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Lessons from the Top: The Search for Americas Best Business Leaders

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In the bestselling tradition of In Search of Excellence, a fascinating and authoritative selection of the most successful business leaders in America--and the strategies, methods, and motivational tools they use to help make their companies great.

"I don't expect anyone to be perfect," says Mike Armstrong, CEO of a reinvigorated AT&T. "It's not human nature. What I do expect is that they will take risks, correct mistakes, and learn from both." This is only one of the hundreds of comments and insights behind ...

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Overview

In the bestselling tradition of In Search of Excellence, a fascinating and authoritative selection of the most successful business leaders in America--and the strategies, methods, and motivational tools they use to help make their companies great.

"I don't expect anyone to be perfect," says Mike Armstrong, CEO of a reinvigorated AT&T. "It's not human nature. What I do expect is that they will take risks, correct mistakes, and learn from both." This is only one of the hundreds of comments and insights behind some of the most successful business minds in American industry.

In Lessons from the Top, Thomas J. Neff and James M. Citrin--the U.S. Chairman and a Managing Director of the renowned executive search firm Spencer Stuart--set out to identify the most successful business leaders in America, based on the most exacting standards imaginable. Then, in an extraordinary series of what amounts to master classes, the authors sit down with each of the fifty executives to discuss the long-term strategies, key accomplishments, guiding beliefs, and career milestones that have helped to make their organizations among the best-run companies in the world.

Lou Gerstner of IBM underscores the necessity of adapting to change. "We are constantly challenging what we do--building a culture of restless self-renewal." Ray Gilmartin of Merck discusses, among other things, the critical role of leadership. "My job is really to set the overall strategic direction of the company, to ensure that we are organized to carry out that strategy, and that we have the right management processes in place. I need to create an environment where everyone in the organization can achieve their full potential so that our company does."

What makes a business leader great? This is one of the burning questions in companies and boardrooms across America. An even more compelling question: Are there things each of us can learn from these leaders that we can apply to our own lives? Not surprisingly, there is no single answer to copy or formula to follow in order to excel in business.

In fact, the leaders selected in Lessons from the Top are wildly different in their personalities, their paths to the top, and the industries they work in. But perhaps the best way to learn how to excel is by studying the strategies and thinking of the wide range of leaders who have proved themselves the best in their industries.

Of course, any list of the best business leaders in America would include such recognizable CEOs as Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Lou Gerstner, and Andy Grove. But the list the authors have so exhaustively researched and selected--with the help of the Gallup Organization and the analytical tools of investment advisors Lazard Frères--includes many names that are far less familiar--extraordinarily successful CEOs such as pharmaceutical industry leader Bill Steere of Pfizer, advertising executive Shelly Lazarus of Ogilvy & Mather, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco International, and Frank Raines of Fannie Mae.

In the final section of the book, the authors distill the surprising number of  qualities and characteristics that these extraordinarily accomplished individuals share, to offer lessons to help us in our own lives and careers.

A groundbreaking book on business and success, Lessons from the Top should be required reading by leaders--and future leaders--everywhere.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Inside Lessons from the Top:

"I think you've got to continuously make sure [employees] understand how important they are. As a CEO, you need people more than they need you. My job is to keep our people interested in staying, and working, and growing and prospering with this company."
--Larry Bossidy, Chairman & CEO, AlliedSignal

"When I look at potential products or services, I see them through the eyes of the customer, because that is what I am, a customer. I am like a chef. I like to taste the food. If it tastes bad, I don't serve it."
--Charles Schwab, Chairman & Co-CEO, Charles Schwab

"We reward failure. I remember some guys came up with a lamp that didn't work, and we gave them all television sets. You have to do it, because otherwise people will be afraid to try things."
--Jack Welch, Chairman & CEO, General Electric

"The real trick to marketing is finding a core idea which the world can use. You find the universal, and then you make it the core of what you do."
--Shelly Lazarus, Chairman & CEO, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide

