Learning by example

2008

Most managers accept that a subject is teachable and that the lessons, once taught, will bring benefit to them and their companies. This applies whether the subject is finance, marketing, production, strategy, human relations or any other discipline.

General Electric's Jack Welch based some of his impressive managerial reputation on the active role he played at the in-house college at Crotonville where GE's executives learnt their craft.

Welch is one of the famous managers who have written books about their experiences and management ideas. I've always valued this approach and its potential. That's why back in 2001, I wrote the book Business Masterminds: Roads to Success, picking as my masters a fascinating group of managers and management gurus.

The chosen eight have amazing credentials – for example, Warren Buffett, who built the greatest investment fortune in history from a base in Omaha, Nebraska. Recently he turned over the bulk of those riches to the charities run by Bill Gates, the biggest success story in the digital revolution – this despite Buffett steering clear of investing in Gates' Microsoft, the reason being that he didn't understand the technology.

That strategy reflected one of Buffett's simple maxims: don't invest in anything you can't fully understand. That's easier said than done if you're dealing with General Electric and the aforementioned Welch; GE is diversified to such an extent that some analysts rightly label it more of a bank than the great electrical manufacturer it once was.

Unlike any of the above trio, Andy Grove of Intel relied on technological brilliance to make his mark. Grove could not have led the microprocessor surge (and changed the world in the process) without mastery of the engineering and design of his products.

These four businessmen in the Masterminds study are counterbalanced by a quartet of teachers, whose personal business experience is confined to running their own shops. One of them, the late Peter Drucker, was always quick to point out his lack of entrepreneurial ability.

Meanwhile, the loudest of the four teachers, Tom Peters, is somewhat of a managerial contrarian. He extols the virtues of a new style that puts initiative and enterprise above everything else on the list of a manager's priorities.

In contrast to Peters and Drucker, however, the remaining two Mastermind thinkers, Charles Handy and Stephen Covey, do not specifically apply themselves to the business of business. They are more philosophers of management and at the same time deeply concerned with moral issues.

The principle behind all 24 of the Masterclasses is that, by working through key elements of the master's practice, you find the value of his theories and their application to you.

Too many managers waste their time and money by listening to advice they are never going to take. The reason for this is fear of error.

None of the eight Masters were guilty of this foolishness. The lessons learned from them can help any manager take the first steps in replacing weak anxiety with bold confidence.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".