ONE HUNDRED ARTICLES AND COUNTING

On the occasion of his 100th column, this regular contributor to the Ivey Business Journal reviews some of the advice and wisdom he has provided readers. And, why shouldn’t he? Ever since he began writing this column, in 1976, John McCallum has almost always been right. Few commentators know and respect the practice of management more.

This is my 100th article for the Ivey Business Journal. When I did my first one in 1976, I had a six-year-old, a three-year-old, a full head of dark brown hair and a lot of enthusiasm for trying my hand at writing something useful for executives. Twenty-seven years later, Pamela is a mother of five-year-old twins with an MBA and a health care consulting practice, Jamie is a CFA and a vice-president with a Wall Street investment bank and what hair I have is grey. I still, however, have the same enthusiasm for executives. One-hundredth anniversaries of anything are a time to mark, a time to pause and reflect, a time to reminisce and look forward.

Writing for executives is a most worthy endeavour for business school academics. Academics can help executives keep enterprises going and growing. The trick is to get the knowledge and research packaged in a form that can be applied.

It has always been regrettable to me that business schools do not put more emphasis on getting the latest in what works and does not work into the hands of those who run businesses. The imperative of private funding is increasingly landing business school officials in executive offices for two-way conversations about each other’s needs and goals. My hope is that over time this interaction will lead to business school research being more applied and more practically accessible to the mutual benefit of both enterprises and scholarship.

Scholarly research, insights and ideas that can help executives run enterprises need not be two ships passing in the dead of night. If business schools do not get closer to business, then relevance, influence, usefulness and ultimately funding will suffer.

In the same vein, executives need to get closer to what goes on in business school classrooms. Executives will not get students trained to their satisfaction without communicating their requirements more effectively.

Most business school academics have a PhD in a functional business area like accounting, finance, marketing or production; most are capable of high-level research; most are energetic, motivated people; and most have little or no practical business experience let alone experience in the executive suite. Yet they train executives.

Executives can enhance the education of business school academics. I would encourage executives to invite business school academics into their enterprises. Roles could include guest speaker, paid consultant, case-writer, part-time staff member or board member. Enterprises will benefit; so will the academics; the students will benefit the most.

One hundred articles and counting in the Ivey Business Journal and I do not think I feel more strongly about anything. The next big leap forward in business education is going to be at the boundary between business and the academy. Executives, the next time you are invited to speak to a class at your local business school, serve on a practitioner advisory committee, or let your business be used for a class exercise, do not just reflexively say “No” to get it off your desk! Give it some thought! Take the time! You will enjoy it more than you think! You will meet students who just want to be you! You will meet academics who want to do the right thing and may not be quite sure what it is! Do not be shy about giving money either! The cost of business education is growing at two or three times the capacity of cash-strapped overall university funding. For provinces, the overwhelming priority is health care; for business schools, it is either to raise needed incremental funds privately or go without, short- changing teaching and research programs accordingly.

The goal of these 100 articles has always been the same: to develop an issue in the macro business environment in the context of proper management practice. Over time, we have parsed issues ranging from the dollar, interest rates, real growth, employment, inflation, trade and the capital markets to demographics, technology, politics, compensation, motivation, governance and ethics. One way or another all roads ended up at the same place: Management is the edge! Good management cannot fix every problem, but there is no problem that bad management cannot make worse very quickly. I have always liked that one-liner to the effect that if society thinks good executives are expensive, they should try the cost of bad executives.

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy talked about happy families being all alike while unhappy families were all unhappy in their own way. So it is with good and bad management. All good management focuses on the same things: clear goals, a high bar, the shareholder, the customer, the product, quality, costs, execution, benchmarked performance, strategy, tactics, flexibility, responsiveness, nimbleness, the organization, succession, the balance sheet and ethics. Bad management gets off the rails in thousands of different ways. The essence of good management has not changed one iota over the time I have been writing for the Ivey Business Journal. It has not changed since the first cavemen had to get organized for survival. However many articles I write, it will still not change.

Samuel Johnson advised writers that if ever they felt particularly good about a piece of work, they should probably bury it. I am sure he is right, but let me mention three pieces from the past 100 anyway.

