In Their Time: A book review by Bob Morris

In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders Of The Twentieth Century
Anthony J. Mayo and Nitin Nohria
Harvard Business Press (2005)

How great business leaders “seized the zeitgeist of their times”

I recently re-read Paths to Power, co-authored by Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria with Laura G. Singleton, as well as this book in which Mayo and Nohria also focus on some of the greatest business leaders of the twentieth century. As in Paths to Power, rather than limiting their attention to a set number of exemplary leaders – in chronological order — and then devoting a separate chapter to each, Mayo and Nohria chose instead to examine the evolution of 20th century business leadership in terms of the ten decades, assigning to each an appropriate theme while frequently cross-referencing throughout the entire century. For example, Chapter One (1900-1909) is titled “The Land of Opportunity”; Chapter Six (1950-1959) is “Feeding the Machine of Consumption”; and Chapter Ten (1990-1999) is “Reengineering, Restructuring, and Reality Check.”

In my opinion, as in their later book (Paths to Power), Mayo and Nohria’s role, is more that of cultural anthropologists than as biographers or even business historians. They create a social and economic context within a 100-year framework as they examine what differentiated outsiders from insiders in business leadership in the 20th century.

In the city where I live, we have a number of outdoor markets at which slices of fresh fruit are offered as samples of the produce available. In that same spirit, I frequently include brief excerpts such as these from a book to help those who read my review to get a “taste.” Here is a representative selection from the material that Mayo and Nohria provide:

“The business executives of the first decade were driven, opportunistic, and innovative. They operated on a large scale and constantly expanded their base of power. They built businesses that often had far-reaching impact on the way society lived, but they were, for the most part, less concerned about the way people worked; there was generally little regard for progressive employment practices. The focus was not on the quality of work life or necessarily on the quality of the product; it was often the quantity of the output. For many, there was no better way to secure quantity in the 1900s than through consolidation, and the move toward consolidation subsequently spawned another fundamental shift in business – a focus on productivity and efficiency.” (Chapter One, Page 31)

Note: The business leaders discussed in this chapter include Clarence M. Wooley (American Radiator Company), Cyrus H.K. Curtis (Curtis Publishing Company), and Frank C. Ball (Ball Brothers Company).

“Although innovation and technical competence were the principal drivers of products in the 1940s, marketing, advertising, and standardization drove products and services in the 1950s. Sales volume was further increased because many products followed a planned-obsolescence life cycle. Successful businesses adopted this use-and-replace strategy, which was aided significantly with the rise in products manufactured with plastic or other synthetic materials. The lack of focus on product quality would eventually become a major liability for U.S. manufacturers, but that was hard to see in the general prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s as corporate profits continued to rise.”

Note: The business leaders discussed in this chapter include Howard J. Morgens (Procter & Gamble), C. Kemmins Wilson (Holiday Inn), Raymond A. Kroc (McDonald’s), and Malcolm P. McLean (SeaLand Service).

“As we have seen in our analysis of previous decades, the full impact of the entrepreneur’s work is often not visible for many years; these businesspeople often push the limits of what is possible and even what is conceivable. By their nature, entrepreneurs and their businesses are ahead of the curve, and it is relatively dangerous to assess performance and impact as it is unfolding.

Note: The business leaders discussed in this chapter include Alfred M. Zeien (Gillette Company), Louis V. Gerstner Jr. (IBM Corporation), and Meg Whitman (eBay).

Those who share my high regard for this brilliant book are urged to check out the aforementioned Paths to Power as well as Stuart Crainer’s The Management Century and Stewart H. Holbrook’s The Age of the Moguls: The Story of the Robber Barons and the Great Tycoons. (obtaining a copy of it is well worth the effort.) In his book, Holbrook examines a number of “lords of capital” who, in his words, “made `deals’ purchased immunity, and did other things which in 1860, or 1880, or even 1900, were considered no more than `smart’ by their fellow Americans, but which today would give pause to the most conscientiously dishonest promoter….They were a motley crew, yet taken together they fashioned a savage and gaudy age as distinctively purple as that of imperial Rome, and infinitely more entertaining.”

Holbrook’s account of 19th century robber barons and great tycoons “sets the table” for the “feast” of information and analysis that Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria so skillfully provide.

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