250 Business Books That Helped Define Me As A Business Guy (Part 1)

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Time Magazine cover - September 8, 1967 - Harold GeneenIn 1984 I read a book about somebody I had never heard of. A business titan with a reputation for making senior leaders cry publicly as he questioned them about their numbers in an open forum. He’d made the cover of Time magazine back in 1967, but that preceded my business career so it escaped me. People still think of the hard-nosed CEO as an SOB. This man is often credited with being the father of the tough, SOB executive. I’m not so sure that’s accurate or fair, but I admit I have a favorable bias for him.

From 1959 to 1972 Harold Geneen was the President & CEO of International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. (ITT). Under his leadership the company grew from $765 million in revenue to a multinational conglomerate with $17 billion in revenues in 1970. Geneen was among the first corporate leaders to incorporate building a business into a larger conglomerate. ITT grew mostly through about 250 acquisitions and mergers spanning 80 countries.

I bought the book, Managing by Harold Geneen with Alvin Moscow, for no particular reason other than I was (and still am) a voracious reader. The cover was plain. The authors, unknown to me. But there I stood in line buying a copy. It was a new release. Maybe that’s why I bought it. I don’t remember.

Only 2 years earlier I had stood in this same bookstore buying a copy of the first book to really establish the business book genre into mainstream America, In Search Of Excellence. I’d never heard of those authors either. And like Geneen, these people were living in a different universe than the one I occupied. They were part of BIG BUSINESS. I was part of small business. Rinky dink business compared to the things these men were exposed to.

But it all fascinated me. I was a young father, married almost 7 years and I was ambitious. I was a learner, mostly captivated by what I did not yet know. And smart enough to know how vast that depth of ignorance ran. It’s likely why I was a voracious reader. I had a lot of catching up to do. Still do.

While In Search Of Excellence captivated me with stories of men and women doing amazing things – contrarians who were figuring out new ways to excel – when I dove into Mr. Geneen’s book it was different. It was one man’s journey and story of how he was doing things. It was about philosophy, beliefs, teaching and biography. I was young, impressionable and searching for wisdom in places far loftier than any place I knew I’d ever occupy.

Geneen’s book changed me.

He suffered from paralysis by analysis.”

You likely didn’t know that’s a Geneen quote. He was a very quotable guy. Maybe that’s was part of my attraction to him and his book, but it ran deeper than that for me. I had read Peter Drucker, but I confess Drucker wasn’t a writer who resonated with me. I knew he was smart, brilliant even. But I also was more captivated by the people in the trenches doing the work. Men like Geneen. And that made him different that Peters and Waterman who had written In Search Of Excellence. They were high brow consultants. Geneen was a business guy. Hard core.

Performance is your reality. Forget everything else.”

One quote in particular caught my attention like no other. It’s been the most used quote in my working career since because it’s so pointed and powerful. And clear.

Management must manage!”

Geneen’s intent with that quote is that managers must get the job done. People in every organization I’ve helped run since 1984 have heard me repeat that quote, giving Geneen attribution each time, thousands of times. For me, it wasn’t merely a good quote, but it was true. The burden I always felt as a manager was to perform. That likely stems from my early days as a straight commission salesperson selling hi-fi gear. If I didn’t sell something, I didn’t make any money. It’s the purest form of performance based pay I suspect.

Performance was my reality and it was easy for me to forget everything else. That’s how it is when your paycheck is fully determined by your performance. Of course, that doesn’t speak to the frustrations you experience because of the incompetence of others. I had plenty of that in my life, too. Frustration that something was out of stock. Frustration that co-workers fiddled with connections and a system wouldn’t work properly when you were trying to show it off to a shopper. Irritation that one part of the store wasn’t as clean as my area of the store, making it embarrassing to take a shopper to that area. Finger prints on glass was a constant source of frustration for me in those early teen years of selling because every sound room in a hi-fi shop had sliding glass doors. The presentation was part of the performance for me as a young hi-fi salesperson and I grew increasingly irritated when co-workers took no more pride than they might in a buddy’s dorm room at LSU. All those details ate me up some days.

Geneen seemed to be a guy who was equally eaten up with details. And I loved him for it. Mostly, I loved him for his candor. While In Search of Excellence had some terrific stories, it lacked the grit of the ugly conversations that necessarily have to be had if business is going to succeed.

The interviewer is annoying – poor Harold Channer – but it’s worthwhile to hear Mr. Geneen explain things on camera.

Management manages by making decisions and by seeing that those decisions are implemented.”

Managers in all too many American companies do not achieve the desired results because nobody makes them do it.”

