Books about how to succeed in business might not be the lifeblood of the publishing industry, but any visit to a bookstore will tell you the industry couldn't live without them. Many such books merely capitalize on executive celebrity, and if that doesn't cue customers that they're pure junk, browsing a few pages certainly will.
But one business success book making time-honored good sense was the 2001 effort by Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't. Hitting the shelves during the tech bust, he advocated a business strategy of sticking to a concept and turning out consistent, reliable products so customers can be confident in their purchases.
Collins flatly dismisses the executive success game, arguing that prosperous companies are run by low-key leaders who come from within, are committed to the company's core concept and put the company ahead of their own egos. Many companies falter, he says, by recruiting star-powered executives who are in it for themselves, trip over their own bright ideas and divert those companies from their established competencies.
The third chapter, "First Who, Then What," argues that it's more important to bring in good people than to fill positions. Just as good people can contribute without a specific role, a position unfilled is less damaging than a position filled badly. Bring on good people first, then agree on an overarching strategy.
If all this sounds just too sober and pedestrian for the fuss it caused, remember that many have worked at businesses that either stagnate or fail, especially during the tech bust, and it's easy to spot in Collins' program precisely the attributes missing from those companies.
Many of us didn't understand the problem back then, but some of us have learned, and Collins drove the lesson home just when the times called for a post mortem.
The "First Who, Then What" chapter came to mind a couple weeks ago, when the Reds hired former St. Louis Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty as a "special advisor to the owner," which means he's a good fellow to bring on board even without a determinate role. The student of realpolitik in baseball wants to say Reds owner Bob Castellini has pocketed Jocketty in case he decides to off General Manager Wayne Krivsky with less than a year left on his contract.
Reds fans know the game going back to 1993, Jim Bowden's rookie year as the club's general manager. Bowden wanted extra brains around, so he soaked up every experienced job seeker who would work as his "special advisor."
Within two months, Bowden fired Manager Tony Perez, moving in special advisors Davey Johnson and Bobby Valentine as manager and third base coach, respectively. Indignation about the Perez firing aside, it worked out pretty well for the Reds, who held first place when the players' strike began in 1994, then produced probably their best club of the last 30 years in 1995. That doesn't mean the same approach would work again.
If we correctly understand the Reds' strategy, they've aimed to build a consistent winner through time based on pitching, defense and their own homegrown talent. Despite the "win now" messages from Castellini through the last couple years, sensible fans understand that the Reds needed an overhaul when he bought the club.
Like it or not, Krivsky has followed a very determinate course, though not without its errors on the side of pitching, which we expected as a by-product of his approach. Entering his third year, Krivsky could be on the verge of a competitive club in a division where no one else is an established 90-game winner.
After two years of molding, the pitching staff makes a bit of sense. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo are producers already, it truly is now time for Homer Bailey, and the acquisition of Edinson Volquez for Joey Hamilton could prove every bit as strong as Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena. The free-agent signing of Francisco Cordero finally provides a closer of pedigree.
If Krivsky has dealt away hitters like Hamilton, Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez in the last couple years, the Reds remain explosive in parts of their lineup and no one in that group will kill them offensively, except for the catcher, whoever he is. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are on the way to future batting orders.
It's a sound plan for the long haul. Krivsky could have made it look better by addressing bullpen problems last season, but he's since then signed Cordero. We really should begin seeing results this year.
If we don't, Castellini has Jocketty in his pocket. But Castellini and the rest of us have to realize that Jocketty probably represents a changing approach, for Jocketty did not build his St. Louis clubs through player development, excepting Albert Pujols.
Indeed, Pujols is the exception proving the rule about Jocketty, who is most gifted at fleecing motivated sellers of their alienated stars, giving marginal talent in return. Jocketty brought Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Dennis Eckersley, Scott Rolen and many others to St. Louis by that method.
Any club would benefit from the insight to make those deals. Yet it's not just insight, but money, that makes those deals possible. A top-half payroll like the Cardinals can make those trades. A bottom-half payroll like the Reds can barely talk about them.
Perhaps Jocketty gives Castellini a ready fallback position in case it doesn't work out this year with Krivsky. More likely, he's given Jocketty a place to land for a year until a more suitable opportunity comes along.
The Reds already have a plan, and sticking with it means the Reds pick up Krivsky's option for 2009.
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