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What Not to Do in Business – Nuggets from the trenches of America’s most unsuccessful companies

Why listen to someone who has worked in a failed company? Who cares about what they have to say?

You should, and here’s why.

What Not to Do in Business – Nuggets from the trenches of America’s most unsuccessful companiesTom Berarducci, author of the new business book What Not to Do in Business, the leadership and management survival guide, is no stranger to the frustration of working in a large, lumbering company. He spent much of his professional career toiling in a big corporation, trudging painfully from failed project to failed project. Even when his projects succeeded, it did little to stem the tide of so many corporate bungles. He worked hard. Real hard. But it takes much more than one person working hard to move the needle in a large company.

But, like the silver lining to every dark cloud, perhaps it is this exact process, a process of witnessing so many business failures, which can lead to something good. Something valuable. Something everybody needs and wants. Read on.

Tom Berarducci worked for over 27 years at Eastman Kodak, arguably the most recognizable poster-child for unsuccessful companies in America today. During this time, Tom rose from a “level 39” engineer at the Kodak Research Labs (the lowest level) to the executive ranks, holding the title of Director for the last 12 years of his tenure at Kodak.

During his time at Kodak, Tom actually enjoyed many successes. He designed digital film scanning hardware for Kodak’s famed PhotoCD program. He served as Chief Engineer and technical Lead for the DVC 300 USB digital video camera, the first and only digital camera to be designed, built, and shipped out of Kodak’s US facility in Rochester, NY. He led many inter-company projects. He and his team created Kodak EasyShare software, which shipped to over 20 million customers world-wide. While at Kodak Tom led international product development teams, had dozens of direct reports, and was awarded nine U.S. patents.

Yet these bright points were as faint stars in the overwhelming blackness of Kodak’s overall financial performance.

From this vantage point, Tom was witness to and participant in the rise of digital imaging, from the Sony Mavica to the iPhone. He was also witness to (and sometimes a participant in) some of the world’s biggest screw-ups a business could ever make.

Why did Kodak fail? Why do most companies fail? In Tom’s book he postulates that, instead of some major fumble costing the company billions in one fell swoop, most companies die a death of a thousand cuts, little by little, due mostly to the complete ineptitude of their middle and upper management ranks. This was Kodak’s downfall. And it might be your company’s downfall too, if you don’t read Tom’s book.

Pundits can easily point to several events in the history of Kodak and confidently state that, “Here is the reason Kodak failed!” Some well-known examples include:

  1. Failing to make the digital imaging business truly independent of the film business, a recommendation made popular by famous business book author Clayton Christiansen, and proposed by Tom to Kodak management. A recommendation that was subsequently ignored.
  2. Buying Sterling drug, maker of pharmaceuticals including Bayer aspirin.
  3. Inventing the digital camera, and then putting it on the shelf for nearly 20 years before commercializing it.
  4. Inventing the VCR, and then ignoring it altogether.
  5. Selling Sterling drug (at a loss).
  6. Moving digital design offshore to Japan, then to Taiwan, then to China, then eventually to a partner, and then killing it.
  7. Ignoring the profound effect of software on the future of the photography business.
  8. Betting the company on competing with HP for the inkjet printer market.
  9. Allowing a do-nothing, rubber stamp-wielding Board of Directors to continue to preside over the slow demise of a beloved American icon for decades with no substantive changes.

And, according to Tom, there are many more missteps. It has been said that Kodak was “blindsided” by the onslaught of the digital imaging age. Not so. Kodak management had ample warning from many sources. These warnings were simply ignored. Once, during a meeting of the entire company in 1999, Tom stood on stage of the B-28 auditorium and, to the horror of the upper managers present, boldly declared, “If any of you think I’ve come here to tell you that film is dead, then you are right. Film is dead.” Then, holding up a small Sanyo clamshell phone, he further stated, “Do you want to know the future of photography? It’s right here.” Bold statements in 1999, especially within the walls of Kodak before the entire company. Too bad these words and others all fell on deaf ears.

Yes, these activities, and many more, are significant in Kodak’s history, but according to Tom they themselves are NOT the reason Kodak failed. They are merely symptoms. Symptoms of a management structure so broken that, even if you could reverse any or all of the above decisions, the end result would most likely remain unchanged. This is because the real problem at Kodak, and at most companies in America today, is not the problems or threats they face from outside. It is rather the people. The people that make up the company. According to Tom, when it comes to business, we are truly our own worst enemy.

In his book, Tom clearly states that companies fail because our leaders simply cannot lead. According to Tom, it is this lack of the basic skills of leadership and management that will eventually destroy any company, regardless of industry or domain. Some companies simply die faster than others. Yet they will all inevitably die. Unless we change how we lead.

We caught up with Tom in his home near Sacramento, CA recently. Here is what he had to say:

Q: Hi Tom – Thanks for agreeing to talk with us.