"Customer satisfaction is the most important issue to me, and if you really believe that, then you've got to tie it to your reward system, to your management practices, and we do...We measure customer satisfaction in every way imaginable."
--John Chambers, President & CEO, Cisco Systems

"The key to building an enduring new medium is passion, people, perseverance, perspective and paranoia."
--Steve Case, Chairman & CEO, America Online

Rajat Gupta
A truly groundbreaking book.
Wall Street Journal
Industry Standard
Bernie Ebbers, a missionary's son, views his role as president and CEO of MCI WorldCom as an opportunity to serve the Lord. The last thing Autodesk Chairwoman and CEO Carol Bartz wants to be is a role model, let alone someone's mentor. Campbell Soup Chairman David Johnson says the best preparation for running a multinational company was growing up on a ranch in Australia.

Dig deep enough in Lessons From the Top and you'll find gems like these. But dig you must. This 418-page compilation of interviews with the country's top 50 business leaders is often dull, shallow and poorly organized.

The authors get an "A" for effort, though. Thomas J. Neff and James M. Citrin, respectively chairman and communications practice managing director at leading executive recruiter Spencer Stuart, tackled an ambitious job. Instead of creating a subjective list of the usual business-magazine cover boys and girls, they used quantitative research to determine top U.S. companies based on criteria like shareholder return then used that list to pick profile subjects, including the heads of several private companies and nonprofits.

The profiles, in which executives are paraphrased or quoted verbatim about such issues as leadership, competitive strategies and employee morale, are only as revealing as the men -- and 47 of 50 executives included are men -- want to be. Readers are treated to Ebbers candidly talking about how growing up as a missionary's son on a Navajo reservation helped shape his "egoless" management style. Martha Ingram, who became the chairwoman of privately held Ingram Industries after the death of her husband, Bronson, says her greatest training for the job was raising five kids.

Bartz speaks passionately against mentoring. "I've watched people who have been mentored and you just wonder why they are acting the way they are," she says. "They are trying to copy a style that may work for someone else, but it sure doesn't work for them -- and they are left with nothing."

And growing up on an Australian ranch, Campbell Soup's Johnson had an early introduction to "owner mentality" -- the idea that "what we earned and how well we did depended upon our talents and our capabilities," he says in the book.

But interviews of the 11 technology- and computer-company leaders included in Lessons are disappointing, and in some cases a bit dated. America Online Chairman Steve Case says nothing he hasn't uttered a dozen times before. The same goes for Intel's Andy Grove. The profile of Bill Gates -- who was interviewed for the book by e-mail -- makes no mention of the ongoing Justice Department investigation of Microsoft's business practices, an inexcusable omission.

Still, Lessons From the Top has its moments. As Neff and Citrin find, business leaders often share many traits, which they sum up as "doing the right things right." Their business all-stars lead by example, work from a plan, act fast, surround themselves with great people and inspire employees with more than just stock options. They're smart, articulate, hard-working, passionate about what they're doing and at peace with themselves.

That's as good a path to follow as any, for managers of Internet startups or anyone aspiring to one day occupy the corner office.
—Michelle V. Rafter

