Executive Times

Volume 10, Issue 7

July 2008


 2008 Hopkins and Company, LLC

Note re: links---certain hyperlinks assume that you are registered as a subscriber to the site. If you are not a subscriber to certain sites, the links will fail. If you register, the links should work. Also, certain hyperlinks expire and may not be available when you try to go to the site.


Free advice is usually worth every penny one pays for it. Two thousand years ago, Publilius Syrus included in his Maxims, “Many receive advice. Few profit by it.” Readers of this issue have the opportunity to join those few. Oscar Wilde inspired the writing of this issue by musing, “The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.” As you read the stories packed with advice in this issue, think about how receptive you are to advice. Consider those on whom you rely for wise counsel. Think about the extent to which you seek advice as Erica Jong claims, “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn't.” Every issue of Executive Times offers this advice: consider reading something, think about it, and reflect on what it means for you.


Fifteen new books are rated in this issue, beginning on page 5. One book is highly recommended with a four-star rating; eleven are recommended with three-star reviews; and three books are rated with two-star recommendations. Visit our 2008 bookshelf and see the rating table explained at http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/2008books.html as well as explore links to all 296 books read or those being considered this year, including 24 that were added to the list in May. If there’s something missing from the bookshelf that you think we should be considering or if there’s a book lingering on the Shelf of Possibility that you think we should read and review sooner rather than later, let us know by sending a message to books@hopkinsandcompany.com. You can also check out all the books we’ve ever listed at http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/All Books.html.



The cover story of the May 12 issue of Fortune is titled, “The Best Advice I Ever Got,” (http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2008/fortune/0804/gallery.bestadvice.fortune/index.html) and inside twenty-five executives share their insight about the advice that most changed their lives. What’s striking about this sampling is that in every case, the advice seemed simple and brief, as Horace himself advised, “Whatever advice you give, be brief.” Some of the selections are like tennis serves that ace an opponent. Pete Peterson, co-founder of the Blackstone Group, recalled how his grad school professor, Milton Friedman, embedded Adam Smith’s insight: focus on the things you do better than others. Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd recalled a single comment, “Nine years after starting at NCR, I moved to a head-office job in Dayton in 1988. An NCR executive was giving a presentation; he had great slides and an even better delivery. The CEO, Chuck Exley, listened to the entire presentation in his typically gracious, courteous manner. At the conclusion, he nodded and said something brief but profound: ‘Good story, but it's hard to look smart with bad numbers.’ And as I reflected on it, the presenter, articulate as he was, as good as his slides were, simply had bad numbers. That comment has always stayed with me. You have to focus on the underlying substance. There's just no way to disguise poor performance. I've tried to follow that advice throughout my career. Deliver good numbers and you earn the right for people to listen to you.” Like many of those selected for this article, Trian Fund Management CEO Nelson Peltz noted the advice he received from his father, “It was my dad who gave me the best advice of my 45-year career: ‘Get sales up, and keep expenses down.’ That sounds simplistic, but it's the way my father got 4% margins in his food business when his competitors made 1% or 2%. The goal is to get revenues moving and to keep expenses from rising at the same rate so that margins expand.” If you’re thinking ahead to Father’s Day, consider the advice you’re received from your father, and, if you’re able, find a way to say thanks. Think, too, about the advice you’re giving to your children, and focus on what you might want them to remember.


What advice has most influenced your life? What was the best, and what was the worst? Who provided it? What advice have you been passing along to others? At work, who looks to you for advice, and from whom do you seek advice? Are all parties getting something of value?



Sometimes the road to success shares the path of least resistance, according to Chip and Dan Heath in their “Made to Stick” column titled “Get Laziness on Your Side” in current issue of Fast Company (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/125/get-laziness-on-your-side.html).  They note that by choosing the default option carefully for employees, customers or others, an organization can achieve desired results. That’s because most of us don’t bother deviating from some automatic elections, like newspaper delivery at hotels, 401k contributions, and organ donation. Executives who alter the default option to nudge others toward the most desired outcome are likely to see that outcome achieved.


