Management gurus

The origins of the guru business

Some will say it all started with Peter Drucker, the greatest management thinker of the past 100 years; some think Michel Porter was pivotal; others go back further, perhaps to the spark provided by Edwardian Frederick Winslow Taylor.

No matter: as the business world became bigger and more complicated during the 20th century, business theorists – those who think about business rather than do it – became increasingly influential, even revered. And a few of them also became very wealthy.

That is not surprising. Most business gurus are good at analysing other people’s businesses, but the thing they are really good at is managing their own careers. They know the importance of publicity and networking in high places, and the relative economic value of book publishing, academic posts, speaking tours and non-executive directorships.

The best are also skillful at packaging their thoughts into memorably self-contained insights, catchphrases and jargon. Think of Clayton Christensen’s ‘disruptive innovation’, Geoffrey Moore’s ‘crossing the chasm’, or the ‘[Nick] Negroponte switch’. This is indeed a ‘funky business’ (Jonas Ridderstrale).


“Do as I say…..”

Gary Hamel

Gary Hamel’s main thesis is that innovation is the key to future success, and it can be encouraged by putting in place an architecture for innovation. A key insight: innovation should be managed like a ‘portfolio of opportunities’.

Clayton Christensen

The Harvard professor coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’, and has explained why smaller, less resourceful companies so often upstage big companies.

Michael Hammer

The lead author of Reengineering the Corporation argued that business in the 1990s was critically inefficient, and that procedures should be remodelled to cross departmental boundaries. He has rediscovered his fire with a passion for end-to-end processes.

Geoffrey Moore

Chasm-crosser Moore described how many technology companies failed because they couldn’t be heard and they couldn’t scale. The answer was to concentrate on core strengths. He also described how to identify ‘gorillas’ – companies that are destined to dominate their sector.

Don Peppers / Martha Rogers

Peppers and Rogers have been putting out the same message for a decade – and it is getting more relevant by the day. With their catchphrase ‘one-to-one marketing’, they argue that businesses should use new technology to personalise their marketing, and provide services that ensure loyalty.

Don Tapscott

Tapscott was one of perhaps 50 writers who emerged in the 1990s to forecast the impact of the Internet. A keen observer of how business and society are changing – and should change.

Also in the premier league: Jim Collins (success criteria); Rosabeth Moss Kanter (innovation); Michael Treacy (focus); Jonas Ridderstrale (agility).




“Do as I do….”

Running multi-million, or even multi-billion dollar corporations, is just not enough for some executives. They have to put wisdom into book form.

The most famous is Jack Welch’s From the Gut, part autobiography and part management textbook. The message is simple: do it with passion, do it well, keep pushing for more, cull the weak and have fun.

Bill Gates’ two books, The Road Ahead and Business at the Speed of Thought sold extremely well, but that is little reflection on their quality. Both describe a technology driven world in which business and society are benignly helped by pervasive computer technology.

Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel, reveals a competitive streak that is similar to Welch’s in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive. Much of the thinking behind this has now become orthodox in the IT industry.

A recent entrant to the executive-guru ranks is Larry Bossidy, formerly CEO of Allied Signal and Honeywell. Bossidy’s message: it’s not about ideas, it’s all about execution.

On a softer note, Ricardo Semler, a Brazilian executive who lets his workers decide how hard to work and how much to pay themselves, is building up a growing cult following.

Sometimes books by or about executives provide insights that are less than flattering. Try The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison, a warts-and-all portrait of the Oracle founder and CEO.

Not recommended: Any officially sanctioned biography of IT business leaders.




Power and influence

Are business gurus really influential? The short answer is ‘yes’. Business executives tend to use them to test out their own ideas, to find points of reference, and to develop strategies, rather than follow them blindly – much as they do with industry analysts.

In the field of IT, Geoffrey Moore’s theories of chasms and tornadoes have undoubtedly had a huge effect on the business development of young companies, encouraging many to restrict their ambition and concentrate on their core competencies; his co-authored book, The Gorilla Game, also encouraged the still prevalent view that only giants and leaders are the winners.

