on 13 March 2007
I'm one of those "overpaid consultants" to which Sutton refers early on and I am quite widely read in this genre. I also have solid blue-chip career experience behind me, though, so I don't feel unqualified to comment on Sutton's preventative medicine counsel.
Firstly, I would warn that this is written in a vernacular, chatty style, with fragmented sentences. This irritated me. While I am a firm believer in accurate and concise business language, I expect a certain amount of effort to be put into correct punctuation and grammar. This almost over-the-top writing style made it difficult for me to take the author seriously, regardless of how many businesses he has turned around. Would he go to a job interview or board meeting in ripped jeans and shirt? I highly doubt it. Therefore, regardless of how good his resume may be, he should make similar presentation efforts on his written word. If it were not for this ridiculous way of writing, I would recommend this book to my senior management. However, I would be embarrassed to do so.
That aside, Sutton has a talent for crystallising business issues and drawing similarities from seemingly diverse organisations. His simple messages are accurate and very tangible. There is a refreshing lack of economic theory, with only slight reference to interpretation of debt to equity ratio. The canary motif is quite cute, but is less important than the business lessons taught in following his Grandpa's career through the mining industry. What appears to be a fundamentally basic business structure proves to be the blueprint for any business, the same things go wrong regardless of what is being sold or marketed.
However, this book taught me nothing new. It may be useful to help articulate ideas but midway through I stopped reading it to find out hot new tips for running businesses and more to find out what happened to Grandpa.
At the outset, I acknowledge what is more a quibble than a complaint: I prefer the word "organization" to "corporation" or "company" (both of which, obviously, are organizations) while agreeing that just as canaries once protected coal miners, their human counterparts can now protect (your choice) (a) businesses, (b) corporations, (c) organizations, or (d) all of the above.
Whether or not Sutton was ever a coal miner is irrelevant. The focus should be on the five so-called "secrets" which he reveals in this book. (None is a head-snapper.) It would be a disservice, however, both to Sutton and to those who read this brief commentary to list the five out of context. They are best revealed within the book's narrative. The same is true of the "Big Secret" which Sutton shares in his final chapter. My advice is to go with the extended "canary" metaphor and allow Sutton to explain which of various business disasters are (key word) avoidable or whose impact can at least be reduced by rigorous preparation. Think of "canaries" as comprising a squadron of early-warning signs. It is imperative to know what they are, and, what each indicates. Those who ignore them do so at great peril.
Here are what I consider to be the key points which Sutton stresses, either by explication or implication:
1. Unlike their feathered counterparts, human canaries must be properly trained so that they will recognize and then report potential problems, dangers, etc. and do so in a timely manner.
2. Of equal importance, senior management must ensure that these "messengers" (a.k.a. whistle blowers) are encouraged and rewarded rather than punished.
3. All organizations have points of vulnerability. Everyone involved must be constantly alert to potential threats. Once one is identified, the appropriate person(s) must immediately be informed.
4. All organizations (regardless of size or nature) should have zero tolerance of criminal behavior, of course, but also of inappropriate behavior when in violation of what should be a clearly stated policy or procedure.
5. An organization's human canaries need not, indeed should not be limited to its employees. Customers, vendors, service providers, and "alumni" can also participate in an early-warning system.
Sutton makes clever and effective use of the extended "canary" metaphor and also of his grandfather who immigrated (at age 14) from Ballybunion, Ireland, to Harlan, Kentucky, and went to work in a coal mine. It is Grandpa Sutton who serves as the source of the five "secrets," each of which is revealed and then discussed within its own dedicated chapter. This use of what I call "Grandpa fables" may seem a gimmick but it's not. Sutton is too clever for that. Each of the "secrets" suggests lessons which can guide and inform sound business decisions.
In each of the first five chapters, Sutton identifies a common problem such as what usually happens when a company's profits sag and its management decides to cure this by adding revenue, any revenue. He lists five probable consequences. (Please see page 17.) Later in the same chapter, he responds to a separate but related question: What's the cure for a growing company with shrinking profits? He cites real-world examples. Offers specific suggestions. (Please see pages 23-26.) He concludes the chapter with a boxed summary of key points, "Your business is in trouble when..." Sutton follows a similar format in each of the other chapters: first a "Grandpa fable," then lesson(s) it reveals, relevant examples, probable consequences if the problem is not solved, a solution suggested, and then an appropriate variation on "Your business is in trouble when..." Given its length of only 126 pages, this is more a booklet than a book. Sutton's purpose is to focus his reader's attention on a limited number of "business disasters," and covers each with brevity and clarity.
I lament the fact that more often than not, those who sound an "alarm" of one kind or another are discouraged and even punished. Oh sure, some people are merely trouble-makers whose hidden agenda which may be unclear even to them. Fair enough. However, it is in the best interests of every organization (regardless of size or nature) to realize where its areas of vulnerability are most serious, to establish and support an "early warning system," and then require everyone involved to be alert to potential crises. Sutton offers some informative examples and some excellent suggestions as to how to do this.