Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Book review: Play nice

Working together doesn't always work out

Teamwork is important, but two new books show how the workplace can be a dugout or a battlefield
by Richard Pachter

It’s a thin line between skepticism and cynicism. It’s also a constant challenge to remain open to all possibilities, which is why “Trust, then verify” is still the best policy for just about everything.

Sundry business books claim to have uncovered heretofore hidden secrets to success yet they usually describe idyllic companies that apparently function in alternate dimensions which seem very similar to our own, except that most inhabitants exhibit genuine passion toward their enterprises and always operate in clear, unambiguous bursts of altruistic energy.

I’m certainly willing to conditionally suspend my disbelief as I wade through these patently revelatory tomes, but it’s difficult to reconcile their science fictional scenarios with my own observations an
d experiences in the contemporary workplace. Yet case studies of successful business operations invariably provide inspirational glimpse of the possibilities, like a shining high-tech cinematic space opera, or rodent-infested and oversimplified parables.

Here are two new books that examine these bra
ve new worlds of work, as well as the real world that many of us occupy most of the time.
Great Business Teams: Cracking the Code for Standout Performance. Howard M. Guttman. Wiley. 239 pages.

Teamwork is important, although it usually happens for authoritarian reasons rather than as a function of unselfishness or professionalism. Guttman, a management consultant specializing in team building, examines a number of successful and not-so-successful units and seeks to identify consistent threads and reasons for

His findings can generally be expressed by the Tolstoy quote, ''Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'' Successful and dysfunctional work teams appear to behave in a similar fashion: The good ones empower members, share responsibilities and goals, demand accountability and perform pretty much the way you would expect, especially in high-pressure situations. The bad ones each have their own ways of screwing up just about any project, as you can imagine or, perhaps, have experienced.

Among the companies Guttman examined were seve
ral Florida-based firms, including clothing retailer Chico's and Johnson & Johnson-Vision Care. Both, fortunately, exemplified good teams, as they confronted and successfully handled several large and small crises.
Executive Warfare: Pick Your Battles and Live to Get Promoted Another Day. David F. D'Alessandro. McGraw-Hill. 265 pages.

D'Alessandro, author of Brand Warfare and Career Warfare, continues his series of combat tales with this volume of business battles. Some people can play nicely, while others will gleefully shove a shiv in your posterior just to break up a dull day or for other, even less prosaic reasons. Some executives act in ways that suggest more humane traits, or at least enlightened self-interest. D'Alessandro recounts all with gusto and humor. Greed, venality, duplicity and occasional acts of kindness and maturity during a variety of mostly typical business settings are colorfully depicted, followed by D'Alessandro's pithy observations.

Usually the best parts of books like this are the anecdotes, and Executive Warfare is thankfully unencumbered by excessive pontification and interminable reflection, making it an enjoyable and interesting repository of worldly wisdom. And worldly it is. D'Alessandro's battle tales will echo with familiarity for anyone who has functioned for more than a few days in most earthbound corporate environments.

Originally published in The Miami Herald 8/4/08

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