know who you want to bring to your team, but you know in your heart that segregation is wrong and your sport needs to lead the way to social change. So in 1943 you start a long change process, preparing your team, your banker, your owners, your league, for the change, and as a result of your efforts, in 1947, Jackie Robinson plays his first game in the big leagues.
Pretty impressive, right? And to think you’ve probably never heard of the guy who did this: Branch Rickey. Now, thanks to the smart Penguin Lives series published by Penguin/Viking, we all get to learn the amazing story of Branch Rickey as told by the estimable Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Jimmy Breslin.
The lyrical nature and timelessness of baseball has always been appealing to me. And reading such behind-the-scene books as Moneyball by Michael Lewis adds a layer of richness to the experience of watching and theorizing about the game. Branch Rickey does the same. I was really surprised at how Rickey went about this sea change of integrating the game, and universal business lessons can be drawn from each move he made. Rickey is a leader worthy of a broader following.
This biography, Branch Rickey, is a remarkable little treasure that should be read by any person interested in change, ethics, and leadership. I hope Penguin chooses to submit this book for consideration in our business book of the year awards, because the three criteria that I have always stated make up a good business book—quality of the idea, applicability of the idea to business today, and accessibility—are here in spades.
Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to Do About It by Chip Bell and John R. Patterson, Berrett-Koehler, 248 pages, Paperback, $19.95, June 2011, ISBN 9781605099750
My company, 800-CEO-READ was founded and thrived on the simple fact that you can actually call and talk to a friendly somebody, if you are so inclined, when you want to buy books. That differentiation is no longer enough. The actual customer experience—whether online or by phone—now has to be perfect, because if it isn’t the world will know about it scarily fast. But as we all know, perfect is often unachievable, so what can we do to prevent a major meltdown when customer expectations have not been met? In Wired and Dangerous, Chip Bell and John Patterson not only investigate this change in the relationship between customer and provider, they also provide strategies to right the imbalance.
Bell and Patterson’s thesis is that technology has created a new kind of customer. Now, not only will the squeaky wheel demand some grease, but the squeaky wheel will be heard all over the Internet and the offending company is at the mercy of this new mass platform. We’ve all seen it: an angry post by an influential blogger or viral YouTube video can cost a major organization millions.
And this new imbalance has left companies scrambling. The authors sum up the situation very clearly:
The edginess of today’s powerful wired and dangerous customers has been fueled by more than just a change in their service expectations. The energy behind their newfound assertiveness is a fundamental change in what we call the service covenant—the unspoken people-serving-people contract that has been the essence of commerce for centuries. When service providers completely remove the high touch from their high tech service without the consent, consideration, or participation of the customer, they erode customer confidence, create suspicion, and trigger impulses often expressed as thoughts of an “I’m outta here” mutiny.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bell and Patterson suggest that this frenzy be met with “Service Calm,” and they outline a strategy that offers usable, valuable help in dealing with these “wired and dangerous” customers that make or break your business. The final sixty pages of the book are particularly useful, providing a handy guide of “Suggestions for Partnering with Customers” that will be a resource you can come back to time and again.
Simply put, Wired and Dangerous is a must-read for anyone in the service industry. And this old school merchant who has been fascinated by the challenge of perfecting customer service over his career says, “Thanks Chip and John.”
The Professional: Defining the New Standard of Excellence at Work by Subroto Bagchi, Portfolio, 256 Pages, $25.95 Hardcover, June 2011, ISBN 9781591844020
What is a professional? Subroto Bagchi, one of India’s foremost business leaders and authors, believes the traditional definition has changed. He writes in The Professional that “it’s not enough for someone to just be able to do a job in order to qualify for this title; he or she not only must be able to accept responsibility for their own work and actions but also must understand how that work and those actions will translate to the rest of the world.” The author then goes on to supply examples from around the world to support his argument that ethical decisions matter, especially in this age when business is so very globally integrated.
When this book first crossed my desk, I thought the title applied to lawyers and accountants. Instead, this is a book for anyone who believes in doing the right thing, acting responsibly and believing that there is a better way. It reminded me a bit of Robert Townsend’s classic Up the Organization in its structure, pithy language, and the contemplation of qualities that make a good leader… and a good person.
For example, Bagchi starts the section of the book titled “Self-Awareness” by telling the stories of two men born in the same decade, into similar circumstances, and with remarkable talent: O.J. Simpson and Arthur Ashe.
Both worked hard, extremely hard, to reach the highest level of the professions. Both achieved prestige, acclaim, and fame.
But behind the glamour, there was pain. In time, both men had their own brushes with the law. One for crimes ranging from shoplifting to murder. The other for protesting apartheid and oppression against immigrants from Haiti.
He believes that what separates the two men is self-awareness, and warns:
Do not let yourself get carried away; do not start believing the myth about yourself and your achievements. The self-aware understand what their strengths are; they know exactly how much of their success is because of their inherent strengths and how much is situational.
The Professional is a manifesto arguing for a deeper consideration of ethics and integrity in every action. Each of its sixty chapters is short and easily digested, with advice ranging from how one dresses and how one asks questions, to how one occupies spare time and how to elevate our work from simply professional to Professional.
Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business by Bob Lutz, Portfolio, 256 Pages, $26.95, Hardcover, June 2011, ISBN 9781591844006
The American auto industry has had some stellar books written about it. Some of my favorites are John A. Byrne’s classic, The Whiz Kids, which tells the story of the invasion of statistical experts into the auto culture after World War II and how that attention to financial constraints changed the product for the worse, and of course the great Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors, less a biography than an essential reflection on management. Now there is Car Guys vs. Bean Counters.
The material deals with the same problem as The Whiz Kids, but this book is a true insider’s look at the auto industry. A nearly 50-year veteran of the industry, Bob Lutz has worked for each of The Big Three, though the book deals mostly with his time at General Motors where he returned to work in 2001 to face the challenge of reviving a dying brand.
Why was the brand dying? Because the company had been handed over to the financial guys while the true lovers of cars were pushed to the sidelines. The bottom line became more important than the product. Lutz doesn’t have much nice to say about GM in the early 90s. It seems all the stories we have heard about GM’s bloat are true. Here Lutz relates an eye-opening response from a supplier when he asked about his preferred companies:
[O]ne day, a supplier of bearings surprised me by answering, “My favorite customer is GM!” Whoa! “Why on earth is that?” I inquired. The supplier replied “Because they are so monumentally screwed up that we can sell them the identical bearing in seven different boxes, with seven different part numbers, and seven wildly different prices. Their purchasing groups are only dimly aware of one another’s existence. It’s a bit hard to keep it all straight, but boy, it is sure lucrative!
As you can see by this quote, and the fact he actually shares it with readers, Bob Lutz is a real maverick. His main message in Car Guys is that passion should always drive while analysis rides shotgun; a message with accompanying lessons applicable to any industry. Reading this book, like his previous book Guts (which focused on his time at Chrysler), is like having a couple beers with this crusty old guy who has done things we haven’t ever dreamed possible—and he’s a fantastic storyteller to boot. Enjoy and learn.