Other New Titles of Interest

Inventing the Internet by Janet Abbate MIT Press
An academic Internet history laden with an alphabet soup of acronyms, from the well-known Arpanet to the obscure Autodin II.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Headhunters Neff and Citrin of Spencer Stuart U.S. set out systematically to identify, profile, interview and capture the vision of the nation's top 50 CEOs. Through their company, they commissioned Gallup polls, gathered performance data and constructed a list of intangibles ("showed the ability to overcome challenges," "demonstrated consistent strength of character," etc.). The final results don't look all that different on the surface from countless other books purporting to offer the managerial motherlode, but in this case the difference is in the details. Interviews with AT&T's Mike Armstrong, Charles Schwab, Martha Ingram (one of four women named), Louis Gerstner, Bill Gates and Bill Marriott are all illuminating, revealing complementary aspects of captaining the ship without making redundant observations. A few of the notions even seem worker-centered: Starbucks' Howard Schultz points to the decision to provide equity and stock options to employees, even part-timers, as one of the main reasons why his company's attrition rate is below 60% annually (compared with the national average of 250%). The book is filled with such ideas, presented with a minimum of self-promotion from their purveyors. A final section of "lessons learned" offers a "new definition of success" that begins "live with integrity and lead by example." As concise and clear a management guide as readers are likely to find, this is a great tip sheet on business leadership. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Chair and communications director, respectively, of Spencer Stuart, a leading executive search firm, Ness and Citrin have selected 50 leaders from the private sector (e.g., Bill Gates, Jack Welch, and Charles Schwab) and the American Red Cross's Elizabeth Dole from the public sector to give us "lessons from the top." The authors interviewed each selectee, asking specific questions regarding personal triumphs; leadership strategies; methods of relating to subordinates, competitors, and shareholders; and why they think they run a solid, profitable, well-respected organization. This readable, comprehensive, and timely compilation complements many of the individual biographies already published, but the thought-provoking qualitative and quantitative analysis of the selection process sets this book apart. (Selection was based on Gallup findings, financial analysis, and references, with a detailed explanation of the methodology provided.) A good choice for business collections in academic and public libraries.--Steven J. Mayover, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Bernie Ebbers, a missionary's son, views his role as president and CEO of MCI WorldCom as an opportunity to serve the Lord. The last thing Autodesk Chairwoman and CEO Carol Bartz wants to be is a role model, let alone someone's mentor. Campbell Soup Chairman David Johnson says the best preparation for running a multinational company was growing up on a ranch in Australia.

Dig deep enough in Lessons From the Top and you'll find gems like these. But dig you must. This 418-page compilation of interviews with the country's top 50 business leaders is often dull, shallow and poorly organized.

The authors get an "A" for effort, though. Thomas J. Neff and James M. Citrin, respectively chairman and communications practice managing director at leading executive recruiter Spencer Stuart, tackled an ambitious job. Instead of creating a subjective list of the usual business-magazine cover boys and girls, they used quantitative research to determine top U.S. companies based on criteria like shareholder return then used that list to pick profile subjects, including the heads of several private companies and nonprofits.

The profiles, in which executives are paraphrased or quoted verbatim about such issues as leadership, competitive strategies and employee morale, are only as revealing as the men – and 47 of 50 executives included are men – want to be. Readers are treated to Ebbers candidly talking about how growing up as a missionary's son on a Navajo reservation helped shape his "egoless" management style. Martha Ingram, who became the chairwoman of privately held Ingram Industries after the death of her husband, Bronson, says her greatest training for the job was raising five kids.

Bartz speaks passionately against mentoring. "I've watched people who have been mentored and you just wonder why they are acting the way they are," she says. "They are trying to copy a style that may work for someone else, but it sure doesn't work for them – and they are left with nothing."

And growing up on an Australian ranch, Campbell Soup's Johnson had an early introduction to "owner mentality" – the idea that "what we earned and how well we did depended upon our talents and our capabilities," he says in the book.

But interviews of the 11 technology- and computer-company leaders included in Lessons are disappointing, and in some cases a bit dated. America Online Chairman Steve Case says nothing he hasn't uttered a dozen times before. The same goes for Intel's Andy Grove. The profile of Bill Gates – who was interviewed for the book by e-mail – makes no mention of the ongoing Justice Department investigation of Microsoft's business practices, an inexcusable omission.

Still, Lessons From the Top has its moments. As Neff and Citrin find, business leaders often share many traits, which they sum up as "doing the right things right." Their business all-stars lead by example, work from a plan, act fast, surround themselves with great people and inspire employees with more than just stock options. They're smart, articulate, hard-working, passionate about what they're doing and at peace with themselves.

That's as good a path to follow as any, for managers of Internet startups or anyone aspiring to one day occupy the corner office.

– Michelle V. Rafter

Other New Titles of Interest

Inventing the Internet by Janet Abbate (MIT Press, $28)
An academic Internet history laden with an alphabet soup of acronyms, from the well-known (Arpanet) to the obscure (Autodin II).

