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1/10/2002
03:31 PM
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Secret CIO: There's No Substitute For Real-Life Experience

Books on management can be very helpful, but they can't provide all the answers.

You have to like Ron Stagweg, our executive VP of domestic operations. Ron is the type who looks silly trying to be nasty, knows it, and therefore is unfailingly polite and friendly. He has his faults: He doesn't like making tough decisions, and he shies away from confrontations, but he's honest and makes a real effort to do the right thing. He's also fixated on self-improvement.

One of Ron's habits is reading just about every new management book on the market. When you walk into his office, the credenza behind his desk looks like a publisher's cornucopia. Maybe he belongs to some sort of Guru Of The Month hardback club. He even buys multiple copies of the ones he really likes and hands them out to those of us he views as his friends. That's fine; we appreciate his thoughtfulness. What's less endearing, however, is that within a week or two of blessing us with his latest discovery, he expects that we'll be able to discuss it with him in depth. If I say I haven't had a chance to read it, he looks so crestfallen that I've taken to skimming the preface and looking up a review to fake it. I almost feel as if I'm back in school, where I got through more than one course using this same strategy.

Sometimes, I do read all the way through the book (well, almost all the way through... OK, maybe a third of the way). While I've gotten some good tips on management from my late-night reading, I've discovered how important the title is. No self-respecting management book can have a dull title. It has to be a grabber. The objective is to make you feel you're missing something big if you don't devour it immediately.

Numbers, especially odd numbers, are important in business book titles. Thus, we wind up with The One Minute Manager, The Fifth Discipline, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, and The 17 Indisputable Laws Of Teamwork.

An alternative to numbers is to call the book something that initially makes no sense. Think about Who Moved My Cheese or Fish!--you've just got to find out what it means. Occasionally, even after you read a book, you may still be somewhat befuddled as to what the title has to do with the context. I know that I had that problem with The Lexus And The Olive Tree. Maybe my issue was that it conjured up an image of someone tooling down the highway with one hand on the wheel and a martini glass in the other.

Then there are the titles that just reek of empowerment: Getting To Yes; First, Break All The Rules; and Gung, Ho! Just looking at the covers of these books can make you feel omnipotent.

For all their artifices to sell copies, most business books I've seen have at least a valuable nugget or two in them. Sometimes, it's easy to understand their insights, as in Spencer Johnson's simply written The One Minute Manager.

Other books, such as Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, aren't particularly easy to plow through after a hard day dealing with problems. A major difficulty with many of these books is that their advice, while frequently useful, can be simplistic and not really specific enough to help with the nuances of complex, real-life situations. You know, counsel such as "listen to ideas from everyone" or "don't be afraid to take prudent risks."

Probably the biggest shortcoming of management books is that the traits they laud as having made a company or individual outstanding may not necessarily be the ones that will guarantee success in the future. Recently, I decided to go back over my well-worn copy of In Search Of Excellence--Lessons From America's Best-Run Companies by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. Back in the early 1980s, when I was still grubbing my way up the executive ladder, you couldn't walk into a management meeting without being accosted by someone telling you how important this book was. What were some of the companies that were held up as the paragons to follow? Included as passing all hurdles for excellence, along with Dow and Wal-Mart, were Amdahl, Data General, Digital Equipment, Eastman Kodak, Kmart, and Wang Labs. Great truths in the business world don't always stay great truths.

The real trick isn't figuring out why a company is great, but rather figuring out how you'll be great in years to come. While a good management book can provide ideas and insights, none that I have ever seen can be used as a prescription for running a business or even an IT shop. In the final analysis, all really good organizations depend on thinking managers who use their knowledge, experience, and raw talent to identify the best strategies and tactics to use in an ever-changing world.

Maybe the next time Ron gives me a book to read, we can discuss what it teaches about anticipating the future and handling a situation that we can't imagine. After all, both he and I know those are the really hard ones.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at lovelace@home.com and read his online column at informationweek.com, where he will provide real--and sometimes whimsical--answers to your questions.

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