Book Review: Know-How by Ram Charan

January 17, 2007

When a sports team is going bad, you’ll often hear the manager talk about going “back to the fundamentals.” In baseball, for example, that means see the ball, hit the ball, see the ball, catch the ball.  In football it might mean reminding a receiver that you can’t run with the ball until you’ve actually caught it. It’s not as if the players don’t know the fundamentals, it’s more that they get distracted, or try to do too much at once, or lose focus when the pressure is on.

So it is in business.  I can just imagine a manager at some level of a company being taken aside by his boss who says, “Things haven’t been going well lately. We need to get back to the fundamentals. Read this.”  And the manager receives a copy of Ram Charan’s latest book, Know-How.

Know-How is a book that does a nice job of boiling down success as a business leader into eight skills, things you must “know how” to do to be effective.  None of the skills Charan highlights is going to give you an “a-ha!” moment, but they give you an “oh yeah” moment, as in, “Oh, yeah, I knew I should have been doing that all along, but got so caught up with X and Y that I forgot Z.” In this way, it’s a good book to keep around to gauge how your leadership is progressing against these bedrock benchmarks.

Here’s what I mean by the fundamentals.  In a (long) sentence, Know-How teaches that in order to succeed, a leader must position a business or department correctly, must set priorities well in order to reach correct goals that are attainable, must manage people well in order to keep them motivated and “with the program”, and must be alert to outside factors that present both risks and opportunities.

I probably didn’t teach you anything you didn’t know there. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and that doesn’t mean you’re doing it. And if Charan left it at that, it would obviously be a short book. But, of course, he doesn’t.

While Charan can’t tell you exactly how these fundamentals apply in your unique situation,  he does offer a wealth of stories that illustrate how real-life leaders have successfully used them (along with a few stories of those who did not). Among the leaders Charan discusses in more detail: Blockbuster’s John Antioco, Steve Jobs of Apple, Verizon’s Ivan Seidenberg, GE’s Jeff Immelt, and others, including many anonymous leaders who did or did not make the necessary adjustments. (Charan also uses Home Depot’s newly ex-CEO Bob Nardelli as an example of an adept leader. Whether he would take that back considering more recent developments is unknown.)

As the last paragraph suggests, most of Charan’s examples center around larger organizations with multiple layers of management and large teams. He uses a few smaller company examples, but much of the book is devoted to big companies.  That doesn’t make the advice any less valid, and it makes sense in that smaller companies with a good product/service can often thrive in the short term even with poor or inexperienced leaders, while bigger, more diversified companies usually face more sophisticated challenges.

But, whether your business is big or small, whether you manage one person or 100, the fundamentals are still fundamental.  Having Know-How on your shelf to remind you to see the ball, catch the ball, run with the ball can help you stay focused on the key skills that will drive your business and your career.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world.


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