When was the last time you examined the default options for employees, customers and other stakeholders? Can your organization benefit from a nudge that will tilt participation toward the option that produces the best results?



Of all the advice heaped on executives, that which deals with selecting and retaining the right people may be the most overwhelming. Everybody weighs in on skills needed, personality, fit with the organization, and potential. There are three recent articles that add value to the way executives go about picking and keeping the best talent. An article in the current issue of CEO Magazine (http://www.chiefexecutive.net/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&tier=4&id=234591D0D8714C3EBE6B9C6ADC5D23C2) offers practical advice on dealing with an inherited executive team. There are two main issues for the new boss to consider: who will be on the team, and what can be done to foster effective interaction. On the first issues, the authors note, “…CEOs have had little guidance on how to judge whether to keep most of their inherited team, or look for new blood. There is much at stake. You do not want to be overly harsh and fire someone who could have succeeded. Headhunters are not cheap, searches take time and the dirty secret is that only half of new hires work out. So, a ‘false negative’ is costly. However, at the same time, you do not want to keep people around who are going to fail anyway. When we interviewed 20 CEOs on what they wish they had done differently during their first days on the job, the most common answer was I wished I had moved faster on the deadwood. So how do you know whether you are being too hard or too soft? Every case is different, of course, but you may find it helpful to know what turnover is typical when a new CEO arrives—so you can judge whether your planned personnel actions are gentler or harsher than others in your situation.” They provide some comparative statistics about retention, and say, “So, if you want to know how harshly you are judging your inherited team, simply determine the portion you expect to let go, and compare it to the distribution, adjusted by the sum of our three factors: internal/external appointment, company performance and industry.” For the second challenge on effective interaction, they provide this advice:  “… we suggest you take three simple steps to dramatically improve your team’s effectiveness early in your tenure. 1. Provide basic guidelines on acceptable and unacceptable proposals. … 2. Teach them the essential three style preferences. Every human works differently, and executive teams have descended into tension quickly through avoidable stylistic differences. From the broken careers of many executives, we can tell you that three matter most.  How do you like to interact? … How should they disagree with you? … What items should never come as surprises to you?” Whether you’re an executive leading an inherited team, or a member of such a team, you may want to consider reading this article to consider how to best make the assessment period effective. The second article of note with practical hiring advice appeared in the current issue of CFO Magazine titled “How to Avoid Finance Hiring Mistakes,” (http://www.cfo.com/article.cfm/11075949/c_11081639?f=magazine_alsoinside) and presents some ways to address both skills and fit when making hiring and firing decisions. The third article from McKinsey Quarterly focuses on the first hundred days, and is titled “Starting Up as CFO” (http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Organization/Change_Management/Starting_up_as_CFO_2112_abstract). The authors provide advice that’s aimed at financial officers, but has applications for all executives. There’s advice on how to do a value creation audit, and how to make a few themes your consistent priority.


What process do you use to assess talent? How do you know whether your assessments are too harsh or too easy? Have you and those who report to you had any conversations about the best ways for you to interact? Has this been an intuitive or trial and error way of finding what works, or have you stood back and talked about what seems to work better and what seems to fall short?



Almost thirty years ago, we observed the passion with which Pan American World Airways pursued the acquisition of National Airlines, and watched as Pan Am seemed willing to pay any price to succeed. The merger occurred after a high priced bid was accepted, the cultures clashed, the economy tanked, and two legendary air carriers died not long thereafter. An article in the May 2008 issue of  Harvard Business Review titled “When Winning Is Everything,” (http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp?ml_action=get-article&articleID=R0805E&ml_issueid=BR0805&ml_subscriber=true&pageNumber=1&_requestid=70083) puts a name to this behavior. The article opens with this query: “Have you ever made a decision in the heat of competition only to wonder, when faced with the consequences, ‘What was I thinking?’ Such charged decision making is driven by an adrenaline-fueled emotional state we call competitive arousal. It’s all too common in business—and all too often leads to costly mistakes. … In this article, we describe the causes of competitive arousal, when it is most likely to derail strategy and destroy value, and how managers can avoid or reduce its pernicious effects. We identify three principal drivers of competitive arousal in business settings: rivalry, time pressure, and audience scrutiny—what we call the ‘spotlight.’ Individually, these factors can seriously impair managerial decision making. Together, their consequences can be all the more dire.”  If you’re in the tiniest way excited by this topic, be sure to read this article.


