Fast Company

Fast Talk: Books That Matter

One book can change the direction of a company -- or a career.

Larry Johnston

Chairman and CEO
Albertsons
Boise, Idaho

It's no secret that execution is critical to business success. But how do you do it? How do you teach it? When I joined Albertsons two years ago, the company just didn't have good execution processes. And I knew what good execution looked like from my GE days.

The required textbook for my senior leadership team? Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (Crown, 2002). The book fit right into my new role as a CEO in a big turnaround situation. Many people think of execution as detail work, that it's below the dignity of business leaders. I think that it's the leader's most important job.

One of the book's essential ideas is about facing reality. So I put my team on a plane, and we flew down to Bentonville, Arkansas to spend the whole day at the new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. That's our reality. We have to learn how to grow and prosper in a market where we've got a big, tough competitor like Wal-Mart.

I told my team, "Embracing realism is not easy, but it's absolutely necessary for us to address issues and take aggressive, fast action." I cited examples. Exiting some of the major markets that we were doing business in and closing more than 400 stores was a tough decision, but the reality was that those stores were a drain on our earnings potential. Cutting 20% of our administrative workforce was another tough decision, but our staffing levels were not competitive -- our costs were too high. Giving frank performance reviews is not always pleasant, but some people just don't measure up.

One of the book's coauthors is Larry Bossidy, a former colleague from GE. Lessons we learned from Jack [Welch] drive our leadership styles. Today, we're both leading transformation initiatives.

James Billington

Librarian
Library of Congress
Washington, DC

If I had to single out one book from the more than 18 million books at the Library of Congress, I'd say that Dostoyevsky's The Possessed most influenced me as a cultural historian. I have spent the past 30 years in Washington, the city of politics and power, and The Possessed is really about both. It is the great political novel of the modern era. It takes you deep into the genesis of the revolutionary mentality. Not of the American kind, but the kind that was eventually realized in the Soviet Union, where ideas that glorified violence and almost depended on violence took possession of what might otherwise be sensible people. There is nothing in the Soviet experience that wasn't anticipated in the fevered monologues of the characters in The Possessed (first published in 1871).

But it foretells more than that. Ultimately, the book deals with the systematic and deliberate use of violence for political ends. That's a problem that the 20th century has seen in spades: the killing fields of Cambodia, the cultural revolution in China, the general abrogation of human rights around the world, and on and on.

Most ordinary Americans don't think about the power of ideas. We're practical. We're instinctively skeptical of anybody who is too fanatical. But with that skepticism often comes an inability to understand the ideas that impel people of different political cultures.

As a scholar, I have given a lot of thought to the ideological compulsions that have influenced all kinds of cultures. And the truth is, I can't say that I've ever been surprised or shocked by any political developments in the real world, because I met most of them during my sophomore year of college in The Possessed.

Maureen Mahon Egen

President and COO
AOL Time Warner Book Group
New York, New York

I first read Gone with the Wind (Macmillan, 1936) when I was 11 years old. I didn't move for two days. It was summertime, and I just sat reading on the sofa in the living room. I didn't have to do my chores. My mother didn't even make me set the table. It was the first time that I was transported into another world.

I had never been to the South. I didn't know much about the Civil War. I had never read about someone my heritage, Irish. The book introduced me to a cast of characters living in a time and place that I knew nothing about and brought their stories to life.

Gone with the Wind also got me thinking about books. It hadn't really dawned on me until then that people wrote books and published them. I never thought I would be a writer, but I realized that you could work with writers. I knew it was a kind of job.

Years later, I reread Gone With the Wind when I knew I was going to be editing its sequel, Scarlett. I didn't enjoy it as much the second time around, even though we now publish it in paperback. The dialect is painful. So is the vision of slaves. The author was a Southerner, and she wrote from a Southern point of view. If you read it that way, it's a great portrayal of the South at that time. But when you read it in the context of today's mores, it's not -- how should I put it? -- as comfortable. But, at least for me, it's also hard to reread a book and get swept up in the emotions of it all over again.

Nonetheless, Gone With the Wind put me on my career track. I've recommended it to all of my nieces, and of the eldest group, two of the three have already written their own books. So it was this next generation that became the writers.

Bob Nardelli

President and CEO
The Home Depot
Atlanta, Georgia

When I became CEO, I reread The Experience Economy (Harvard Business School Press, 1999). It became clear early on that what had gotten the Home Depot to its first $50 billion was not going to get it to the next $50 billion. I knew that the new competitive arena was the customer's experience.

So we experimented with a handful of stores and created a more inviting environment. We increased the light level to brighten things up and improved the floor coverings to get more reflectivity. We made our signs clearer. There's less store clutter. Our new rug displays provide enough space for customers to pull down a rug and lay it on the floor to see what it really looks and feels like. We now do night receiving so that during the day, customers aren't competing with forklifts, and store associates can be completely focused on creating a memorable experience. Results? Consider appliances. In stores where we have enhanced our presentation, sales have increased 22%. Basically we went from having no market position to being number three in less than 12 months.

We're also focused on getting customers more engaged. As the book says, move the customer from a passive to an active participant. We recently held the first-ever national Do-It-Herself Workshops, where some 40,000 women learned all kinds of projects -- from paving stones to installing low-voltage outdoor lighting.

We used to take a more quantitative view of customer service: Would you shop here again? What products do you like? Are we conveniently located? Today, we're looking for brand affinity. Do people want to come to the Home Depot because of the experience?

Chuck Williams

Founder
Williams-Sonoma
San Francisco, California

You might say that a cookbook is an unusual book to consider really influential. I found Les Recettes de Mapie (Hachette, 1956) in Paris on one of my first buying trips. It must have been 1959. I'd opened Williams-Sonoma three years prior, but things were just getting started. And this little book became my special ingredient.

It reinforced my idea of opening a French kitchenware shop for the American cook. This was before French cooking took off in the United States, before Julia Child came out with her cookbook. I was drawn to this little book because it was all about simple French cooking, and the presentation itself was simple -- bright yellow, colored pictures, under 100 pages. The author, Comtesse Guy de Toulouse-Lautrec, was a big deal, too.

The book inspired me. It became my way of sharing recipes with customers and, by extension, giving them good service. The recipes were simple but unconventional -- from a soufflé baked in a grapefruit to porc à l'orange, a tenderloin of pork with orange slices and juice. The book was in French, so I never sold it in the store, but I usually had it out on the store counter, showing pictures and translating recipes. When customers traveled to Europe, they would return to the shop with recipes and menus from restaurants. Cooking for customers wasn't uncommon, either. I'd invite them home for dinner and try recipes on them. Before long, porc à l'orange spread round the dinner-party circuit in the Bay Area.

Sharing recipes was my way of growing the business. It grew naturally. I've come to learn that if you love what you do, then the world will fall in love with you.

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