A: You’re welcome. I’m always happy to talk, write, and speak about the topics discussed in my book.

Q: First, some preliminaries. What is the exact title of your book, and how can our readers get a copy?

A: My book is entitled What Not to Do in Business, the leadership and management survival guide.

The ISBN number is: 978-1-257-07229-3. You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com, Lulu.com, or BarnesAndNoble.com. It’s available in paperback, Kindle, or Nook versions. It’s also available in an iPad/iPhone version in the Apple iBookStore.

Q: Great to know. Now, what about that title? Sounds a little odd. How did you come up with that?

A: It’s actually an interesting story. I had recently left Kodak, and was deciding what to do next, when a friend suggested I write a book. So I was sitting in this cute little coffee shop pondering my future, when I thought to myself “Write a book? What could I write about?” I knew that, in order to be successful, you needed to write about something you were passionate about, and something you were an “expert” at. I was passionate about the subject of leadership in corporate America, but wasn’t sure I was considered enough of an expert to write a successful business book on the topic. Regardless of how personally successful I might have been at Kodak, I knew that the company’s overall bad rep would overshadow anything I had accomplished. I thought to myself, “ I’ll never convince people that I know what to do, regardless of reality. In fact, the only thing I might be able to convince them of is that I definitely know WHAT NOT TO DO!”

It was at that moment I knew how I would approach the subject. I sat there in that coffee shop, and in 15 minutes had written down the entire table of contents for my book. Twenty chapters of “What Not to Do.”

Q: What a great story! I guess you were inspired.

A: Yep. And, more than 3 years and 65 thousand words later, most of that initial table of contents remains unchanged.

Q: Amazing. Can you tell us a little more of how the book presents this information?

A: Sure. As I said, the book contains 20 chapters. Each chapter examines one particular aspect of human nature that tends to derail business success. For example, we all know that meetings really suck. They take too long. There are usually way too many people in them. Some people will derail a meeting just for fun. The old saying “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” is definitely alive and well in corporate America.

In all the chapters, I try to discuss in a humorous way what’s wrong. But I don’t stop there. If I did, the book would not be helpful. Instead, at the end of each chapter I get serious for a bit and list specific things you can do right now to be more successful at being managers and leaders.

Q: Like what? Can you give us some examples?

A: Sure. In the case of meetings, I recommend things like:

  1. Every meeting has one and only one owner. If you don’t like it, hold your own meeting.
  2. Every meeting has one specific goal and when it’s done the meeting ends. If you like Bull sessions, check out the water cooler.
  3. Only active participants can come to a meeting. If you’re not contributing, get out.

Q: Interesting. So the book is about meetings.

A: No way! The book is about leadership. It’s about what’s lacking in today’s companies and what we must do to get it back. That is the main thrust of the book.

Q: Ok, so can you give us an example of a chapter that focuses on leadership?

A: Most every chapter in the book focuses on leadership in some way. It permeates the book’s DNA. In fact, over one quarter of the book, seven whole chapters, focus exclusively on certain aspects of leadership lacking in American business today.

The chapters examine key weaknesses of leaders so that you can recognize, avoid, and deal with them. Weaknesses like playing favorites, hiring people just like themselves, and leading by intimidation are discussed in detail. My key message is that even though we all have these tendencies, if we look at ourselves honestly, we can rise above our weaknesses and be much better leaders. But we must be first willing to admit our failings, something most leaders simply will not do. As always, each chapter ends with several practical steps you can do right now to become better leaders, such as:

  1. Decide to lead. If you want the title but don’t want to lead, get out.
  2. Give honest feedback. You aren’t doing anybody any favors by hiding the truth.
  3. Hire contrarians to high-level positions. It’s best to hear your harshest criticism from people close to you.
  4. Never expect more from your team than you expect from yourself.
  5. When you make a rule, make it apply to everyone. That includes you.
  6. Decide why you are here. If you don’t know, no one else will.

Q: Wow; seems like some pretty volatile subjects. Did your time at Kodak inspire the case studies and personas described in the book?

A: Sure, my experience drove the content of the book. However, unless you are a Kodak “insider”, my guess is that I’ve hidden the details well enough so that you won’t be able to put a name to many of the descriptions.

Q: Care to give us any hints?

A: I think I’ll pass.

Q: OK, we’ll have to go back and re-read the book to see if we can find anyone we know. But you do mention some companies and individuals by name. Why is that?

A: I felt it was important to have concrete examples and case studies that people could relate to. So I freely discussed examples of specific companies and people who were either 1) positive examples of successful people or companies, or 2) if not positive, clearly based upon readily available public information.

An example of the latter would be my detailed discussions of Steve Jobs and Apple. Steve’s volatile nature and personality is a well-known issue. Steve is an excellent example of the exception, the wild-point in leadership and management. He could be both hated for his style and beloved for the results he attained all at the same time. I discussed Mr. Jobs as well as Apple in several areas of the book.

