Ruth Tait, the author of Roads to the Top, is a headhunter. She admits that inducing clients to adopt a rational approach to past and future career development is the most usual way of matching individuals to appointments. "Most senior managers," she writes, "attribute their career choices to external forces beyond themselves - to chance, luck, the influence orintervention of others." Career planning for those in the fast lane is not scientific. It is mostly to do with spotting and taking advantage of opportunities.
This is far more than a "winning manager" Hype Press publication written for the undiscerning. It is a book of qualitative research of the best sort, because clearly it is written by an expert interviewer, one who is not a slave to excruciatingly complex and obscurantist methodologies. When one is dealing with those at the righthand end of the distribution curve of talent, the "elite interview" is the most telling and valid method given the individuality of the individuals. Knowing the career patterns of hundreds of other business leaders puts what these 18 leaders tell her into perspective and she tells us what the perspectives are.
Tait has chosen a wide range of successful business leaders working in the United Kingdom; one in her thirties, five in their forties, six in their fifties, five between 60 and 63, and the oldest pair at 66 and 71 years young. Fifteen are graduates, 11 UK-born, two from Canada, two Americans, one from Eire, one New Zealander and one German-born. The companies range from Coca-Cola and Asda, to Barclays Bank and Inchcape plc, from British Airways to Sears Holdings and Coats-Viyella, from the Granada Group to Tate and Lyle, taking in ICI, Cadbury-Schweppes, PowerGen, British Gas and numerous others. All are at the president/chairman/chief executive level. To drop a few names, we learn of the careers of such long-established men as Sir John Egan, Lord Sheppard, and Sir John Harvey Jones, together with whizz-kids like Archie Norman of Asda, Martin Taylor of Barclays Bank and Bill Castell of Amersham International, and women such as the youngster (at 36) Penny Hughes and the former racing-driver now Northern Ireland minister Baroness Denton.
These individuals are therefore not shrinking violets, they are people confident enough to admit their mistakes and speak in a balanced way of their successes. Their words are quoted verbatim - accounting for some 40 per cent of the text. "Whatever else it is, business is an intellectual exerciseI you are dealing with an enormous range of variables." "I never planned to become chairman of Grand Met. I have always been concerned to do today's job well."
Because she is dealing with the careers of successful business leaders the author is able to construct, with their help, a critical path analysis of their way to the top. While acknowledging in the individual chapters the unique road each has followed she has concluded with four general chapters covering their diverse backgrounds but common motivation. "Career decision making" covers their planning, education (five have MBAs), consulting, changing companies and industries. "Career development" proves the importance of early specialist success, continuous learning and improvement, the value of hardship, mistakes and obstacles. Then there are "Family and personal lives" and the final chapter, "The attributes of leadership", which is one of the best summaries I have read on the subject at the corporate level. Surprisingly, there is no index to reinforce the findings.
Roads to the Top is strongly recommended for all MBA students and those undergraduates who can grasp the distinction between generalists and specialists. Successful business leaders who have made their own opportunities by hard work, sustained intellectual effort and vision are both worth studying as a thought-provoking exercise, and as exemplars for those who would follow parallel roads.
One is immediately suspicious when a fighting general writes his memoirs and incorporates "lessons learnt" in a round number such as ten. It all seems too contrived and "hands on" for serious consideration. Len Hardy, however, the author of Ten Golden Rules, subtitled "The ten golden rules that can help your business to win in the toughest markets", is a thinking as well as a fighting general. In the battle of the soap giants, the fighting has been and is so intense that financial quick-wittedness and sustained study of the enemies in the marketplace must indeed be the only way of winning. In that respect Hardy is a winner.
Hardy, accountant and London School of Economics postgraduate student, sales director, then marketing director and finally ten-year chairman of Lever Bros, is no newcomer to the written word. He has written books on marketing, operations and strategy. But Ten Golden Rules is a practical book: it is about winning in business and not ostensibly an academic study about general truths. It is written to teach would-be entrepreneurs the lessons of rapid mobile warfare. Academics, of course, instinctively prefer the security of the trenches.
At first sight, the rules - "stick to the knitting", "if you're not going to win, don't play" and "be first, be right" - are not very promising. Oversimplification, one assumes. But perhaps this is academic prejudice, a tendency to over-complicate ad absurdum. After all, people look to leaders to simplify complex issues.
Close reading of Hardy's book quickly dispels any hint of management by jargon or anti-intellectual bias. It is evident that Hardy applied his intellect from an early stage in his business career in searching out simple truths, then applying the lessons, redefining them and looking sideways at other industries. That is all to the good. It must have been gratifying to see Lever Bros increase its market share at the expense of Proctor and Gamble and other detergent and allied product manufacturers.
His findings in such rules as "You ignore the 'best value' concept at your peril", "Real business success demands a competitive advantage" and "Never start a price war unless your are sure you are going to win", are likely to be valuable to students seeking pointers in the extraordinarily difficult business environment, where general truths are few and hard to pin down. They have, of course, been stated before, and adorned in full academic dress, but here they are stated with added conviction.
The chapters, after a helpful introduction, run from one to ten, each containing a single "rule". In the first chapter the first rule is applied in a general case study comparing the two soap manufacturers already mentioned, then Cadbury-Schweppes, Hanson Trust, the Trustee Savings Bank, two privatised utilities in the UK, and Federal Express in the United States. These case studies are models of succinctness and wide coverage.
Unfortunately, the nine other chapters contain no reference at all to any companies other than soap and detergent manufacturers. What an opportunity missed after such a promising first chapter. First impressions on looking at the contents page were right after all.
The value of this book for serious students rather than busy business executives is extremely limited. In business, because it is more art than science, generalised "rules" can only be provisional. If Ten Golden Rules is to be recommended to undergraduates, then it can only be as a vehicle for them to test the last nine "rules" by studying half a dozen industries/companies per chapter for themselves. I am not against such an exercise, but I doubt that all Hardy's rules are as completely universal and timeless as he believes them to be.
Patrick Mileham is a lecturer in economics and management, University of Paisley.
Ten Golden Rules: Business Management Strategy and Operations
Author - Len Hardy
ISBN - 0 9525626 0 X
Publisher - Windrush Books
Price - £15.99
Pages - 212