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385493437
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/17/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.45 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.46 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas J. Neff is Chairman of Spencer Stuart U.S. Hailed by The Wall Street Journal as "The No. 1 Brand Name in CEO Searches," he has been profiled on the cover of Business Week and in the Money & Business section of The New York Times.

James M. Citrin is Managing Director of Spencer Stuart's Global Communications and Media Practice. He has authored articles in The New York Times and has appeared on CNBC and CNN.

The authors live in Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

What Makes Business Leaders Great

Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
WHO ARE THE BEST BUSINESS LEADERS IN AMERICA? WHAT MAKES them great? What can we learn from them as we try to turn our own aspirations into reality?

These three questions have driven us from the moment that we began this project in April of 1997. They are relatively simple questions to ask. But they are extremely difficult to answer.

We had originally intended to open Lessons from the Top with an anecdote describing a real phone call we had received from a corporate board member asking us to launch an executive search for a new chief executive officer.

The board member, someone we had worked with over a period of years, wanted us to develop a list of candidates who could succeed the company's CEO, a man who had just informed the board that he intended to retire at year's end.

Up until that point, the phone call was fairly typical. Recruiting senior executives and board members to build our clients' management teams is what we do at Spencer Stuart. Each year, as one of the world's largest executive search firms, we interview over 40,000 executives around the world, in the course of more than 4,000 assignments that we conduct out of 50 offices located in 25 countries. Our recent assignments have included recruiting new CEOs to lead AT&T, Delta Airlines, Quaker Oats, Reader's Digest, J. Crew, and Weyerhaeuser.

Spencer Stuart has been recruiting such top talent for more than 40 years. So this particular phone call did not set off any unusual alarms. What was surprising, though, was his next request: Our client asked us to advise the board as well about what they should be looking for in their next CEO. Not only what industry background, company size, and geographic breadth, but the more subtle and potentially important characteristics. Who is the right kind of leader? What kind of attributes should he or she have?

The reason this brought us up short was that it was one of a number of similar requests we had recently received from our clients, firms that range from venture capital-backed start-ups, to some of America's largest companies.

Given the growing interest in this question, we decided to forgo opening the book with an elaborate story, and plunge right into the heart of the issue.

What, in fact, makes someone a great business leader? What does it really take to lead an organization successfully in today's ever more competitive and fast-moving world economy?

When we considered this carefully, we realized that it is not surprising that these questions are surfacing more frequently. They are the very things that individuals, whether given the responsibility of running an organization or managing a department, must answer and answer quickly.

As the deposed former chief executives of AT&T, Kmart, and Sunbeam can well attest, managers are being given less and less time to make a difference today.

Operating in what feels like an ever-tightening vise--being squeezed by global competition on one side and a rapidly changing, technology-driven business landscape on the other--it is only natural for managers to look for comfort in what has worked in the past. Unfortunately, as they have learned the hard way, we are no longer operating under the old rules. When a company's board loses confidence in its CEO, it often takes decisive action. And conducting a search for a new leader is often the action it takes. It is often also the point where we come in.

What Spencer Stuart Does

Executive search is a specialized form of management consulting that focuses on defining a company's leadership requirements as a function of its strategy, and then identifies, interviews, and recruits the most appropriate candidate to execute that strategy.

Developing insight into business leaders' careers and lives--what makes them "tick"--is essential for us to fulfill our mandate, as we set out to find the right executive.

To assess a candidate for a top position, we perform an in-depth appraisal of the executive's career accomplishments, management style, obstacles overcome, mistakes made and lessons learned, leadership philosophy, formative life experiences, and personal and professional ambitions. Given that executives are often competing for these high-profile appointments, it is in their interest to make certain that we understand their industries, companies, and careers as much as possible.

Meeting with all of these executives, and developing insights into their business successes and what makes leaders great, has provided us with the privilege of learning from many of the top business leaders in the world. We have grown professionally and personally as a result and wanted to share what we have learned. This was one of the principal reasons behind writing this book.

