September / 2011  BOOK REVIEW
The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management
by Alan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor, The Wall Street Journal

(Harper Business, 2010; 189 pages)
“Essential” (adj) (1) of the utmost importance (2) the individual, real, or ultimate nature of a thing
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I came to this slender volume with some trepidation, partly because I distrust any book that describes itself as “essential” and partly because I’d read the classics of management (Peter Drucker, Alfred Sloan, Tom Peterson, Michael Porter Clay Christenson and Jim Collins, among others, over the years and wondered whether Murray would have anything new to say or add.

As it happens, he doesn’t but he does an excellent job of distilling and digesting decades of classic management literature into a useful handbook. Murray, an excellent writer, calls on his years of personal experience as a reporter and student of management as well as on the expertise of his colleagues and the archives (including a bounty of recorded interviews with leading CEO’s) of the Wall Street Journal to provide a well-paced tour through the challenges managers face, offering guidelines for addressing each.

Topics covered in the short chapters include high level areas such as Strategy, Execution, and Leadership to more basic but equally important subjects as Working with Teams, Managing Global Business, and “Managing Yourself”.  Throughout the discussions, the author includes insightful and spot-on anecdotes and quotes that bring the more theoretical topics to life and keep things entertaining for the reader.

For example, in a time when rapidly accelerating change is creating issues (and in some cases threatening the very existence of entire industries, Ann Mulcahy, upon taking over as CEO of then-much troubled Xerox says of Change Management:

“I took over Xerox in 2000…It was an extraordinary time for the company. We were in a deep crisis. So there was no choice but to be on a journey of extraordinary change. It’s one of the benefits of actually having a crisis. It does give you permission to challenge all areas of the business.”

Or Ditley Engel, CEO of Vesta Wind Systems on Leadership and Trust:

“I think there are similarities between the public life of a politician and the life of a CEO. You need to understand that they have to reelect you as a leader.”

As mentioned earlier, Murray is also adept at bringing entire concepts down to a few pithy sentences without being glib. On Leaders, he writes:

“Leaders must be arrogant enough to believe they are worth following, but humble enough to know that others may have a better sense of the direction they should take. They must be confident enough to inspire confidence in others, yet always open to the questions and doubts that will inevitably come their way. They must believe in themselves, but be willing to put the organization’s needs above their own.”

I only had a couple of minor quarrels with this book. First, while the book is only intended as a summary, it can sometimes be more broad than deep in topics that perhaps deserve a more thoughtful or nuanced presentation. The chapter on Going Global is an example, where one recommendation is, “if {the decision to go global] a close call, don’t do it.”

The other glaring weakness is the inclusion of a throwaway chapter on Financial Literacy. Yes, I understand that everyone in a management role needs to understand financial fundamentals, but the twelve pages of Balance Sheet, Income Statement and Cash Flow Statements shed little light and are coma-inducing.

On the plus side, along with each chapter, Murray provides an excellent “Further Reading” list on the chapter’s topic for those wishing to take a deeper dive.

On balance Essential Guide to Management is a useful introduction and summary that is a good refresher for those in business, but adds nothing particularly new or insightful for experienced managers. It’s the book for people who want to read only one book about general management and would make an excellent gift or handout for new managers or those entering management training programs. It is “essential” in the sense that it captures “the ultimate nature of [the] thing” but not in the sense that it is “of the ultimate importance.”