The Pile for November 15, 2009

The Pile is our weekly guide to what we’re reading to become better managers. You can find earlier installments here and here. Some of the resources we point to may require registration or payment to read.

mckinsey picHow's your Great Recession coming along? Many publications, including MIT Sloan Management Review, are passing on the word that the real risk during a recession is not investing, and the most recent McKinsey Quarterly goes deep on Using the crisis to create better boards. The research at the heart of the report isn't game-changing -- no reader will be shocked to learn that "only half of the 186 directors responding thought their boards had met the demands of the crisis." What is useful in this article are the three areas (culled from a report by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles) in which corporate boards need to improve: "the availability of directors for extra board meetings and discussions; the widespread absence of committees for special topics, such as audits, remuneration, nominations, and strategy; and the excessively long service of some directors." Work on those areas and there's a better chance you have a board built for these times.

You might not associate a company best-known for decades-old postage meters for the latest in innovation ideas, but, in Integrated Innovation at Pitney Bowes, from strategy+business, you can find some useful and unexpected lessons. After a bit of the convention wisdom we've been referencing ("We’ve chosen to increase our innovation spending in this economic downturn."), Pitney Bowes exec David Dobson gets past the rhetoric and describes what the company is doing:

"We implemented a program called New Business Opportunity (NBO), intended to generate a pipeline of new ventures with significant revenue possibilities. Typ­ically, NBO ventures involve the participation of several of our business units; we provide leadership and small teams, with funding from both corporate and business units. In launching one of these businesses, we do a lot of in-market testing and development; if we find the early results disappointing, we’ll adapt our strategy or simply kill the idea and move on to the next opportunity."

For another take on this, we recommend Alexander Kandybin's Which Innovation Efforts Will Pay?, in the fall issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.

Schumpeter pic by Brett Ryder for The EconomistFinally, One of the signs of a good column is that it informs or entertains you even when you disagree with it. "Schumpeter," in The Economist, is a young column, but it lives up to that criterion. This week's column, The cult of the faceless boss, offers at least one laugh-out-loud sentence ("Henry Ford was as close as you can get to being deranged without losing your liberty.") and a cogent yet wide-ranging argument for why the current crop of keep-your-head-down CEOs are not what companies need. As the column concludes:

"Few people pay any attention to the identikit bosses who keep popping up to hum their corporate muzak about doing well by doing right. The best ambassadors for business are the outsized figures who have changed the world and who feel no need to apologise for themselves or their calling. There is no long-term comparative advantage in being forgettable."

That's not the popular view of the moment, but it's a tough-minded counter to the conventional wisdom, which every manager and every board need to hear. For a different take, here's a different perspective on superstar CEOs.

What are you reading to become a better manager? Please share what you've learned in the comments below.

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