C.HIGHEST EXECUTIVES are of course not the most natural writers in the world. Without laser-sharp ambition, they will not get to the top, a quality that seldom leads to literary reflection. To be successful, they must assassinate their self and instead master the corporate gossip. They don’t need fame or fortune – the main reasons writers go through the agony they do. And when they do write, as a business publisher admits, one often weeps “for the trees”. Just think of Jack Welch’s hymn of praise to great (ie his own) leadership called “Winning”. His first wisdom is, “Winning in business is great because when companies win, people thrive and grow.”
So Schumpeter celebrates with trepidation the blossoming of a genre that most book lovers would shudder: the CEO Memoirs. True, it has its drawbacks. The authors are predominantly white, male and from the middle class. You are neither Hemingway nor Dostoevsky. There’s no sex, no drugs, and just mediocre rock ‘n’ roll. And they can afford the best ghostwriters, so it’s hard to tell how much their work costs anyway.
However, there is a lot to be said for the genre – especially if the authors are successful company founders who, by definition, have mastered the art of telling a good story. It has recently progressed with books by Phil Knight, who co-founded Nike in 2016, and Stephen Schwarzman, co-creator of Blackstone, in 2019. The latest addition is “Play Nice but Win,” the story about how Michael Dell built the Pc named after him that would eventually change the way computers were made and sold. Ignore the Boy Scout title. The book is bitingly funny, nerve-wracking and fast-paced. It’s also blessed with a central casting villain: Carl Icahn, activist investor and advertising dog whose sparring with Mr. Dell gives the story the bite.
In addition, such accounts provide a seat on the ring for those interested in business to watch some of the great dilemmas of the past few decades: stay private or go public; Prioritization of shareholders or stakeholders; Build hardware or software. In a world of illegible business books and overpriced business schools, it’s worth taking CEO Memoir seriously. Last but not least, they help expose what most self-proclaimed business gurus are doing wrong.
The first quality the books celebrate is competitiveness. The memoirs are full of it. These are not win-win companies created to make the world a better place. The business, as Mr. Knight puts it, is “war without bullets,” one sale at a time that one is bound to lose. In 1988, when Mr. Dell was 23 and Compaq was its main rival, he placed a billboard in front of his Houston, Texas headquarters with an arrow pointing west toward Austin, where his own four year old company was based. “158 miles to the opportunity,” it said. In “Shoe Dog”, Nike’s former boss writes about the importance of being the first in China to gain an advantage over your competitors. “What a coup that would be,” he writes. “A billion people. Two. Billion. Feet. “
The second factor is how the character affects the business. In most of these books, the personality is overshadowed by bloodless abstractions: visions, narratives, missions. In reality, companies are built of flesh and blood by people with strengths and weaknesses. Of course, all entrepreneurs long for success. But part of Mr. Dell’s genius was realizing that his triumph would result from complimenting his cocky young self with colorful senior statesmen who understood the perils of building a business at lightning speed. The laconic Mr. Knight’s buddy was Jeff Johnson, a nerd who got so excited about selling sneakers that he wrote endless letters to his disgruntled boss. He never got an answer, but the affection between the two men helped make Nike what it is. A cast of Wall Street characters illuminates Mr Schwarzman’s book. One of the most memorable is Jimmy Cayne, the head of Bear Stearns, who stubbornly refused to write a check that could have saved the bank from collapse years later.
Third comes openness. Be honest about failure and success. Starting a business is always associated with what Mr. Schwarzman calls the “moment of despair”: When you think you are a master of the universe, but no one else. In the case of Mr. Knight, it was his banker’s word that crossed his mind when he patted his pillow one night: “Equity,” which is cold, hard money to inject into his company. He didn’t have any. For Mr Dell, it was the frustration that Mr Icahn, a master of sound bites, accused him of grossly underestimating Dell in trying to make it private in 2013. He compares it to a “flounder hit in the face”.
Finally context. The books channel all of the cacophony that surrounds the business from employees, customers, competitors, lenders, investors, and regulators. That makes it so difficult to focus on success. When Dell temporarily privatized in 2013, Mr. Dell waved silently to the “legions of whiners, rear-seat drivers, curb experts, rear-view mirror thinkers and second guards”. Mr. Knight objects to what he calls the “bland, generic banner” of the business itself. “What we did felt like so much more. Every new day brought 50 new problems, 50 difficult decisions … and we were always aware that a hasty step, a wrong decision could be the end. “
To you, Jeff Bezos
The charm of self-aggrandizement remains. Mr. Schwarzman ends his book with pages of loss of name. Mr. Dell falls into the piety of doing good for the world. Refreshingly, Mr. Knight, who later studied creative writing, quits before his story becomes a boring story of Nike’s success. And the genre has room to develop. Soon the middle-aged tech barons of the West Coast will be dying to tell their stories. The world might flinch less if the CEO Scribes remember the four C.s: competitiveness, character, openness and context. And when they need a ghostwriter, think of the business hacks that, unlike superstar bosses, struggle in the dark. ■
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This article appeared in the business section of the print edition under the heading “How bosses should write books”