How do you bring a book back from obscurity? Evidently, by asking Bill Gates to write a Wall Street Journal column explaining why it is “the best business book [he’s] ever read”.
This is what happened last summer, when a 1960s business book, a collection of New Yorker articles by the late financial journalist John Brooks, was the subject of a sort of literary love letter by Bill Gates. (It should be noted that his copy was in fact lent to him by Warren Buffett.)
After Gates’s article appeared, second-hand copies of the then out-of-print book became hot property and an ebook reissue quickly followed, becoming number one on Amazon and number two on the New York Times bestseller lists. While last August, a new paperback version also became available. Quite the resurrection.
So what does a collection of articles from almost half a century ago have to teach us about business today? As the Microsoft co-founder notes: “The particulars of business have changed. But the fundamentals have not.”
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
Brooks covers topics from the rise of Xerox and Piggly Wiggly to the $350m Edsel disaster and scandal at Texas Gulf Sulphur. And although every reader will take away lessons particular to them and their line of work, there are definitely some that can be extracted and applied to any business setting.
Firstly, never stop disrupting. Gates’s favourite chapter is one of the most compelling, and feels most familiar in our modern era of rapid innovation and technological development. Xerox may have developed a product that changed offices around the globe, but it also failed to innovate in such a dynamic way again and never managed to reach the same heights thereafter.
Secondly, clear communication is king. In a chapter about a price-fixing scandal between energy companies the author delves into the murky and self-sabotaging world of corporate miscommunication. The people working in these firms, from junior staff to senior management, became so accustomed to using language laden with hidden truths and nuanced verbal trickery that even they were confused about what was really being said.
Brooks himself isn’t quite able to pick it apart, as he attempts to analyse what was to blame for a web of deceit that ended up costing the firms a hefty fine. Another vitally important lesson is to beware the temptation to let your ego guide your business decisions.
Brooks charts the dramatic and historic failure of the Ford Edsel. The car’s development was famously poll-tested but, as Brooks discovers, Ford’s executives made the majority of the decisions based on their own interests, and the car ended up being a costly and publicly embarrassing failure, which might have been prevented if only they’d listened to the market.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
There are nine more chapters with equally clear lessons. And yet the book’s a welcome departure from the usual self-help style business tomes: no lists, takeaway lessons or quick-fixes. Instead, Brooks’s rigorous research and ability to tell fun and compelling stories takes us on a rollicking, rollercoaster journey through some of the biggest business misadventures in US history.
What really becomes clear is that the mistakes of the 1960s could easily be those of the 2010s. The reason? It’s because business has always ultimately been about people, and an enterprise will succeed or fail on the actions of its leader.
Brooks’s book is essentially a study of human nature, which demonstrates how the decisions of a few can have a dramatic effect on a company – and even the economy – as a whole. And perhaps the main lesson to take away here, as Bill Gates himself says, is that “there’s an essential human factor in every business endeavour. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfect product, production plan and marketing pitch, you’ll still need the right people to lead and implement those plans.”
Do it now
There are no bite-size ‘win strategies’ in this book, but what I would recommend is that leaders pay attention to the previous mistakes of others.
Don’t think that the troubles of Xerox, or Piggly Wiggly, have no relevance to your business.
Don’t let ego get in the way.
Instead, consider the human factor in everything you do – people are your business’s most powerful and most dangerous asset.