July 11, 2014
Bill Gates’ favorite business book of all time has been out of print, is nearly half a century old, and is entirely different from the how-to-manage guides that top many other lists. It’s Business Adventures, a collection of some of the best of long-time New Yorker writer John Brooks’ wonderfully elegant stories about Wall Street and American business. It’s their age and uniqueness that makes them so valuable, Gates writes in a review in The Wall Street Journal.
He says the book, originally lent to him by investor Warren Buffett—who also called it his own favorite business book—stays relevant precisely because it isn’t a how-to guide:
Unlike a lot of today’s business writers, Brooks didn’t boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success. (How many times have you read that some company is taking off because they give their employees free lunch?) You won’t find any listicles in his work. Brooks wrote long articles that frame an issue, explore it in depth, introduce a few compelling characters, and show how things went for them.
Gates highlights the example of Xerox (the chapter he references, Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox, is available for free download here.) People who know their tech history know the company spent tons of money on extremely innovative research and development and invented technology that became part of the core of both Apple and Microsoft. It then went on to largely ignore that technology because it veered away from its core expertise.
Brooks tells the very compelling early story of how the company revolutionized copying and became a giant in the first place, thanks in large part to some unconventional thinking and risk taking by individuals. Gates says that it serves as a reminder of how easily innovators can forget the value of taking risks.
Brooks is an excellent writer with a talent for capturing the absurd and human parts of a business story. (Even tax policy gets compelling treatment in a story on the rise of the income tax.) One of the other most famous stories is his chronicling of the real reasons behind the catastrophic failure of Ford’s Edsel sedan in the 1960s. Brooks shows with remarkable clarity how executives with all of the data and time in the world will still go with their gut, to disastrous effect.
Here’s Brooks’ description of the secrecy surrounding the Edsel project’s early days:
…work on it progressed under the conditions of melodramatic if ineffectual secrecy that invariably attend such operations in the automobile business: locks on the studio doors that could be changed in 15 minutes if a key should fall into enemy hands; a security force standing round-the-clock guard over the establishment; and a telescope to be trained at intervals on nearby high points of the terrain where peelers might be roosting.
(All such precautions, however inspired, are doomed to fail because none of the provide a defense against Detroit’s version of the Trojan horse–the job-jumping stylist, whose cheerful treachery makes it relatively easy for the rival companies to keep tabs on what the competition is up to. No one, of course, is better aware of this than the rivals themselves, but the cloak-and-dagger stuff is thought to pay for itself in publicity value.)
That approach to secrecy will be familiar to people following today’s technology industry.
Above all, as Gates writes in the Journal, Brooks’ stories have a humanity that makes their business lessons accessible and immediate:
Business Adventures is as much about the strengths and weaknesses of leaders in challenging circumstances as it is about the particulars of one business or another. In that sense, it is still relevant not despite its age but because of it. John Brooks’s work is really about human nature, which is why it has stood the test of time.
July 11, 2014