In what ways are you deluded by the heat of competition? How do you know when the cost of winning is too high? How do you constrain your “adrenaline-fueled emotional state”?



Here’s an update on stories covered in prior issues of Executive Times:      


Ø  In the August 2005 issue of Executive Times we thought we were delivering some of the final words on the long career of former AIG chief Hank Greenberg when we provided a link to a Fortune article titled, “All I Want in Life Is an Unfair Advantage” (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/08/08/8267642/index.htm). Greenberg has been out, but never down in the intervening years. His nemesis Eliot Spitzer is off the scene, and with AIG showing weak results, Hank is back in the news with a May 11 letter to the AIG board (http://sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/5272/000134100408000896/exh-i.htm) saying, in part, “AIG is in crisis. The company's shareholders need to absorb the significance of the company's first quarter losses.  They also need time to consider the board's response to the crisis and the issues raised by this letter.   For this reason and others, a postponement of this week's annual meeting should be considered, so that all shareholders can give careful thought to how best to move AIG forward.”  The board considered this postponement request by the company’s largest shareholder, and declined it. 

Ø  When we forecast in the May 2003 issue of Executive Times that there would be murky times ahead for American Airlines and then-new CEO Gerald Arpey, we didn’t give a passing thought to fuel prices. According to Fortune, the company is now losing $3.3 million a day (http://money.cnn.com/2008/04/28/magazines/fortune/gimbel_american.fortune/index.htm?postversion=2008043011).  Maybe they should take a page from the farm subsidy bill and pay frequent flyers to stay on the ground.



Most effective executives are in command of the key data or facts that are essential to forecasting results or to making wise decisions. Progress can often be measured by the steps taken to get the right data in the right hands as quickly as possible. One executive who modeled that approach was George Cressman, the first director of what became the National Weather Service, who died in mid-May at age 88. Cressman injected science into what had been the art of weather forecasting. We read in The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/10/us/10cressman.html?ref=obituaries), “Under his leadership, its scientists developed the first program to produce forecasts on a routine basis derived from data gathered from around the world. ‘George was so important because he was interested not only in science but in service’” said Dr. Richard Hallgren, executive director emeritus of the American Meteorological Association. ‘This development meant for the first time numerical weather prediction was helping the local forecasters prepare better forecasts for the people of the United States.’ … Dr. Cressman concentrated on making the service more useful, expanding the number of weather radars and creating a national radio network and an early warning system for floods and tornadoes.” The system he created between 1954 and 1978 continues to be improved. With all the weather stories in the news this season, we can thank Cressman for the foundation he provided in getting the right information out to the right people as quickly as possible, and for the lives that have been saved because people got the weather news in time to act.


Latest Books Read and Reviewed:

 (Note: readers of the web version of Executive Times can click on the book covers to order copies directly from amazon.com.  When you order through these links, Hopkins & Company receives a small payment from amazon.com.  Click on the title to read the review or visit our 2008 bookshelf at http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/2008books.html).


Title (Link to Review)



Review Summary


Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Ariely, Dan


Experiments. MIT behavioral economist presents lively and readable insights from array of experiments that seem to show that not only is human behavior irrational, but also it is predictable.

The Soul Thief

Baxter, Charles


Identity. Precisely written imaginative novel visits characters thirty years ago and today, exploring how one has assumed the identity and past history of the other, and what that has done for both of them.

His Illegal Self

Carey, Peter


Outlaw. Finely written novel in which the seven-year-old boy referred to in the title finds himself on the run from his grandmother’s posh digs in NYC, toward his fugitive parents in hiding places, and eventually in a hippie commune in Australia.

