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Higher Ambition: A book review by Bob Morris

Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value
Michael Beer, Russell Eisenstat, Nathaniel Foote, Tobias Fredberg, and Flemming Norrgren
Harvard Business School Press (2011)

Valuable lessons from 36 CEOs who create simultaneously value that has both economic and social impact

The CEOs featured in this book agreed to participate in a four-year research study. However different they may be in most respects, all of them possess what the co-authors (Michael Beer, Russell Eisenstat, Nathaniel Foote, Tobias Fredberg, and Flemming Norrgren) characterize as “higher ambition.” That is, they “see the glass whole,” envision the potential, set worthy goals, and refuse to compromise on what matters most. Some of the 36 leaders are familiar (Campbell Soup’s Douglas Conant, Medtronic’s Bill George, Southwest Airlines’ Gary Kelly, and Tat Group’s Ratan Tata) but most are not and that is a key point because leaders with higher ambition are needed in almost every company, whatever its size and nature may be.

For them, “the work of economic and social value creation involves a set of core management disciplines – developing strategy, managing performance, building a shared culture, and personally leading their people – but the CEOs do not approach the tasks associated with these disciplines sequentially or in isolation. Rather, they practice these disciplines in a mutually reinforcing way to achieve a ‘simultaneous solve.’ That is, they develop and execute against an integrated agenda that allows them to deliver superior economic and social value simultaneously.”

More specifically, the co-authors explain how and why those who aspire to become leaders with higher ambition master five separate but interdependent disciplines: forging strategic identify, building a shared commitment to lead at all levels and in all areas, creating community out of diversity, leading with “sis” (a Finnish word that refers to the courage, will, perseverance, and endurance needed to overcome major barriers as well as to “becoming strong together”), and committing to collective leadership.

For me, some of the most valuable material in the book is provided in Chapters 4 and 5 as the co-authors focus on several real-world situations in which CEOs such as Doug Conant (Campbell Soup), K.C. and J.C. Mahindra (sibling co-founders of Mahindra & Mahindra), Christian Clausen (Nordea), Tim Solso, Cummins), David Lissy (Bright Horizons), Peter Sands (SCB), and Ratan Tata (Tata Group) how to build a wide and deep commitment to excellence and create a community out if diversity.

I also greatly appreciate the co-authors’ provision of “Tables” throughout their narrative such as Table 7-1 (Pages 184-185) that summarizes and reviews key points about how to build a “true team” at the top, align down-the-line leaders, drive career development, and develop next-generation leadership. These reader-friendly devices will facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key points later. I think they can also help to assist efforts to increase and improve engagement of board members, shareholders, and others involved in the given enterprise.

It is certainly no coincidence that companies annually ranked each year among the most highly-admired and best to work for are also ranked among those most profitable and of greatest cap value.


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