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Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes Hardcover – June 2, 2003

4.4 out of 5 stars 43 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Is there a more timely topic for a business book than brilliant executives running their companies into the ground? Dartmouth business professor Finkelstein has been on the case for six years, researching how otherwise intelligent people can manage to botch things up. Here, he dredges up old corporate screwups (like R. J. Reynolds's smokeless cigarettes) and new ones, too (WorldCom and Tyco, among others). There's a certain amount of schadenfreude involved, as the author crisply and incisively picks apart disaster after disaster, but the lessons drawn from this lengthy study are, for the most part, vastly unsurprising. While each company profiled tends to fail in its own way, there are common traits among top execs, such as a propensity to eliminate "anyone who isn't 100 percent behind them" and to "underestimate major obstacles." While Finkelstein suggests avoiding such destructive behaviors, the truth is, sometimes it's human nature to be blind to one's own weaknesses. And that's a mystery no book can fully deconstruct.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


" Casting off standard management fare, Finkelstein has raised eyebrows with his unconventional research.... lessons are more profound say students." -- Business Week, June 9, 2003

"...managers might be better advised to contemplate how companies fail...Finkelstein identifies 'seven habits of spectacularly unsuccessful people...'" -- The London Times, June 5, 2003

"Sydney Finkelstein...[conducted]...the largest and most comprehensive study of business failure...The result is a treasure trove of blunders." -- Financial Times, May 12, 2003

"Watch the parade of corporate disasters that passes through...'Truly colossal blunders don't come in isolation, they come in clusters.'" -- The Economist, May 31, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 318 pages
  • Publisher: Portfolio Hardcover; First Edition edition (June 2, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591840104
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591840107
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #521,742 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Initially, Finkelstein really didn't understand, nor did I before reading his book, how and why can so many business leaders fall so far so fast. "How can so many people be do disastrously wrong? What can possibly account for the scores of business failures we see each year, in different industries, and even in different countries? And how can we prevent this sort of thing from happening again?" Finkelstein devoted more than six years of research to answering questions such as these. "My goal was not only to understand why businesses break down and fail, but to focus on the people behind these failures; not only to understand how to avoid these disasters, but to anticipate the early warning signs of failure. Ultimately, I wanted to move beyond ad hoc explanations of failure on a case-by-case basis and expose the roots of these breakdowns in a definitive way." Whereas Peters and Waterman set out in search of excellence, Finkelstein and his research associates set out in search of failure...and achieved that objective. What they found and what they learned are now offered in this brilliant book.
He organizes his material within three Parts: Great Corporate Mistakes, focusing on four different business challenges: creating successful new ventures, managing mergers and acquisitions, coping with innovation and change, and developing winning strategies in the face of new competitive pressures. In Part II, he identifies the underlying causes of failure evident even across different types of corporate mistakes. In this Part, Finkelstein offers a deeper analysis of the common patterns of behavior that executives in failing companies exhibited. In Part III, Finkelstein shifts his (and his reader's) attention to explicitly developing two critical ideas that have stayed in the background to this point.
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Comment 38 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book that tries to state the obvious and draw generalized conclusions from specific business failure cases... and that may be be most troubling aspect of it. To quickly summarize, it calls attention that executives at companies that have failed usually have huge egos that blind them to change, blind them to the scope of risk they are taking on, and cause them not to listen to opposing views or recognize early-on that key decisions they made are not correct.

Great... but CEOs at successful companies also seem to exhibit many of these characteristics. If they don't have egos this large, they don't make it to the top. If they change their minds "too frequently" in reaction to change, they are seen as wishy-washy. If they recite the details in the risk, they are seen as not having vision and understanding the big picture.

In the end, it is all about degree, I think. Unfortunately, this didn't come through to me in reading this book... and I think the suggestion another reviewer about having a control group is an excellent one. There are companies that are successful that have executives that exhibit many (if not all) of these characteristics... but there are subtle differences in organizational empowerment and the like that would be useful in understanding. It is not just about the executives themselves where avoiding failure or gaining success is concerned.

I still give the book the positive rating I have because it does provide a lot of food for thought and there is a lot of value in the case studies that are presented.
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By A Customer on August 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
As a MBA and manager, I've been reading business books for years, and we all know what that can be like. Weak research, spotty stories, stilted prose. When I picked up Why Smart Executives Fail (don't judge a book by its cover, but this cover is great), it seemed like I was entering a different genre.
The writing is highly entertaining, the stories are fascinating, and the author's (Finkelstein is a b-school prof from Dartmouth) insights are nuanced and carefully drawn. It's hard to imagine a business book being a page-turner, but this one is as close as I've ever seen. All the front page stories are here - Enron, Tyco, ImClone, Adelphia, WorldCom, but there is also a host of companies whose crimes were more strategic in nature - Motorola in the cell phone business, J&J in the stent business, Rubbermaid, LA Gear, and even the Boston Red Sox.
The stories of what went wrong and why are sprinkled with quotes from interviews the author conducted with CEOs, other managers, competitors, and customers, which I found gave me a much better understanding of the key lessons than any previous press accounts I had read. Topping it all off is the author's storytelling skills, which keep you almost entranced. This is one business book that you will want to read cover to cover.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Someone said, and I believe, that "Success is the result of a series of failures from which one has learned." This book is filled with important and interesting failures that you can learn from. Most business books focus on and celebrate successes in the business world, but here the author has focused on some of the largest blunders in recent history (e.g. Enron, Iridium), as well as lesser known mistakes. What makes it so valuable is that Finkelstein has taken a systematic approach to analyzing these missteps to find patterns that will be recognizable to anyone who has worked in a business. Beyond that, the book offers excellent insight on ways to get back on track and avoid a fate similar to the companies studied.
As for the enjoyable part, the book is told through a series of anecdotes and in-depth retellings of mostly familiar blunders. Reinforced with insider interviews and extensive research of the contemporary media coverage, these stories come alive making it very readable. This combination of message and method make "Why Smart Executives Fail" an extremely valuable and somewhat unique resource.
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