Hip business book misses mark

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February 8, 2007

5:21 PM

p. Business books: dry, boring, irrelevant, trumped up (pun intended). But sometimes non-business majors can choke their way through a business book; after all, “Freakonomics” was a pleasure to read. Attempting to further the movement to bring business literature to those not fluent in business-ese, “Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win,” by William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre, claims to offer a look into success itself.

p. Taylor and LaBarre examine a variety of companies that use unusual and original methods that have propelled their respective businesses forward and made them leaders and innovators in their respective fields. Some are easily recognizable to the common man —Starbucks and Netflix, for example. Others are less famous but just as innovative, like clothing retailer Anthropologie and restaurant Potbelly Sandwich Works. Some are successful but rather unknown to the general public, like mining outfit Goldcorp and construction magnate DPR.

p. Each chapter looks at two or three “maverick” companies, revealing business strategies through interviews with executives and inspections of company operations and procedures in an attempt to explain why the company’s decidedly different approach succeeded.

p. One such company was Commerce, a large bank with over 400 branches, more than 13,000 employees, and an annual revenue over 1.6 billion dollars. The authors reveal the company’s strategy — hire only employees who are genuinely excited to work there so that customers have the best possible banking experience. Newly hired employees — “part-time tellers, store managers, even vice presidents and senior executives” — all attend a day-long course to familiarize themselves with the bank’s high-energy approach to company service. Not only does it serve to energize new hires but also to weed out those not service-oriented enough to survive the work environment.

p. One of the more fascinating and unexpected businesses examined was Cirque du Soleil, the modern circus group. Company scouts travel the globe, looking for performers in likely and unlikely places: other circuses, opera houses, sporting events and street performance groups. Many of their hires come from the athletic world. I had never thought about the business operations of a circus, but it is very interesting to learn about how they seek out unique and talented performers. Cirque then tailors the characters in the performance to match the skills and abilities of the performer — not the other way around, as is the norm.

p. Unfortunately the book does not live up to its name; it explains how these maverick companies work, not why they succeed. Although they examine and explain the model for each business, the authors never delve into why that particular strategy works for the target demographic. Sure, Pixar makes excellent movies for people of any age, but why have they performed so well, and why do they have no real competitors? And for the considerable amount of space the authors use discussing Southwest Airlines, it is surprising how little time is spent analyzing why it is succeeding in a failing market. It is also questionable how the authors chose the companies they did; after all, it is fairly unbelievable that these companies are the only ones in their fields, or even at all, to employ these business techniques. Were the choices random or did the authors have some outside incentive that may have affected their decisions?

p. Moreover, ‘Mavericks’ fails to successfully captivate the reader with the sections and chapters devoted to advice. Culled from interviews with the executives from the featured companies, the parts of the book devoted to making the reader a better businessperson are tedious, unremarkable and forgettable, especially in contrast to the relatively fascinating descriptions of how these companies operate. This is a major contributing factor to the book’s failure to reach a wider audience, since the advice is really only applicable to top-level executives instead of the rank-and-file readers more likely to grab the book.

p. There is also a crucial aspect missing from the book: where are the mavericks who failed? Surely there are dozens of failed or failing companies for each maverick featured in this book. Is there nothing to learn from the mistakes of others? Could their failed techniques work in a different time, in a different place, with different people? Nobody knows, since the authors quietly skirt around the problem.

p. ‘Mavericks at Work’ provides an interesting look into the operations of some of today’s most successful companies. Unfortunately, it is just not relevant to most people; many of the ideas presented seem rather ordinary, and the successes of some of these mavericks could be chalked up to luck. If you attend classes in Tyler Hall, read this book; otherwise, don’t bother.

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