If you keep working you’ll last longer and I just want to keep vertical. I’d hate to spend the rest of my life trying to outwit an 18-inch fish.”

I learned some critical things from this book by Harold Geneen. Among them, that leaders owe people more. Managers must support people by holding them accountable. While I knew peers who struggled to hold people accountable because the conversations were difficult, Geneen taught me that no matter how difficult they may be, managers owe their people that conversation.

Geneen’s book also taught me that the facts serve us, but we have to make sure we’re really getting facts. He lived in an era where getting the numbers was much tougher. The world was manual. Stacks of spreadsheets. Ledgers heaped upon ledgers. Decision making took much longer in his day. I grew up in the computer age where business could much more easily distill the facts. The numbers were far easier for me to get, than for Harold.

I knew instantly, upon reading this book, that Geneen was right about measuring performance. It rang true based on everything I knew and everything I believed.

When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”

Performance stands out like a ton of diamonds. Non performance can always be explained away.”

By the time I was reading this book I had almost a dozen years of business experience behind me. Most of it had been involved in sales. Real world toe to toe, belly to belly sales. I had mostly learned how NOT to do things. I was now running a multi-million dollar enterprise and I had a clear vision of how I thought things should be run based mostly on how badly I had seen some of my earlier places of employment operate.

I knew what I wanted and some years prior I had learned somewhere to begin with the end in mind. So Geneen’s message just kept on resonating with me.

You read a book from beginning to end. You run a business the opposite way. You start with the end, and then you do everything you must to reach it.”

Geneen’s philosophy was extremely congruent with my own. I knew his style was probably more gruff than my own, but I didn’t care about that. I had friends who were busy trying to be something they weren’t. Or somebody they had never been before. I knew my limitations. I knew who I was and what I was. I never really tried to be somebody else. That doesn’t mean I was always happy with who I was, or what I was, but my convictions were strong. I was unwavering in my dedication to not be somebody different. If Geneen or other leaders I admired could yell and scream, I knew I couldn’t. I could get amped up and raise my voice, but I wasn’t some storm trooper manager who walked in a room and everybody instantly grew uneasy. I’ve longed believed managers must be congruent and true to whom they really are. And I think we all can be. For every hard-nosed manager who is succeeding I’ll show you a soft-spoken manager who is doing it stylistically very different, but also succeeding.

Winning changes everything. Losing does, too. But losing makes everybody pay. I never wanted to lose and I never wanted my organizations to lose. The price was too high. Geneen was such a no nonsense guy driven to win that I couldn’t help but like him. More than that, I found him highly valuable. I remember the first time I read the book I thought how nice it would be to work for a guy like that. I had never worked for anybody remotely like him. Sadly, I had worked for a few good managers, but most of the managers I worked for were poor. By the way, now years later my mind hasn’t changed. If anything, my current perspective of my earliest managers has only revealed to me how pathetic they were.

Geneen had high standards. If performance measurements weren’t met, he didn’t lower the expectations. I thought that was exactly right. I had grown up with hearing managers and business owners excuse poor performance. I grew up with managers who had no trouble lowering expectations. Sometimes I had managers who didn’t have an expectation. And because I was often working along side of people who were at best indifferent, at worse they were apathetic or rebellious…I could not understand why management made me work along side these losers. Geneen was staunch about what management owed people, namely to not make them be partnered with people who failed to perform. Boy did that hit a sweet spot in my belief system!

Do you want my one-word secret of happiness? It’s growth – mental, financial, you name it.”

Harold Geneen died in New York City on November 21, 1997. He was 87 years old. He had endured the Great Depression. Like most people who went through that experience, it helped shaped his world view and business philosophies. He was trained in accounting so the numbers were always important to him. Fact-based management was crucial during his regime at ITT.

This November he’ll have been dead for 18 years. This book was first published 31 years ago. Today, you can go to Amazon and buy a copy for a penny! A penny.

In Search Of Excellence changed the book selling world by giving us a new subset of books, BUSINESS BOOKS. Prior to the publication of that book you wouldn’t have seen aisles and shelves of business books. But this book, Managing by Harold Geneen with Alvin Moscow impacted my entire career by giving me a sense of my own abilities to become a better manager and leader. The fact that Geneen had achieved wild success using techniques and philosophies that I believed in gave me hope that in time I too could figure out how to be successful, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Ironically, earlier that same year – 1984 – another book had already had a profound impact on me. I’ll tell you about that book the next time. As you hear stories of these books that impacted by business philosophy you’ll see a theme emerge. The focus is on HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE.

Randy

Here’s a Slideshare on 10 Management Lessons From Harold Geneen by Sompong Yusoontorn.