In the 1980s, Nicholas Negroponte encouraged governments to focus huge resources on building digital communications infrastructures; and in business, Michael Hammer’s Reengineering the Corporation encouraged a wave of restructuring and downsizing.

Successful gurus can also help drive businesses. James Martin, a 1980s programming theorist, is credited with creating a huge business in application development tools; and James Champy, the co-author of Reengineering the Corporation with Michael Hammer, used his reputation and expertise to build up services revenues at Computer Science Corp.

For all that, gurus also fall out of fashion, and sometimes get it badly wrong. Gary Hamel, for example, was a great admirer of Enron’s management.

The futurists

Nicholas Negroponte. When the ‘Wired generation’ sought a leader, Negroponte, the founder of the famous MIT Media Lab, was the obvious choice. Early in the 1990s, his compact book, Being Digital, became a manifesto for the digital revolution, predicting much that has happened since. He has written little since, but travels the world, delivering studied insights from an ideologically purist technology perspective.

George Gilder. The one time Nixon speechwriter, and advisor to Ronald Reagan, suddenly ‘found’ new technology when he read Tracey Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine. Since then, he has written several books and edited Forbes ASAP magazine. His selling point is his uncanny ability to pick winning and losing technologies by applying economic as well technological knowledge. Little known fact: He was once voted ‘US male chauvinist of the year’.

Peter Cochrane. If the UK has one credible technology futurist, it is Peter Cochrane, the ex- head of BT laboratories and author of several books and hundreds of columns. Cochrane lacks a big message, but like Negroponte is a passionate advocate of everything digital.

Other big players: Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis (convergence of bioscience and IT) Paul Saffo (digital society); Faith Popcorn (futuristic marketing); and Alvin Toffler (post indust-rial society).

Read this…

  • Nicholas Negroponte: Being Digital
  • Stan Davis/Christopher Meyer: Blur
  • Geoffrey Moore: Crossing the Chasm; The Gorilla Game
  • Clayton Christensen: The Innovator’s Dilemma
  • Andy Grove: Only the Paranoid Survive
  • George Gilder: Telecosm
  • Gary Hamel: Leading the Revolution
  • Don Peppers and Martha Rogers: The One-to-One Manager
  • Michael Treacy: The Discipline of Market Leaders
  • Don Tapscott: Digital Capital
  • Jonas Ridderstrale: Funky Business
  • Ricardo Semler: Maverick!




    No business like show business

    The best way to rate a business guru’s influence is to check out the speaking fees. The intersection of IT and business, with a large number of conferences and suppliers seeking influence, makes for a rich terrain.

    An elite group won’t even look through their old PowerPoint slides for less than $30,000 plus expenses. The fees can be much higher if the speaker is known to be an entertainer. Nowadays, no guru is complete without a pack of one-liners and a few witty stories.

    But it is not the only way. Some gurus really do operate in the shadows, speaking only occasionally, and preferring face-to-face consultancy work. In fact, some charge exorbitant fees to speak because they have reached a point where they don’t need the publicity. Face-to-face consulting can be worth even more, but these rates are rarely publicised.

    A moderately successful book, written over a year, about how IT is changing business dynamics (standard fare in the 1990s) might reap a rising guru $50,000. But for a 40-minute keynote at a big conference, $15,000 is the opening bid.

    One of the big names – Gary Hamel, perhaps, will cost more like $40,000. Speaking, in fact, is so lucrative that some ‘gurus’ (libel laws prevent identification) have been caught buying their own books – only ‘best sellers’ command the best fees.

    All of this can put pressure on the gurus to keep current and keep producing new work. Many books by big thinkers are little more than restatements of their earlier works.

    Over the past two years, sales of business books have fallen, along with speakers rates, and, indeed, demand for business school places. That has raised some fears that the guru business is in decline; but don’t worry. A forthcoming book will assure us it is merely cyclical, not structural.




    Alan Dobie

    Alan Dobie is assistant editor at Vitesse Media Plc. He has over 17 years of experience in the publishing industry and has held a number of senior writing, editing and sub-editing roles. Prior to his current...

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