Fragile faith and fallen paragons

In Search of European Excellence
November 21, 1997

Robert Heller is much too honest. If you want to write a mega-successful, blockbusting business book - and he does, he does - you need to aphorise, to encapsulate all business problems in a few pithy sentences and solve them in a few more. The market for business books is, naturally, business people; and business people are busy people (as they never tire of telling everyone). Business people are people in a hurry, with too much to do and too little time to do it. So they like business books which have clear, forthright messages. The books do not need to be particularly short, though many of the top sellers have been. But if they are long they must ram home a few constant and consistent messages, page after page.

None of which really suits Heller. And as the years go by it suits him less and less. He is probably Britain's foremost business author, and certainly the most prolific. When he started out he tried, like other business gurus, to simplify and dramatise. His early books had easily digestible and memorable titles (The Naked Manager, The Superchiefs and the like). His themes were as pithy and streamlined as he could make them. But even then he was never good enough at the simplification lark.

Perhaps because he had learned during his editorship of Management Today that business is complicated, and diverse, and serendipitous, and often messy; perhaps - as I said before - because he is too honest; perhaps because he is simply too intelligent, he can rarely avoid reminding his readers that there are two sides to every question (and often a whole lot more). Now he is doing it in trumps. And it is not, I fear, what business people want to read.

The stodgy title and subtitle of Heller's new book just about say it all: In Search of European Excellence: The Ten Key Strategies of Europe's Top Companies. Hardly attention grabbing, a long way short of irresistible, and an embarrassingly long way behind Tom Peters's classic bestseller, In Search of Excellence. The plodding inclusion of the word European and the unimaginative ten key strategies together reveal a flight from the glib towards the pedantic.

The awkward fact is that Heller now appears to recognise, but cannot allow himself quite to admit, that management philosophies and panaceas almost never work. Right from the start, in the introduction, he writes: "... the feet of clay syndrome (which plagues all authors who select corporate paragons) is that great companies 'lose their edge' I the best are never as good as they seem I The camera can lie."

Heller, who has spent his life writing about "corporate paragons", has seen any number of his one-time wonders turn into one-hit wonders and go under. As he admits himself in a charming but unnecessary orgy of self-flagellation, he has enthused about high-flying companies which have promptly proceeded to belly-flop and lavishly praised successful businessmen who have all too soon came to grief. It is, indeed, an endemic problem for "all authors who select corporate paragons".

The result, in his new book, is that he is now too realistic to commit himself. Time and again he advances a thesis and almost immediately repudiates it - or at the very least qualifies it. Here are just a few examples of his uncomfortable self-contradictions: "Dedication to top quality has its virtues, but also its vices"; "The effective outsider exploits the leverage which his unfamiliarity provides I The outside appointment is an accident waiting to happen"; "The task of renewal can't lie in the hands of people who know only the old ways and are comfortable with those habits. Old dogs are unwilling to learn new tricks. This doesn't mean that they can't."

His two most significant contradictions, each of which spotlights a very real dilemma for businesses today, are his attitudes to leaders and teams, and his attitudes to rules and the breaking thereof.

Much as he deplores it in theory, like all other business writers he cannot escape the cult of the personality. Time and again he praises, or blames, the head honcho for the performance of his company. The book's index is almost a Who's Who of famous, and indeed less than famous business people. But Heller knows that huge corporations cannot be the shadow of just one individual ("Relying on one man, however brilliant, eventually leads to trouble"). So he espouses and emphasises the importance of teams. Indeed one of his ten key strategies is "Making teamworking work". But he also knows that "teamwork" can all too easily, in large companies, become a euphemism for ineffectual "committee-itis". "The secret of the high-growth companies which set the pace is to sustain the emphasis on individuality". An irresolvable contradiction, which reflects the confusions of business reality.

As is his attitude to rules. Early on in the book he admiringly quotes Sam Walton's famous maxim for business success: "Break all the rules". Walton was the founder of the American retail chain Wal-Mart and he built it into the world's largest retailer. But his is a curious adage to find in a book which purports to be providing its readers with the rules - or anyway the ten key strategies - with which they can achieve success. Somewhat desperately Heller attempts to rationalise the contradiction ("Walton's incitement to anarchy doesn't mean lack of control"). It is another contradiction, of which Heller himself is manifestly well aware. But the crack is too wide to be papered over.

The upshot of all this is that In Search of European Excellence is a diffuse and uncertain book. It contains endless lists of rules - which are presumably there to be broken. (And that is as well, because many of them contradict each other.) Honesty is fine and dandy, but a good business book needs passion. That is what In Search of European Excellence sadly lacks. A more accurate title would have been "Ten Strategies in Search of a Vision". Not Heller's best by a long chalk.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Bozell UK Group.

In Search of European Excellence

Author - Robert Heller
ISBN - 0 00 255785 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 6

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