To give these lessons about success and leadership maximum impact, we decided that it was critical to hear from the very best. And rather than simply subjectively picking the "best" leaders to study, we felt compelled to apply an objective and rigorous analytical process. This decision was partially the result of the fact-based, analytical approach that was instilled in both of us earlier in our careers as management consultants at McKinsey & Company.

So we undertook to do what no one else has done before. We put together a rigorous methodology aimed at identifying the very best business leaders in America and then interviewed those leaders at length to discover why they have been so successful.

There are, of course, entire libraries of books that analyze key leadership qualities. But most are rather academic in their approach, or are limited by a single author's perspective.

And while there are scores of annual rankings of top business managers, our review suggests that these tabulations have neither the requisite analytical rigor nor the depth to elucidate the stories behind the rankings.

Neither approach seems to bring to life what it takes to be a great leader in a way that can be applied to real life.

In light of this, we set the ambitious dual goals of:

1) Being as analytically sound as possible in constructing our list of business leaders, and

2) Articulating their stories in as personal and approachable a style as possible.

Based on the methodology described below and in Chapter 3, we created the list of business leaders that is as close as we could come to answering our first question, "Who are the best business leaders in America?"

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Table of Contents

Pt. I The Search for the Best Business Leaders in America 1
Ch. 1 What Makes Business Leaders Great 3
Ch. 2 Evaluating Today's Business Leaders 11
Ch. 3 Methodology: A Closer Look at the Numbers 17
Pt. II Profiles 29
Overview to Profiles 31
Mike Armstrong (AT&T): "You've got to have the guts to make a decision." 35
Carol Bartz (Autodesk): Leading by example 41
Hans Becherer (Deere): Creating customers for life 47
Gordon Bethune (Continental Airlines): It's how you'd run an airline 55
Larry Bossidy (AlliedSignal): "There was a time when I thought brains were everything." 61
Jim Broadhead (FPL Group): Execute 67
Steve Case (America Online): You've got mail 73
John Chambers (Cisco Systems): "Everybody here knows what we want to accomplish." 79
Michael Dell (Dell Computer): The power of direct 85
Elizabeth Dole (American Red Cross): Managing the nation's material, human, and inner resources 91
Bob Eaton (DaimlerChrysler): "You don't want to be a manager. You want to be a leader." 99
Bernie Ebbers (MCI WorldCom): "The only real values are the eternal ones." 105
Michael Eisner (Walt Disney): "What you are striving for is magic, not perfection." 111
Don Fisher (The Gap): The Gap Formula for Success is as easy as 1-2-3: luck, common sense, and a small ego 117
Don Fites (Caterpillar): (Earth)Mover 123
Bill Gates (Microsoft): Missionary 129
Lou Gerstner (IBM): "Once you think you can write down what made you successful, you won't be." 137
Ray Gilmartin (Merck): "Working for a higher purpose" 143
Ace Greenberg (Bear Stearns): "We hire PSDs: people who are poor, smart, and have a deep desire to be rich." 151
Hank Greenberg (AIG): "You look for white blackbirds." 157
Andy Grove (Intel): The boss must be in charge of training 163
Charles Heimbold (Bristol-Myers Squibb): Rallying - and leading - the troops 169
Martha Ingram (Ingram Industries): Keeping everything in balance 175
David Johnson (Campbell Soup): Winning 181
Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines): "Culture is your number-one priority." 187
Bill Kerr (Meredith): "We have to keep earning the trust of our customers." 193
Chuck Knight (Emerson Electric): "Keep it simple." 199
Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco International): "There is a lot one person can do." 205
Ralph Larsen (Johnson & Johnson): "Edicts don't work." 209
Ken Lay (Enron): The $30 billion corner store 215
Shelly Lazarus (Ogilvy & Mather): 360-degree branding 221
Bill Marriott (Marriott International): Taking care of the customers, and the people who take care of the customers 229
Lou Noto (Mobil): "You've got to do what you do well." 235
Paul O'Neill (Alcoa): "The test is how you connect with people." 241
John Pepper (Procter & Gamble): "What do you want to achieve?" 247
Frank Raines (Fannie Mae): Reluctant role model 253
Howard Schultz (Starbucks): Sharing success 259
Charles Schwab (Charles Schwab): "I am the customer." 265
Walter Shipley (Chase Manhattan): "If people feel valued, you have a much stronger company." 271
Fred Smith (FDX): "Not to be an entrepreneur is to begin the process of decline and decay." 277
Bill Steere (Pfizer): "Fads come. Fads go. We concentrate on what we do best." 285
Bob Tillman (Lowe's Companies): Bet the company, with everyone's help 291
Alex Trotman (Ford Motor Company): Drive 299
Dan Tully and David Komansky (Merrill Lynch): "There is only one question to ask: What's best for the customer?" 307
Mike Volkema (Herman Miller): Serious about business, serious about people 319
Charles Wang (Computer Associates): "You must have a moral compass." 327
Sandy Weill (Citigroup): Let's build something together 333
Jack Welch (General Electric): "I don't think anyone understands the value of informal." 339
Al Zeien (Gillette): Focus 347
Pt. III Lessons Learned 353
Introduction 355
Ch. 1 The 51st Business Leader: Peter Drucker: "Yes, you want to manage for results. But what do you mean by results?" 357
Ch. 2 Doing the Right Things Right: A New Definition of Business Success 361
Ch. 3 Common Traits: A Prescription for Success in Business 379
Appendices 389
App. 1 Gallup Survey 389
App. 2 Financial Analysis Methodology 393
App. 3 Interview Guide 397
Acknowledgments: The Making of Lessons from the Top 411
Index 417
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Interviews & Essays