The Fires

Cheuse, Alan


Grief. Two novellas explore grief from different perspectives. Compact reading for a short flight, provided one can slough off lingering sadness. Novella structure means less tight prose than in a short story, and weaker character development than a novel provides.

Beginner’s Greek

Collins, James


Sweetness. Debut novel by longtime journalist and former investment banker presents a Jane Austen-like romance, with twists and turns of fate leading the main characters together, apart and back together.

The Meaning of Night: A Confession

Cox, Michael


Dark. Debut novel by expert on popular 19th century fiction presents just that: a dark tale of good and evil set in mid-19th century England, with a cast beset with secrets and a heavy dose of murder.

The Deportees and Other Stories

Doyle, Roddy


Grand. Eight witty short stories about the experience of new immigrants in modern Ireland. No wasted words; on some pages you’ll be laughing out loud.

T is for Trespass

Grafton, Sue


Theft. The 20th installment of the Kinsey Millhone series pits the detective against a cunning adversary, as Grafton explores both elder abuse and identity theft. The ending resolved things, but without adequate satisfaction to earn a third star.


A Free Life

Jin, Ha


Home. Finely written 670 page novel describes the ordinary daily experiences of a Chinese family who moved to America to assemble what we all recognize as a home.


Never Enough

McGinniss, Joe


Reality. The true story of two brothers who are murdered, one in Hong Kong and the other in Greenwich, Connecticut. This couldn’t be a novel because so much behavior is implausible, not unlike reality television.



Mosley, Walter


Survival. Serious novel explores malevolence, alienation, and the protagonist’s struggle to understand his past and survive into a less-troubled future.

Stranger in Paradise

Parker, Robert B.


Uneasy. The seventh Jesse Stone novel has the police chief enter into an uneasy alliance with an unconvicted killer, as they both try to achieve what each considers justice.

What Now?

Patchett, Ann


Commence. The award-winning novelist’s 2006 commencement address for Sarah Lawrence College soars with great prose, thanks to her last minute rewrite. A great question for all ages to consider.

At the City’s Edge

Sakey, Marcus


Duller. Second novel weaker in character development than his debut, The Blade Itself. This one delivers fast-moving plot and lots of energetic excitement with characters for whom we couldn’t care less what happens.

Our Story Begins

Wolff, Tobias


Mastery. A great way to spend a month is to read one of the 31 stories in this collection every day. Ten are new from this master of the short story.


2008 Hopkins and Company, LLC.  Executive Times is published monthly by Hopkins and Company, LLC at the company’s office at 723 North Kenilworth Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois 60302. Subscription rate for first class mail delivery of the print version is $60.00 per year (12 issues). Web version subscriptions are $30.00 per year. Single issues: $10.00 print; $5.00 web. To subscribe, sign up at www.hopkinsandcompany.com/subscribe.html, send an e-mail to executivetimes@hopkinsandcompany.com, call (708) 466-4650, or fax to (708) 386-8687. For permission to photocopy or e-mail Executive Times, call (708) 466-4650 or e-mail to reprints@hopkinsandcompany.com. We will send sample copies if requested. The company’s website at http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/archives.html contains the archives of back issues beginning in the month after the issue date. 

To subscribe to Executive Times, sign up at www.hopkinsandcompany.com/subscribe.html and we’ll bill you later.  Consider giving clients or friends Executive Times as a gift. Gift subscriptions to the web version include an e-mail notification of the gift.  Print version gift subscriptions can also include “Compliments of (giver)” with your corporate logo on each copy. 

About Hopkins & Company

In addition to publishing Executive Times, Hopkins & Company engages in a variety of other activities focused on helping executives succeed, including:

Ø  Coaching: helping individuals or teams find ways to do more of what works for them, and ways to avoid what's ineffective

Ø  Consulting: helping executives solve business problems, especially in the areas of strategy, service to market, performance and relationship management

Ø  Communications: helping executives improve their written and oral messages

To engage the services of Hopkins & Company, call Steve Hopkins at 708-466-4650 or visit www.hopkinsandcompany.com.