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Book Review of: Profit with Honor

The New Stage of Market Capitalism

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Review of Profit with Honor, by Daniel Yankelovich (Softcover, 2007)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This book is about ethics and integrity in corporate America. The author discusses the various scandals of the past decade or so, looks at root causes, and proposes a solution.

This book could easily have been a statist prescription for yet more regulation by that whacko entity we call the federal government (which doesn't actually govern), but fortunately it was not. Just as easily, it could have been yet another book used by the author to push the leftist agenda in the rosiest of terms, despite the fact that agenda has always failed and always will. Fortunately, we were spared that reality-challenged view as well. Nor is it another effort to push the "conservative" agenda (basically, a way of diverting money to special interests). In fact, Yankelovich stresses the need to move beyond political "solutions" to problems.

People change careers, and I am one of those people. In my former life as an engineer (in a galaxy far, far away or something to that effect), one of the skills I learned was root cause analysis. This kind of analysis is demonstrably absent in public policy, as is evident from the demonstrable failure of federal policies, federal agencies, federal programs, and just about anything else spewing forth from Washington, DC. I notice that most "experts" have pretty logical-sounding solutions to what ails us, but almost none of them first determines what problem needs solving. They have a hammer (their area of expertise), and the whole world is their nail.

Yankelovich takes a humbler and more rational approach. This book talks about what CEOs and other leaders should do to restore integrity in our corporations, yet in the preface he says he's neither a celebrated CEO nor an expert on the subject. Upon reading the book, I found this worked to his advantage. He's not an armchair general type, either, though. He was on many boards over many years and has seen the workings of the inner sanctum firsthand. His background as a social scientist and researcher is also a critical qualification, because he has an excellent lens through which to observe and analyze.

At 169 pages in paperback format, this book is short. It's not a highly detailed academic treatise on case histories. Yankelovich is certainly capable of producing such an opus. But it would be read by academics rather than CEOs. This book is the perfect size for its primary target audience--the high level corporate executive. It can fit into a briefcase for reading during a return flight or two.

Profit with Honor has ten chapters. The first two give us a clear picture of the problem. In those chapters, Yankelovich also discusses why legal remedies don't work. For example, if you have a law barring a certain behavior, people who believe it's OK to game the system will find and exploit a loophole. To see how this pans out, look no further than our insane, and counterproductive, federal income tax code. He also talks about what happens when a company promises to play nice and then doesn't.

The next two chapters explain why "What's good for GM is good for America" isn't so (not to pick on GM--that was the actual statement, but the sentiment was quickly adopted by other companies). Yankelovich also provides comparisons between the ethics of today (or lack thereof) to the ethics of previous times. This isn't a "sure was great in the good old days" fantasy. Yankelovich bases his analysis on actual research, including a study of the Harvard Business School Class of 1949.

What he has to say about "civil society" in Chapter Five is right on target, and should be required reading for everyone over the age of six. Unfortunately, we have too few adults with the proper training in civility, and we gag on that aftertaste of that every day.

Chapter Six and Chapter Seven provide a good discussion of stewardship ethics, which Yankelovich proposes as the means of getting our corporations back on track.

In Chapter Eight, Yankelovich exposes the fallacy of the "Shareholder Value" philosophy, leaving no doubt for the reader that it has proven to be costly and destructive. Chapter Nine explores the concept of gatekeeper integrity. Our gatekeepers include institutional investors, auditors, business lawyers, investment bankers, business journalists, and educators--and they have profoundly failed us.

The final chapter, Titled "Hummer vs. Hybrid" nicely ties the book's concepts together. What better way to make things clear than to use a common example and figuratively turn it over in your hand so that each edge, nook, and cranny is exposed to sunlight? This example concerns the attitudes of two companies. The first one is GM, which I loathe. The second is Toyota, of which I am a customer and a huge fan.

GM chased short-term profits by producing gas-guzzling Hummers. Thanks to GM lobbyists, the CONgress (which sells legislation to the highest bidder) introduced more distortions into that abomination called "the federal income tax code" to make it advantageous for people to own Hummers rather than a vehicle that makes sense. Hummers tear up our roads (causing us to pay higher road taxes) and consume four times the fuel that a sensible vehicle does (causing gas prices to be higher). So, we all pay for some insecure person to drive around in a Hummer dominating the road while GM managers soak up their bonuses for short-term profits and Middle East terrorists enjoy the funding provided by the additional oil revenue. All perfectly legal.

Toyota, on the other hand, behaved responsibly by producing the fuel-efficient Prius hybrid. It's important to note that this isn't their only fuel-efficient vehicle. My Camry gets nearly 40 MPG on the highway (5-speed manual transmission, good driving habits, synthetic oil, and other things boost its fuel economy past the EPA rating). Some other models of conventially-powered Toyotas, such as the Corolla, do even better.

If we replaced every GM vehicle with a Toyota Camry, America would no longer have an energy problem.

Toyota's venture into the hybrid market came at the cost of short-term losses. This car isn't a cash cow for them, and it isn't causing their executives to go home with multi-million dollar bonuses. It's part of the their long-term strategy to build cars that serve people and society. It's the result of their "continual improvement" ethic.

Yankelovich follows this same ethic in his writing. He isn't proposing a quick fix. He's proposing a change in underlying attitudes and beliefs, and it takes time for those things to produce effects. It's like eating right vs. taking medications. Eating right won't instantly make you healthy, if you are presently not eating right. But it's the only way to be healthy and correcting the effects of wrong behavior takes time.

It's also a monumental task to get all the players on board with such a change. If this book makes its way into boardrooms and executive suites across the country, and if individuals in those boardrooms and executive suites decide to make personal integrity a top priority ala the Class of 1949, that change can and will happen.

If you like the idea of a nation in which corporations are run in an ethical fashion (providing a model the federal "government" might learn from), read this book and then recommend it to others.

 

 


 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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