The greatest management story ever told. A book review of ‘The Puritan Gift’

The Puritan GiftThe Puritan Gift – Reclaiming the American Dream Amidst Global Financial Chaos – Kenneth Hopper & William Hopper, 2010 (I.B.Taurus)

An investigative, business journalist calls me for an interview. He is in the closing stages of writing his “definitive” account of the downfall of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The last stone he wants to turn over is the HR department. He has seen my highly critical comments about RBS’s ex-HR Director and wants to know more.  I tell him my criticism was an informed, professional assessment of RBS’s low maturity level, which I ascribed to an unfortunate combination of incompetent HR and a CEO (Fred Goodwin – no longer ‘Sir’) prone to temper tantrums, hubris and a fear-inducing management style.

I added that what was wrong at RBS was not an isolated case; it was symptomatic of a widespread malaise that had afflicted the capitalist system. From there it did not take long for our conversation to widen and draw some general conclusions about the state of executive management and governance today in the light of the GFC (global financial crisis).  The journalist then strongly recommended a book with a curious title – ‘The Puritan Gift’ – saying it was the best management book he had ever read. I agree, it is without precedent, it is the greatest management story ever told. 

Even if you are a keen management book reader you probably do not read from cover-to-cover.  I certainly don’t. In a world of short attention spans, and an apparently limitless supply of ‘me-too management’ titles, would our greater diligence and depth be repaid?  In the specific case of The Puritan Gift, yes it would.  It is a complete management thesis based on extensive, in-depth research spanning four centuries of management history.  You could just jump to the Appendix (pp. 279-289) with its excellent “Twenty-five Principles” of sound management but you would miss many other riches if you did.  There are canny insights throughout and the sort of wisdom that can only be gained from substantive, hands-on experience.  You would also miss a great story.

The authors, Kenneth and William Hopper, are Scottish brothers now in their 80’s, who have both worked in America.  Ken graduated as an engineer and became a management consultant and researcher; and still lives in the US.  Will is a linguist turned investment banker and lives in London.  Their story of the gift of management starts from the very beginning; with the well-planned, Puritan migration to America in 1630: hence the title.  This is where the foundation stone for the entire thesis is laid.  The ‘gift’ that these Puritans bestowed on America is that good management is not only a combination of competent planning, efficiency and effectiveness; it is governed by an over-arching, higher purpose for the betterment of mankind.  Never was a management book so desperately needed to remind us all, once more, of the best management lessons we have forgotten.

It would be counter-productive to try and offer a detailed account of the book’s content here.  There is no ‘executive summary’ that could do it justice and if executives do not have the time to read the whole book then that is to their eternal shame: they do not have any greater priorities.  The target audience in greatest need of the enlightenment that comes with The Puritan Gift are probably too busy chasing shareholder value and their own compensation package to be bothered with becoming professional managers.  For them, let me just highlight some of the key points that might make them stop for a while and re-consider what they are doing and how they are doing it.

First, do they have “domain knowledge” of the business and markets in which they are engaged?  RBS’s chairman was Tom McKillop, an ex-pharmaceutical CEO at AstraZeneca.  His current successor at AstraZeneca is now trying to solve some of the long term problems he left behind; including a drug pipeline that has almost run dry. The latest CEO’s ‘solution’, completely relocating the entire R&D function, seems to fail even the most basic test of common sense and good planning. Fred Goodwin himself was an accountant, not a banker. No wonder it went so badly wrong. No wonder the average tenure of a CEO these days is measured in low single digits.

Second, when corporations became obsessed in the late 20th century with short-term profitability and shareholder returns, they lost sight of their over-arching purpose of sustained value for society in terms of value creation, jobs and wealth. Included in such misleading indices would be the credit rating agencies who awarded triple ‘A’ ratings for businesses (like RBS) shortly before they went bankrupt.

Third, a ‘Puritan’ is essentially someone who is down-to-earth and wants to see hard evidence with their own eyes.  They are not the sort to be impressed by modern-day hype and PR spin. They also have little time for the “’so-called’ experts” that the Hoppers frequently refer to.  The Hoppers’ history of the advent and evolution of business schools is also scathing and shows why the exponential growth in MBAs has done little to improve the professionalism of general management in large corporations.

No one will agree with absolutely everything in the ‘Puritan’ thesis and those areas still up for debate are the complex problems to which there is never going to be a simple answer.  In terms of the key elements required to underpin management competence and professionalism they have all the bases covered and leave the reader with a clear view of the essential simplicity behind the best management practice.

My only quibble is with the title. It is probably a bit too clever for its own good. It should appeal to people like Fred Goodwin and Tom McKillop, who are both ‘dour’ Scots, but they and their executive peers would have to come to this book with new-found humility. But don’t let the ‘Puritan’ tag deter you; you won’t have to change your religion and if you read it from cover to cover you may never, ever, need to read another management book again.

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