Folklore has it that Ernest Hemingway was challenged by some friends to write a story in six words. Hemingway responded to the challenge with this story: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. The story may or may not be true but it accurately captures not just the author's writing style but the man himself.
So what would you expect if you came across a book with the title, Management in 10 Words? Another collection of mantras? Maybe a book designed as training material? At best an assortment of “new” or “radical” team-building games?
Fortunately, former Tesco boss Terry Leahy has a predilection for brevity, even if it is not as extreme as Hemingway’s. In Management in 10 Words he distills his story — life at Tesco and not his personal life, Leahy insists — into 10 words: Truth, Loyalty, Courage, Values, Act, Balance, Simple, Lean, Compete and Trust. These are the subjects of the 10 chapters of the book, which he says he had no intention of writing.
The book resonates for what it is not. First, this is not about Leahy’s career at Tesco. As the author says, the book is “rooted in my experience” — he retired in 2010 after 14 years at the head of a business he helped turn into one of the biggest success stories in retail with sales of nearly £62 billion. But the larger objective is to show how simple tools can produce long-range benefits. The book is a combination of personal experience in building an enterprise and a framework for how he approaches the problem of identifying new business opportunities.
Management in 10 Words asserts that even in today’s complex world, it still is possible to do business honestly and stay competitive.
Second, the book is not just about retailing, although many of the lessons are rooted in that business. The book is deliberately aimed at an audience beyond the retailing community keeping in mind the growing number of organisations faced with the effects of change. Leahy has managed to include an extensive list of resources and a good summary of thinking that has led to the new concepts of organisational behaviour and constant change. It serves as a valuable reference to both new and experienced managers.
Third, the book is not just for those “perched precariously on the top rung of management in some vast organisation nervously looking down and wondering ‘Where next?’.” It isn’t trying to tell you the one true way of managing a large enterprise or a set of prescriptions on what you must do to measure up to competition. Many of the observations in the book are directly relevant to managing any endeavour, large or small. The result is a management book that will be acceptable to a very wide audience.
Leahy’s prose is inspirational without being over the top; he writes with a light touch, complementing the book’s common-sense approach. Of course, there are some eminently quotable sayings, destined to be pinned up on bulletin boards and quoted in corporate newsletters. Some of these are original; others are collected wisdom from the famous (such as this reference to Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, who has been quoted saying, “I have always had the soul of an operator, somebody who wants to make things work well, and then better, and then the best they possibly can.”) and sometimes the not-so-famous sources (such as Daniel Burnham, the American architect and town planner whose grand schemes reshaped Chicago and Washington, who had said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realised.”).
Last but not least, this book is not about Terry Leahy. Thank God for that. He presents himself as an “everyman” — Leahy was the only one of four brothers not to leave school at 16 — and says “I am a private person, much to the irritation of the many journalists whose kind offers of a personal interview with them to talk about my life I have declined,” in the introduction.
Even so, his humble origins are evident in the openness with which he discusses some missteps and even draws on the experiences of competitors.
What comes out very strongly in the book is his sense of loyalty — talking about which he had once told an interviewer, “One religion, one football team, one wife, one firm.” Sometimes such loyalty will skew your vision. That is one huge drawback of Management in 10 Words. While describing the virtues of communication and planning in Chapter 5 (Act), Leahy says, “We bent over backwards to show that we were willing to help people who had genuine reasons to be off work. This was not easy for us: our managers had to be very determined to come up with arrangements that were fair to everyone. But all this effort built trust.”
The book is strewn with observations such as these. Now think of criticisms Tesco has faced for squeezing local retailers with its low prices and fast expansion. I guess moderation was never one of Leahy’s well-documented virtues.
Management in 10 Words
Random House, 2012
312 pages; Price £12.99