One-Minute Book Reviews

February 10, 2009

The True Story of an Unemployed Manager’s Brutal Search for a Job: G. J. Meyer’s ‘Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:48 am
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Riches-to-rags stories are the morality tales of recessions, and G. J. “Jerry” Meyer’s is one of the best. Excerpted in Harper’s and hailed by Studs Terkel as “astonishing” on its first publication in 1995, Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America (Franklin Square Press, 245 pp., $21.95) is one of the most honest memoirs of our time about the pain inflicted on decent white-collar Americans who lose their jobs in a brutal market.

Meyer is a former vice-president of the McDonnell Douglas aircraft company who during a bruising job search came to see executive recruitment as a form of Kabuki theater, which requires actors to play roles based on myths. The process had little room for job-seekers who told truths that clashed with corporate folk wisdom. So Executive Blues is more than a diary of Meyer’s harrowing quest for work. It is the story of his effort to retain integrity in an age that routinely asks the unemployed to lie: about how much they want a job, what they can do for a company, and whether they are consummate “team players” or creative iconoclasts.

Like Aristotle, Meyer believes “how we’re supposed to live our lives is the biggest question of all.” And one of the many virtues of his memoir is that it reflects a struggle to keep his life from becoming a subsidiary of his work, or lack of work. Meyer doesn’t give advice to job-seekers – let alone flog them with bulleted lists – but offers a quietly powerful reminder that all of us are more than what we used to do.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda.

December 6, 2007

Gift Books for Leaders, Managers, Executives and Others Who Want to Succeed in Business

The books in the “Harvard Business Review On …” series include authoritative articles on topics from “Managing Yourself” and “Motivating People” to “Green Business Strategy”

Harvard Business Review on Change: Ideas With Impact Series. By John P. Kotter, James C. Collins and Jerry Porras, Jeanie Daniel Duck, Tracy Goss, Richard Pascale, and Anthony Athos, Roger Martin, Paul Strebel, Norman R. Augustine, and Robert H. Schaffer and Harvey A. Thomson. Harvard Business School Press, 228 pp., $19.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Is the phrase “business books” an oxymoron? So many titles in the category read like Power Point presentations in hardcover or exercises in spin control by ousted chief executives who are trying to recast their legacies.

Not the more than 50 paperbacks in the “Harvard Business Review On …” series, each of which includes reprints from the magazine on a theme such as “Leadership,” “Managing Yourself,” or “Motivating People.” I picked up the Harvard Business Review on Change at an airport Borders, looking for an alternative to The Almost Moon, which I’d packed in my carry-on bag in the irrational belief that a novel about a woman who kills her mother and stuffs her in a freezer might improve with altitude. It was perfect.

This installment in the series collects eight articles published between 1992 and 1997 on why change succeeds or fails in organizations, and most of the essays have as much to say today as they did ten years ago. Robert Schaffer and Harvey Thomson argue in “Successful Change Programs Begin With Results” that sirens like total quality management lure corporations onto the rocks because they are “activitiy-centered” rather than “results-driven.” Other articles explore the failures of rightsizing, reeingineering and cultural change. The best is John Kotter’s “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” which argues persuasively that organizational change fails for eight reasons from not creating a great enough sense of urgency at the outset to declaring victory too soon.

“The most general lesson to be learned from the more successful cases is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time,” writes Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School. “Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result. A second very general lesson is that critical mistakes in any of the phases can have a devastating impact, slowing momentum and negating hard-won gains.”

The authors of these essays draw most of their examples from major corporations. But their advice would also apply to or could be adapted for many smaller entrepreneurial ventures or departments or even for individuals wondering why they never keep their New Year’s resolutions. And because the series covers such a wide range of topics, you could probably find one for anyone on your gift list who is facing a challenge in business. How many of us wouldn’t benefit from being reminded at times of a remark by the novelist Rita Mae Brown, quoted in one essay, that “insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results”?

Best line: Former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine in “Reshaping an Industry: Lockheed Martin’s Survival Story”: “Financial wizard Warren Buffet once cautioned, ‘Beware of past performance ‘proofs’ in finance. If history books were they key to riches, the Forbes 400 would consist of librarians.’”

Worst line: A chart on page 194 listing the differences between “results-driven” and “activity-centered programs” appears to have the qualities of each program reversed.

Published: 1998

Furthermore: The titles in the “Harvard Business Review on …” series include books the follwing topics: Leadership, Marketing, Managing Projects, Managing Yourself, Motivating People, Effective Communication, Teams That Succeed, Women in Business, and the new Green Business Strategy. A complete list of titles appears on the Harvard Business School Press site www.hbsp.harvard.edu. Harvard Business School Publishing also has an IdeaCast series, a free podcast from “leading thinkers in management” at www.hbrideacast.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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