How I Did It: A book review by Bob Morris

How I Did ItHow I Did It: Lessons from the Front Lines of Business
Various Contributors
Harvard Business Review Press (2014)

Cutting-edge perspectives on the unique leadership challenges at the CEO-level

There were 14 editors involved with these essays, written by 34 CEOs, originally published in the Harvard Business Review column. They were copy edited by Martha Spaulding and Daniel McGinn then edited the material for this collection. The essays are organized within six key business areas such as “Telling the Right Story” and “Finding a Strategy That Works.” According to the Editors in the Introduction, “The essays in this book are singular contributions to this tradition [of wisdom-based decision making]. Like case studies, they take readers inside the C-suite, but they go further, giving inside detail and perspective about the decisions made by the chief executives themselves — told in their own words.”

With regard to the collection’s title, the CEOs share a wealth of information, insights, and counsel how and why they have been able to make the most difficult, therefore most important decisions for their respective companies. However different these leaders may be in many (if not most) respects, they seem to share (at least to me) several defining characteristics.

o They ask the right questions and listen intently
o Welcome, indeed demand principled dissent
o Thrive on challenges
o Are impatient with — rather than intimidated by — ambiguity
o Are results-driven
o Encourage and reward productive collaboration at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise
o Possess superior decision-making skills
o Focus on a problem’s root(s) rather than on its symptoms
o Celebrate others’ achievements
o Are leaders “for all seasons”
o Agree with Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination”
o And with Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Prominent contributors include

o Angela Ahrendts, “Turning an Aging British Icon into a Global Luxury Brand” (Burberry)
o Tony Hsieh, “Going to Extremes for Customers” (Zappos)
o Jeffrey Immelt, “Sparking an American Manufacturing Renewal” (GE)
o Anne Mulcahy, “Why Succession Shouldn’t Be a Horse Race” (Xerox)
o Vincent Nayar, “Persuading His Team to Leap into the Future” (HCL Technologies)
o Eric Schmidt, The Enduring Lessons of a Quirky IPO” (Google)

It is important to keep in mind that these essays are personal accounts that, as a result of brilliant editing, seem to be direct responses to a reader’s question, “How did you do it?” For example:

To Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Angelo American plc: “How did you create safer working conditions for Angelo American employees?”

To Daniel P. Amos, CEO of Aflac: “How did the noisy duck increase and enhance visibility and recognition for Aflac?”

To Mo Ibrahim, founder of Celtel and chairman of Satya Capital: “How did you create a telecom infrastructure in Africa from scratch?”

To Ellen Kullman, chair and CEO of DuPont: “How did you respond to the challenges and opportunities associated with the $7-billion acquisition of Denmark’s Danisco?”

To Andrew C. Taylor, executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings: “How did you do ensure that the acquisitions of Alamo and National would be cordial rather than hostile?”

You get the idea. In fact, I suggest to those who read this book for the first time that they begin each essay with two separate but related questions in mind: “What were the difficult objectives to achieve?” and “How did you and your colleagues do it?”

I presume to add that second question because, as indicated in one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment [end italics]. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

All of the CEOs who contributed essays to this volume would be the first to point out that, with all due respect to importance of makes especially difficult decisions, these decisions have little (if any) value unless and until effectively and productively implemented. That means but-in and commitment at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. For that reason, this volume could have just as easily be titled How We Did It.

Once again, I am reminded of my favorite passage in Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

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  1. Jason on June 17, 2014 at 10:39 am

    You might want to proof this article again…”To Daniel P. Amos, CEO of Aflac: “How did the noisy (dick) increase and enhance visibility and recognition for Aflac?””

    • bobmorris on June 17, 2014 at 11:47 am

      Thank you, Jason, for calling that typo to my attention. I caught it before posting the review at various Amazon sites but stupidly failed to correct it at my own website!

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