Q: So Steve Jobs was an example of “What Not to Do”??

A: In many ways, yes. It just goes to show you that success can happen in spite of our weaknesses, if other things (e.g. talent, determination, luck) outweigh them. There are no absolutes.

Make no mistake, however. Steve Jobs was astoundingly gifted in other ways. He had vision. He was able to spot “A” players. He was relentless and driven.

One of my favorite chapters in the book, entitled “Create feature-rich products that suck” is both a jab at Kodak and a tribute to Apple. Kodak, like so many other technology-driven companies today, had the tendency to load up a product with feature after feature in a vain attempt to garner broad acceptance. This is exactly the opposite of what Apple does. In fact, Walter Issacson in his fantastic biography of Mr. Jobs states that Steve Jobs himself knew that one of the most difficult things to do in product design is to decide what to leave out of a product to make it most successful. Apple’s mantra is simplify, simplify. Kodak’s credo was almost always complicate, complicate.

It is this very lesson that I teach in this chapter of my book, and it is one of the most critical talents any product person can possess. Unfortunately, few people and companies even come close to Apple and Jobs.

Q: OK, how about some more general questions. How did you market your book? How successful has that effort been?

A: Now we are getting into some of the “dirty little secrets” of the self-published book business. First of all, when I wrote my book, I did it absolutely the wrong way. You see, first I wrote the book, all 65 thousand words, then sat back and said, “How the heck do I sell this thing?” I had no clue that I was practicing “What Not to Do”!

If you want to write a book, and actually sell some copies, the first thing you need to do is realize that writing the book is the easy part. Really. The hard part, unless you are a professional marketer, is to come up with a plan to sell the book.

Nevertheless, I eventually did all the commonly accepted things: I have three linked websites for the book:

- http://www.whatnottodoinbusiness.com – The main book site with links to booksellers like Amazon and Apple.

- http://www.whatnottodotheblog.com – My blog site, which I filled to the brim with blogs about the book.

- http://www.whatnottodothebook.com – My “details” site which gives all the gory details about me, the book, etc.

I also commented on other folk’s blogs, sent out free copies to key influencers, etc. I tweet on a regular basis (you can follow me as tomb123 on twitter). I’m on facebook, linkedin, google+, you name it. I’ve even taken out a few ads using Google AdWords as well as LinkedIn ads.

Q: So, how successful do you think these efforts were?

A: It’s a very tough business. There are just way too many business books out there. Most people tend to buy business books that are written by someone famous, or that are recommended by someone famous. It’s a lot easier than trying to figure out which book is the most interesting or useful.

Unfortunately, when you finally do try to read one of these books, your eyes glaze over almost immediately. They tend to be dry, boring and not very useful. My book is written in a conversational, easy tone. It has witty, humorous examples. It’s a lot of fun to read all the while being incredibly useful. After all, what good is a book written by a famous person if you don’t actually read it? I’ll bet real money that, while less of my books may be sold, many more of them will actually be read.

Q: Is that why you are doing interviews like this?

A: One of the main reasons. Also, I quite simply feel very passionate that leadership is taking a back-seat to profit and greed in this country, and want to do everything I can to change that.

Q: So are you saying that, if you become a better leader, your company will be unprofitable?

A: Not at all. I’m only saying that if you focus primarily on profit, you create a crappy business and crappy products. If you focus primarily on great products, you create tremendous value and, in turn, successful businesses and people. It’s simply a matter of focus.

Q: I did notice you have some pretty nice referrals in the front of your book. Can you tell us about them?

A: Sure. Before I published the book, I wanted to make sure that I had a quality product. So I enlisted the help of some folks who I came to know in the industry. They all agreed to read a pre-release copy of my book and give me candid feedback. They all helped me out completely for free. The only thing they got was a free copy of the book. I had folks like Philppe Kahn, inventor of Turbo Pascal. I had Willy Shih, a former boss of mine who is now a professor at Harvard. I also had George Fisher, former CEO of Kodak. Many of them felt so strongly about the book that they gave an endorsement. I’m grateful to each and every one of them for their help. I know the book is much better because of their feedback.

Q: What is your goal for this interview?

A: Let’s be honest. I didn’t write this book for the money. Anyone who knows the business knows that very few self-published works ever sell many copies, and fewer still break even. My goal has always been to help others avoid making the same mistakes that countless companies have made before them. These issues are not rocket science, yet people keep re-inventing the same broken wheel over and over again because no one wants to take the time to think about what they are doing. It’s much easier to simply react and let the chips fall where they may. Unfortunately, as I show in my book, the easy way is rarely the right way.

My goal is to help folks avoid these mistakes in the first place, and I know that if folks take a look at the recommendations in my book, they will go a long way to doing just that.

Q: Thank you for your time, and we wish you the very best of luck with your book.

A: Thanks! It was my pleasure.

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