First, “Tennyson on Management” (Ivey Business Journal, May/June 2000) is my most reprinted and requested piece. It takes the two key lines in Tennyson’s 1832 poem Oenone, “Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control./These three alone lead life to sovereign power,” and argues that this so-called trinity of excellences is at the core of effectively leading a business. If you hold yourself in non ego-driven self-reverence, you will have the confidence, self-respect, integrity, discipline and dignity to lead. If you know yourself, you will know when to get help, how you affect people and where you are most vulnerable to blunder. Sun Tzu in The Art of War is right. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a 100 battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” If you have self-control, you will be able to manage your basic instincts, desires and emotions, focus on the problems at hand and inspire your subordinates and peers. Who can perform for an out-of-control executive? Who wants to? The out-of-control executive is lethal to business interests.

Second, “John Pierpont Morgan on Economic Conditions” (Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2002) provides positive perspective on the long-term economy in the context of Morgan’s famous observation, “Remember, my son, that any man who is a bear on the future of this country [America] will go broke.” Executives depressed by current business conditions should read it for a pick-me-up. The point is that the fundamentals of countries like the United States and Canada augur well for the future.  If economies like ours, with our fundamentals, do not bounce back strongly, heaven help most everyone else. Solid fundamentals include democracy, the rule of law, free markets, private ownership, trustworthy money, competitive taxes, sound macroeconomic policy, sensible regulation and a respect for diversity. The article also makes a point executives should never forget: Bad business conditions are a challenge, but they create enormous opportunities for the capable.

Third, “Alfred P. Sloan Jr.: Must reading for executives” (Ivey Business Journal, July/ August 2003) makes the case that no executive will find greater value than in a careful reading and periodic rereading of My Years with General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan Jr. (Doubleday, 1963). Sloan, CEO of GM from 1923-’46, led the team that made General Motors the world’s number one company. In the process, he was arguably the principle architect of both the modern corporation and modern management practice. At the heart of Sloan’s approach is getting the organization right and what he calls the “factual approach to business judgment.” To Sloan, the wrong organization leads to bad strategy, poor execution and weak performance. It all begins with the way you structure the enterprise. Consider this endorsement of Sloan’s book by Bill Gates: “If you read only one book on business, read Sloan’s. It’s inspiring to see in Sloan’s account of his career how positive, rational, information-focused leadership can lead to extraordinary success” (Business @ The Speed of Thought, Warner Books, 1999).

In writing these 100 articles, I have come across just a few expressions that every executive would do well to have front of mind every day:

  • Think! IBM made this dictum famous. There is no business problem so great that panicking will not make worse. Descartes’s famous “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore, I am) applied to management might run, “I do not think, therefore, I am out of business.”
  • Just do it! Nike’s motto. Don’t complain! Don’t explain! Don’t make excuses! Don’t play “if only”! Execute! Deal with the problem! Good advice!
  • Only the Paranoid Survive! The title of Andrew Grove’s book (Doubleday, 1996). I recommend this book to executives, without reservation. Always thinking that someone or something is out to get you is not a happy psychological state, but it may be a fairly good representation of what it takes in today’s hypercompetitive business world. It is tough out there!
  • Be honest! Robert Burns. The best reason to play it straight is it is right and proper. A more practical reason might be that post-Enron, the chances of getting caught have gone up considerably and so have the penalties. Consumers, investors, regulators, etc., have just plain run out of patience with unethical executives. You cannot build a good business on an unprincipled foundation.
  • Time and patience! In War and Peace, Tolstoy called time and patience the strongest of all warriors. They often carry the day in the executive suite, too.
  • Fight to the last gasp! Shakespeare in King Henry the Sixth, Part I. Growing a competitive enterprise means never giving up and always getting up however many times you are knocked down.
  • Reserve thy judgment! Shakespeare in Hamlet. An impetuous executive is a dangerous executive.
  • Debt kills! No particular source but too much on the balance sheet certainly does. Every business problem gets incrementally worse with every additional dollar of debt when business conditions go south.
  • To thine own self be true. Shakespeare in Hamlet. Tough to be a good executive over time if you are not true to yourself. In the end, you just drive yourself and everyone around you crazy. Shakespeare would have been quite an executive coach. Executives so inclined would enjoy Power plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

The future is a delight for someone who likes to write for executives. There is sure no shortage of things to write about that matter: accelerating and increasingly unpredictable change; growing complexity; globalization; ever-heightening competition; breathtaking technology; skyrocketing uncertainty; incredible challenges; incredible opportunities. All to be managed! Management is always the difference!