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by Sydney Finkelstein
Portfolio, 2004
Review by Anthony R. Dickinson, Ph.D. on Dec 8th 2009

Why Smart Executives Fail

Potentially as relevant to personal development as it is to understanding successful business development, Finkelstein presents here a refreshing compliment to the ever increasing selection of 'how to succeed' business books which now adorn the shelves of airport bookstores. This work's approach and conclusions could indeed help some smart executives to avoid making certain classes and patterns of mistakes,... and for investors to perhaps understand why some of their potentially lucrative investments might fail to mature !

Easily accessible to both the general and professional audience alike, and in contrast to the standard 'self-help' approach of business gurus (from Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) to Tom Peters' [Business] Essentials Series (2005)), Finkelstein presents his operational analysis and business development advice from the perspective of an academic analyst. The author's claimed purpose in writing this book was to document some of the most common "mistakes and destructive syndromes' that his (post-mortem) analysis reveals to underlay the failure of many notable corporate enterprises. Divided into three main sections, the first deals with recent case studies of 'classic' corporate failure (or at least their demise), with the author unafraid to name names (the companies, and their most significant decision-makers, owners, and executive board members), as appropriate to our better understanding their fate(s). The reader will be familiar with most, if not all, of the case companies included (or at least their products), and will find clearly presented references with regards his sources of information, as appropriate to each, in supporting his main arguments and thesis. The second section is less descriptive in an attempt to provide a more analytic-diagnostic listing of 'common causes' and patterns of corporate behavior (and corporate leadership behaviors in particular), which would appear to underlay many of the business venture failures described in the earlier chapters. Having now identified some of the reasons why his example executives failed (and in particular Ch.9, which discusses his conclusions with the somewhat 'tongue-in-cheek' title "Seven habits of spectacularly unsuccessful people"), the third and final section attempts to build upon the first two, by now presenting an outline recipe for a proactive rather than reactive approach to strengthening any (corporate) organization's 'immunization' to management failure(s).

For the current reviewer, this analytic framework provides for a refreshing and welcome approach, although much of the book's content might appear to some readers to deal too specifically with the 'rise and fall of the CEO' in understanding corporate failure, with its focus upon leadership at the expense of teamwork analysis, which might reveal equally enlightening analysis. For example, much of the behavior-characteristic profiling detail generated for 'failing executives', include the same characteristics typical of the most 'successful executives' (which may appear confusing for some readers), and indeed, many of the company case studies discussed in this volume involve household names with a history of significant success, often with the same owner/CEO's at the helm. However, Finkelstein's list of 'Early Warning Signs' (Ch.10) contain gems of non-CEO related organizational and operational changes to look out for. This section was especially informative, I believe, because the author drew extensively from a wide variety of sources for his information, including not only the academic literature, but also the popular press, trade journals, and most importantly, personal interview with some of the key players directly involved in the very companies whose case histories Finkelstein presents for analysis and review.

Having discussed why smart executives and their failing companies fail, some readers may wish to see the book conclude with counter examples of 'why smart executives succeed ?', but that is perhaps to miss Finkelstein's point, and requires a whole other literature (most of which is already out there, and in the airport !). The same logic, circumstantial analysis, and conclusions as offered here with regards many a senior executive's role in bringing down their otherwise successful businesses, may be equally applied to the success (or lack thereof) of middle management decision-makers, or even each and every one of us in managing our own daily business, personal and family operations, socialization, and life-style choices. Were he still alive, I also like to think that Dale Carnegie would like this book too !


© 2009 Tony Dickinson


Dr. Tony Dickinson, Academic Research Laboratory, Global Choice Psychometrics, People Impact International Inc., November, 2009.


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