What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School - Mark H. McCormack

I pick up the occasional management book from charity shops, and a few years ago I read What They Teach You At Harvard Business School, so when this one turned up I thought it'd be fun to read it too.

Actually getting around to reading it has turned into this whole other project. My health issues mean that I've been a bit lower on energy, and while I've been working on various little projects I've not found much time to read. Last week I did not feel well and got really low on energy, to the point that I could only read, not work on other stuff, and that turned out to be an excuse to finish reading the book. Thankfully, since then my energy levels have recovered.

This book has a reputation as a business book classic, or at least the name's well-known. What I hadn't realised is that this was first published in 1984, so it's clearly got some longevity. Mark McCormack basically invented the world of sports management, initially by representing Arnold Palmer, and then building up from there into a huge empire. His business role has focused on negotiations, sales and people skills, so it's not really a surprise that that's the focus of the book.

In many ways, it's a quite personal book mildly masquerading as general advice. The title is apt - these kinds of people skills are generally poorly-served by MBA courses, and Mark makes the good point that MBAs often believe that their course has taught them everything, when in reality it's the start of learning business, not the end, and the real world, with real people skills, is the true test and place to learn. The book, unsurprisingly, prioritises experience over theory.

McCormack clearly believes in the "true character" of people - underlining it with a story of when he met Nixon, years before Watergate, and took a dislike to him based on his reading of Nixon's character. McCormack's clearly had a lot of practice reading people over his career, so I'm not really in much place to criticise his view, all I can do is look at how it fits with my super-amateurish understanding. And... yes, I guess. Throughout my career, I've taken a while to fit a pattern to people, but once I've got it it usually sticks pretty well, enough to convince me that it's more than confirmation bias. And it's taught me that there are some people to never, ever trust.

This "It's all about character" approach, and several other things that he says throughout the book, reminds me of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, which I found in a friend's house and read when I was, oooh, must have been about twelve or something. While the approach is "classic", the language is simply dated. Secretaries are "she", business partners are "he". Some other things have moved on. The section on doing people favours looks like an HR disaster in the world of bribes and gift policies (even if that's technically constrainted to government figures).

He keeps coming back to "don't react, act", which is pithy but not very transparent. It seems to mean a couple of things. From one side, it means "Don't take knee-jerk decisions, but think through your responses carefully". From another, it's about taking the initiative, finding the way to have control, in business dealings.

As I said earlier, it's personal experience disguised as general business advice, and it's really focused on industries build on reputation - effectively high-touch B2B business. On the other hand, some of the ideas can be reused for the internal politics of large corporations. The chapter on "Getting Ahead" makes this connection explicit.

A lot of the book comes down to "Do the obvious thing", but with a) the observation that so many people don't, and getting the basics down is an advantage, and b) some fleshing out of how to do these things well, complete with anecdotes.

He leans a lot into "intuition" around "taking the edge", but a fair amount of it reads to me like theoretical game theory, psychology and negotiation skills reinvented through practical experience. Against this background reading on negotiation, I found his take rather fun - a folk wisdom précis of the subject. It also reminds me that I'm probably too open in my approach to negotiation. I found the advice on negotiating from a position of strength to be interesting - how it can be a disadvantage, since it can lead to the other side being too defensive. He's keen on keeping the full truth hidden to allow for flexibility in negotiations. There's a short section on contracts that explains how to finesse the follow-up.

In many ways, this willingness to take the edge, to not be dishonest but obfuscate the truth for flexibility, seems to be the difference from Dale Carnegie. Mark is clearly out to play hard but fair, and is in to win at business, albeit over the long term. There's this vague feeling that being fair is less about being the right thing to do as just being the more effective business strategy in the long run!

He also makes no bones about the need to work hard to achieve the kind of business success he has had. He works 80-90 hours a week - quantity of work is a big factor, and stamina underrated. Perhaps the book is less trying to teach you "what you can't be taught at business school", so much as a guide to the skills you need to learn during work.

As the book moves from "People" to "Sales and Negotiation" (he's a big fan of timing and silence) to "Running a Business", it moves down into the nitty-gritty. It feels to me like much of the sales stuff is semi-obvious advice about being thoughtful and personable. I did find the advice about timing interesting. At work there have been projects where someone has been agitating for them for some time, and a year or two later it gets prioritised, and they go "Finally! Why didn't they listen earlier?", when it's quite possible that actually it's just the right time to do the project now.

The fact that this is a book from the '80s means that some of the stories look funnier in the long-term. Citing the development of IBM's PCjr as a success story does not come across the same way today! On the other hand, some things feel annoyingly prescient (or at least timeless). The advice not to take defensive action because of doomsayers (again, act rather than react) fits well with the failure of Google+, and highlights the difficulties around Google's Cloud and AI strategies (compared to e.g. search and email). Compare this to Apple's strategy.

The balance I alluded to earlier between acting like a negotiator where people will be willing to come work with you again, and still ruthlessly seeking that competitive edge, comes to the fore later in the book. In one case, he describes kindly redirecting clients he doesn't want to competitors that he's sure he can steal them back from, should their careers take off! He's also very clear that internally, he reserves the right to be arbitrary, and make decisions that are for the good of the business, rather than fair.

The tail of the book is about "getting things done", and some of it even overlaps with Getting Things Done, with TODO lists organised by time, location and person. He's extremely keen on strong time management, time-boxing everything, and it's fascinating to see how much time optimisation he performs (vs. how I tend to optimise for keeping up to date on detail - a rather less scalable skill, I guess). He always travels when queues are shortest.

"Stick to your schedule" is a wonderful idea, but it works best if you're the boss, and is almost entirely impossible if you're in SRE.

The discussion around decision-making and handling memos is fascinating. He's an intuitive decision-maker. He sees how too much data can cloud a decision or be used as post-hoc justification, but it seems his approach is to just be intuitive, rather than really learning to master data, which I guess is a lot easier with accessible computing power. "Memos" have been utterly changed by the advent of email, and some of the advice still sticks while other advice no longer makes sense. It's also a reminder that there are whole departments that have disappeared, like copy centres and typing pools.

A final flag of how the world has changed since the '80s is that the final chapter is on entrepreneurship, which was not assumed to be the default mode in the '80s. Nowadays, even if you're working in a big company, you want to pretend you're some kind of internal entrepreneur. Treating it as a specialist topic is actually rather refereshing.

At the end of all this, there's an epilogue, based on the behaviours of the very top sports people, that is basically "To be the best, you must never be satisfied." It's probably true, but it's very depressing: If you're very, very, very good, you get to be unhappy. Personally, I try a weaker, but more satisfying approach: Doublethink! I really try to appreciate what I do have, and the successes of life, while also looking out for how to improve in the future. Sometimes it works. :)

Is this a good book? I'm not sure. It's more specialised than you might want it to be, and a lot of the advice is prone to go in one ear and out the other. I don't think it's bad advice for the goals it sets out to achieve, and it is great as a brain dump of a very successful businessman, but to convert the advice into significant changes in working style would likely take an awful lot of self-discipline. The temptation to read it, let it wash over you, and move on, is high.

Posted 2023-11-13.