The devil is in the details—we’ve all heard the expression. Maybe one too many times. Heck, we’ve probably used it as often as we’ve heard it. Yet, do we stop to think about what it is we mean when we say it? Or is it misunderstood, or worse, misused, like many other common expressions such as the “printer’s devil” or “appearing sanguine”?
General Mark Welsh, commander of the US Air Forces in Europe, in a recent speech to the US Air Force Academy, talks about paying attention to detail, that it’s a habit you develop, whether in how your socks are folded or how low your volume knob is set—for when you’re flying a jet at supersonic speed, it could make the difference between life and death. His pithy tales of several promising young men who died, crashing their planes into the ground or being decapitated while ejecting, because they failed to pay sufficient attention to detail, is enough to make any of us sit up and take notice.
The modern corporation, while rarely moving at the speed of an F-16 jet, can be just as hairy to navigate, especially for the uninitiated. Jet aircraft with their glistening knobs and dials at least appear complex to handle, unlike most professional jobs and companies that on the surface seem simple and straightforward. Yet, as columnists in this paper and elsewhere document each week, outside of political parties, the large corporation is full of rules and systems, stated and otherwise, that can trip up not merely the new but even the experienced.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a (timeless) book that you could look up by specific topic—much like you’d with gift ideas or baby names—that could help you succeed in the modern corporation? Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization is that very book. Townsend is most widely credited for taking the struggling and never-made-a-profit-before Avis rent-a-car and turning it into a profitable and the second-largest rental car company in the world. All the lessons he learnt from his many years at American Express and at Avis are provided in bite-sized and alphabetically arranged topics, much like an encyclopedia starting with “Advertising” through “Wearing out your welcome”.
Up The Organization: How to stop the corporation from stifling people and strangling profits Robert Townsend Fawcett Publications; Robert Townsend, Fawcett Publications
Originally written in 1970, as a guide for a few of his friends who were getting started in business, the book’s subtitle How to stop the corporation from stifling people and strangling profits says it all.
Can any book written before the word globalization had become popular still be relevant in business? Worse yet before women were a significant part of workforce, particularly in management ranks. Since then haven’t the Japanese, then Korean, Chinese and now Indians rewritten how business is done? Haven’t the Internet and cloud computing, telecommuting, tablet computing changed everything? Yes, yes, no and no. The truly scary and fun thing about Up the Organization is how pertinent it is to the workplace even today.
Under “Promises”, he says: “The world is divided into two classes of people: the few people who make good on their promises (even if they don’t promise as much), and the many who don’t. Get in Column A and stay there. You’ll be very valuable wherever you are.”
At the heart of it, Townsend was “a witty and incisive arch-enemy of corporate bureaucracy. A creative business iconoclast and human relations genius, he succeeded in business by challenging and replacing the ossified conventions of corporate management”, in the words of corporate crusader Ralph Nader. More importantly, he could write well, as vouched for by Up the Organization’s 28 weeks in The New York Times best-sellers list.
As with a good meal or dessert, words are often inadequate—it’s best you experience the book directly. Any book that has a chapter titled “Mistresses”, with the following to say, “A personnel man with his arm around an employee is like a treasurer with his hand in the till”, is not one you are going to want to miss reading.
K Srikrishna is an entrepreneur and angel investor. He writes about issues that business leaders and managers face and books that could help.
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