Everybody goes through this. You aren’t the only one who’s felt this way!” Don’t you hate it whenever you hear this—from parents particularly or well meaning friends? Like most folks, I swore never to use this and many other phrases that our parents’ generation used with us. Of course, I’ve miserably failed as my children can vouch. And I’ve come around to the belief that indeed we are not alone in most nearly everything we experience or feel. Sure there are exceptions, be it the loss of a job, a marriage or worse yet a child—not everyone of us experiences these first hand. Yet the major part of our personal and professional lives are filled with trials and triumphs, self-doubts and elation and a myriad of feelings in between, that are shared with most others in similar situations.
Businesses and the corporations that run these are just as different or not, as the people who run them in the challenges they face and problems that they have to solve. We seem to find it reasonably easy to recognize the commonality of the shared human condition, unless you happen to be a teenager, in which case you feel that you and only you are faced with insurmountable problems or possess all the answers. Yet all too often we fail to see the problems that beset our businesses may have far more in common with those faced or even solved by other businesses. We tell ourselves, that our particular business or our industry is very different from other businesses or industries and, therefore, the lessons of the past may not or even will not apply.
My Years With General Motors: Alfred P. Sloan, Jr Doubleday, 1963
If we had a nickel for each time we heard how the Internet has changed the world—and indeed it has—we’d be rich or at the very least neck-deep in nickels. But then again so did the television, heavier-than-air flight, penicillin and antibiotics, the automobile, the steam engine, printing press and a slew of other inventions stretching back to the domestication of fire. Yet even as the world has changed, so many things haven’t—luckily many would say. This constancy, even if always not evident, is both reassuring and allows us to draw inferences and lessons that will allow us to manage or cope with the changes that envelop our businesses and us.
In the weeks and months leading up to the recent initial public offering of Facebook, there’s been much discussion, not just in the financial pages, of what it really means. Can a business that makes approximately $1 revenue for every user it has, be worth more than so many more established businesses, building real things? Is young Mark Zuckerberg up to the task? With a population—er, user base—only smaller than that of China and India, does Facebook represent a fundamental shift in human history? Okay I made up that last question, though the numbers are themselves correct. It was not too long ago, we were asking similar questions about Apple’s—still growing—cash hoard that’s larger than the gross domestic product of many countries and Google’s intimate knowledge of our online habits. Without taking any credit away from the team at Facebook, Google or Apple, are they such pioneers moving in unchartered territory that they have to make things up themselves? Or are there lessons they can learn from others that have gone before them, albeit in other businesses and industries, that would serve them well? And if that’s true for these present day pioneers it would certainly be true for the rest of us.
At first glance, Alfred P. Sloan’s My Years With General Motors would hardly seem the obvious choice for such a tome. Published in 1964, it covers the history of General Motors (GM) between the years 1918-1955 and Sloan’s preceding 20 years in the then emerging automotive industry. Yet, like the Mahabharata or Homer’s Iliad, it’s not just a ripping good tale—told in a rather matter-of-fact dry style—but a great source of insights that dawn on you, often unannounced. Bill Gates assertion that this “is probably the best book to read, if you want to read only one book about business” is not far off the mark!
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