Questions and Answers with Thomas J. Neff and James M. Citrin

1. What is the difference between a good leader and a great leader?

That is a question that Spencer Stuart has been researching for forty years. What we learned in writing LESSONS FROM THE TOP is that great leaders do the right things right. Great leaders live with integrity and lead by example. They develop a winning strategy, build a great management team, inspire employees, create a flexible and responsive organization and install management systems that reinforce the strategy. Good leaders may do a few of these things, but great leaders do them all.

2. What is the message in LESSONS FROM THE TOP?

The basic message in LESSONS FROM THE TOP, is that we can learn from the success that these fifty CEOs have had. We should study what they have done to apply the principles they use to our own lives.

3. What was it like talking to these CEOs?

It was exciting. The best business leaders are persons on the move. They are passionate about what they do. Their days are tightly scheduled with activities. Meeting with them was inspirational but not always easy. We caught up with some at airport lounges during plane changes. We met with others over weekends at their homes. We corresponded with one or two by e-mail.

4. What makes a CEO like Bill Gates great?

Bill Gates is one of the most passionate and smart business people in the world today. He believes in what he is doing. He believes that computers have brought an enormous advance to mankind and that the operating systems and software his company produces are an essential component in serving mankind. He has demonstrated brilliantly all of the six principles of the best business leaders in America.

5. Is it possible for the best business leaders to run into trouble and no longer be best?

Yes. The best business leaders are human like everyone else. They can stop listening. Markets can turn against them. New and unexpected competitors can arise. The economy can fall. The best business leaders know this and are not arrogant about their success. We were struck while doing our interviews for LESSONS FROM THE TOP at how down-to-earth they are. They have their good and bad days just like everyone else.

6. In LESSONS FROM THE TOP you mention that the best business leaders, "Do the right things right," what does that mean? Is it possible that the right thing for one company is wrong for another?

Yes. What we learned in LESSONS FROM THE TOP and in our forty years of finding CEOs is that the best business leaders define what the right things are for their companies at a given point in time. There is no formula that every company can follow. Each company is unique. The best business leaders understand that and develop winning strategies for the marketplace in which they operate. They are flexible and pragmatic and they build flexible responsive organizations that can handle radical change, if that is what is needed.

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