John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba. He has been writing a column for the Ivey Business Journal for 35 years. This is his last column.
I have written over 150 articles for the Ivey Business Journal beginning with a 1979 piece on bank profits for the Business Quarterly, as it was called until 2000. But no article is more important to me than this one as it brings to a close the Viewpoint column I have written for each issue in various forms since the mid-1980s.
I remember distinctly when the then editor, Doreen Sanders, suggested I write a regular column aimed at offering useful advice to practicing executives. I said yes immediately. Throwing in with the Ivey Business Journal is one of the best decisions I have made in my academic career: it forced me to learn what a business actually does and what executives actually do. It forced me to be relevant to executives because if I wasn’t someone else was going to be writing my column. It forced me to see a business as a complicated whole where everything affected everything else, not just a narrow functional area like finance or marketing. It forced me to actually listen to executives – very edifying for a professor used to doing all the talking. It forced me to confront what I did in class and what would actually help students move from the classroom to business careers.
I came to feel deeply that being an executive is simply a very tough job that very few people can do well. On executive compensation, I absolutely buy the line “If you think good executives are expensive, you should try bad executives.”
Being a good executive is about a number of core concepts, many of which have neat one-liners associated with them. Here are some of the best from my years of columns:
“The only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malpractice.” (Peter Drucker).
“The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.” (William James).
“Bedside manners are no substitute for the right diagnosis.” (Alfred P. Sloan, Jr.).
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” (Lewis Carroll).
“No situation is so bad that overreacting and doing something stupid cannot make it far worse.” (Unknown).
“The most scary thing in business is the scared executive.” (Unknown).
“Your first loss is often your smallest.” (Unknown).
Over the years, I have written about many books. These are three of the best: First, My Years With General Motors by General Motors builder, Alfred P. Sloan Jr. (Doubleday, 1963). Bill Gates called it “Probably the best book to read if you want to read only one book about business.” Second, Only the Paranoid Survive by Intel builder Andrew S. Grove (Random House, 1999). Of it Steve Jobs said, “This book is about one super – important concept. You must learn about Strategic Inflection Points, because sooner or later you are going to live through one.” Third, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron” by Fortune writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (Portfolio, 2003). A great lesson in how easily people can lose their way with disastrous consequences for everybody.
Endings are about thank yous and I have many. I thank the Richard Ivey School of Business for giving me the chance to write for Canada’s flagship management journal for close to half of its 80 years of existence. I am truly grateful.
I especially thank three editors: Doreen Sanders gave me the opportunity in the first place. She taught me how to write for executives. She was unfailingly supportive and encouraging. She had seemingly unending time to shape and improve articles.
Andrew Grindlay was an academic like me. He understood executives and what they wanted from academics. He taught me focus and clarity, how to make the point, move on and not waste the executive’s scarce time. He was a constant source of interesting ideas for articles. He was eternally patient.
Stephen Bernhut helped me out of my comfort zone of economics and finance. He loved business. He saw management implications in everything. Without Stephen, I never would have written articles tying management to the likes of Tennyson, Pascal, Socrates and even baseball and bullshit. Yes bullshit! Stephen was a font of knowledge on management practice, history and personalities. He was a joy to work with as a writer.
Finally, I thank the readers. Without readers writing would not be much fun. Many have been in touch by telephone, regular mail or e-mail. Some have been supportive; some have given me an earful; some have given me ideas for future articles; some have gone to great pains to explain the real world to an academic; some have invited me into their organizations to meet with them.
Perhaps the best thing about writing for the Ivey Business Journal all these years that I never fully appreciated until now is all the wonderful connections I have made. I have been struck over and over again by how earnest executives are about their responsibilities and how hard they work to do their jobs better. The caricature of the executive as self-centred, greedy and insensitive does not square with the reality I have experienced.
So it has been a blast! Thirty-five years have gone by in a heartbeat! Bob Hope in 1938 knew how to close: “Thanks for the memories.”