A Ghost's Memoir

Here's one of the coolest business books I've read in the past year: A Ghost's Memoir by John McDonald (MIT Press, $24.95.) You can chalk up my excitement to occasional work as a ghostwriter; this remains a cool and engaging read about the history of business, and business of history. In 1954 McDonald, a writer at Fortune Magazine, teamed up with Alfred P. Sloan, the man who created the modern corporation by assembling General Motors out of a disparate collection of carmakers in the 1920s. The two men spent five years producing the business masterpiece, My Years With General Motors. Because the book was detailed and good and honest, GM (then the subject of an antitrust investigation) naturally fought to keep it from being published. McDonald fought back; and won. This book details that struggle.

As a companion read, I highly recommend Sloan's book. It's rare to find a business book delve so deeply and honestly into the nitty-gritty details of taking a grand plan (integrating the disparate divisions to create a new organization capable of competing in a range of markets) and making it real and operational. His book makes the recent memoir Jack: Straight From The Gut by General Electric former CEO Jack Welch feel like an obligation fulfilled, a politic hagiography. While Welch shares nice stories about growing the behemoth, he fails to shed broad insight into the structural or cultural changes that catapulted GE from a major player to the world's leading company.

One final pick in this genre: Father, Son, and Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond by Thomas J. Watson, Jr., with Peter Petre. This book (also ghosted by a Fortune writer) shares, in personal details, just how the charismatic founder Tom Watson grew IBM into a sales machine that came to dominate the world of high-tech. His son describes how he took over the family business and actually built on Dad's legacy.

Posted by tom at April 26, 2002 04:51 PM
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