Another one of life’s dreams had to get euthanized over the holiday weekend, that of closing my career by writing a terrific management book.

The realization that there wouldn’t be enough genuine insights came to me while driving back to the office from a very pleasant catch-up lunch with a former client, Matt Timm. He’s now the principal of the Eden Prairie digital marketing firm Magnetic North.

I had started thinking of what was still in a file from a project we worked on together more than a half-dozen years ago, when I was a strategy consultant. The keepers, I knew, included a detailed memo on how to sell an innovative and really complex product when the whole cycle, from first introduction to signed contract, could easily take more than a year.

This memo was so good, it’s a shame I hadn’t written it. Matt Timm had.

It’s typical of materials I’ve kept. There are Medtronic marketing plans, a Johnson & Johnson strategy presentation, a Boston Consulting Group acquisition screening process, along with lots of other articles and documents written by others. So imagine a publisher biting on a book pitched with this working title: “Read More Than Your Clients Have Time For.”

I can’t see it, either.

There’s no reason to apologize for being a lifelong student of business, and what credit I can give myself is putting a lot of what I’ve read into simpler words. And the job of consultant turns out be mostly helping clients do sooner what they already knew was best.

Here’s advice I’ve given more than once to clients: “Don’t hire others to do your thinking for you.” This was jarring to hear but it sure got a client’s attention, although sometimes it was misinterpreted as a knock against consultants. The trick was to deliver the line with the tone of a joke.

As our team pitched consulting gigs, we never hinted that a prospective client was a moron and really needed us for the big thoughts. We made sure to say our clients were smart but our working together made their thinking better. And we could get some of their hard work done for them.

Executives often looked for an outsider to work over their plans before going ahead. Sometimes that was needed to confirm an idea. Other times it only slowed the project down, so I once volunteered to put our firm’s logo on a client’s presentation, and for only $10,000. He got the point.

Another time I learned — in the course of an almost comically pointless assignment for a very big company — that there was a new department at headquarters called something like the center for growth and strategy. So I later asked, innocently, that if someone a level or two down the organization chart now handles growth and strategy, what was the CEO working on to earn his eight-figure annual pay?

I should’ve quit that gig months before I was fired.

Common sense

Of course a lot of what can be learned in business doesn’t have to come from an article or Blue Chip company. If the Harvard Business Review has ever had an article called “accelerate the crisis,” it did not show up in a search. This was a favorite idea of an old boss, about the importance of not putting off painful decisions. If all involved knew a problem was unlikely to fix itself, let’s have our inevitable crisis today.

A variation of this idea was “there’s always plenty of time to panic,” a saying I’ve repeated as recently as this week. It’s not a call to inaction. It’s an insistence that we stop wasting time hand-wringing, running in circles or scheduling more meetings just to hear everyone say once again how darn mad they were.

“In the absence of a good plan, let’s go with this one,” was another funny thing I said to move along a decision. It was important to say in the presence of the boss that no plan is perfect and that there will always be questions we can’t yet answer. But let’s move anyway.

Much of what we did was called corporate development, so a lot of the time was spent helping the CEO plan a new venture or acquisition. This may be one area where I occasionally tapped the brakes, having identified the same weakness. So at least a couple of times, I had to point out “this is a great plan! Now if we only had a paying customer.”

The problem was that the whole project was being justified by all the great things it would do for us, from making the sales force more productive to boosting the stock price. Nobody said — because nobody seemed to have asked — what it would do for customers.

No one could claim much pride of authorship over anything I’ve just breezed through, and sometimes the client didn’t seem to find these lines all that funny. Yet they could appear, if not in a book, at least on an index card of management principles. The card would have to include this one also: “If you were there, you were part of the problem.”

‘We’ not ‘them’

This turns out to be something I learned from a playwright, not a business strategist, the Czech writer and statesman Václav Havel. Havel had spent much of his life in a grim totalitarian state. While most people didn’t support the state, they seemed content to get through life by keeping their heads down. The government was the way it was because of the bad guys running it, not us.

Havel had no patience for this. His country was “we,” not “them.” And we were all part of the problem.

There’s not just one lesson that can be taught from this observation, but it seemed to be worth sharing when hearing executives start to talk of a problem like it had been happening in a different company, not one that had been paying them six figures the whole time.

Managers need to be held to account for their own work. But no one in leadership should be allowed to pretend that a strategy failed because of “them.” And as a first step to solving the problem, we should ask everyone to acknowledge it as ours.

Doubt that’s the stuff of an inspirational business bestseller. It does seem to have the virtue of being true.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302