Book Review: What’s Holding You Back? — By Robert J. Herbold


While I rarely seem to have time for book reviews, the timing, content, and match to current needs of Bob Herbold’s new book is even more rare, so I wanted to share some thoughts while fresh. I read the book while on annual vacation in the San Juan Mountains with my wife at the end of September.

As a previous business and organizational consultant with dozens of similar cases in my past, combined with years of pro-bono advisory for the public sector and non-profits, and recent partner negotiations with multinationals, I can confirm that the operational guidance throughout the book is spot on.

Indeed, many of the current economic challenges facing the U.S. and EU can be directly traced to the consensus cultures in large organizations of the type highlighted consistently in the business cases Bob shares. In case after case, he shows us how lack of accountability, fear of negative impact on careers, refusing to take decisive bold action meeting actual needs, and poor cultures for innovation have led to failure in our hyper competitive global economy. We know what works and what doesn’t, but the truth is what works is quite often very difficult and uncomfortable; not unlike team competition on the football field or climbing mountains.

I suspect that this book will clash sharply with the predominant idealism found in government, academia, unions, and multinationals that have sufficient market power to ignore competitive issues during the tenure of current management, or so many believed until very recently. For decades now the most common response to increased competition has been to circle the wagons and kick the can down the road for the next generation to worry about, which is of course why western economies in particular are suffering today.  However common and popular, any such culture and practice is failure by any credible definition of leadership. This is why most strong leaders agree that we are suffering from an era of leadership crisis; it’s impossible to conclude otherwise.

Some managers in consensus cultures might even consider Bob’s message as brutal, claiming that such a management philosophy is politically unacceptable in their organizational culture. Such a conclusion would be accurate in many organizations I’ve worked with, which is why crisis is so common today. The mathematical truth in a world with finite resources is indeed often perceived as brutal, particularly for those who have enjoyed a life of surplus and subsidy. These are precisely the cultures and managers who need to fully embrace the teachings offered by Bob, if for no other reason than everything such cultures claim to care about are being economically devastated by uncompetitive philosophies and practices. It is ironic that what’s holding our economy back are so many cultures and leaders who are refusing to follow the proven practices that work in the real economy and attempt to protect a world that no longer exists, rather than deal with the reality we face on planet earth today.

While I found a few items I could quibble with relating to my own specialty work in Kyield, they are minor compared to the much needed broader message. A few of my favorite conclusions include:

  • Avoid commodity hell

  • Staff for success

  • Move weak performers out quickly

  • Creativity and six sigma don’t mix

  • Demand accountability and decisiveness

  • Value ideas from anywhere

  • Exploit inflection points

In each of these areas and many others, Bob provides some detail on how to execute, whether in large global companies like his role at P&G and Microsoft, or in business units dealing with many of the same issues.

Finally, I’d like to share a few personal thoughts. While I’ve never met Bob in person, as is often the case in business we do have multiple shared acquaintances in our past, so I pinged him when reading the book and we’ve exchanged a few emails since.  I often thought about Bob in his role as COO at Microsoft when his duties included dealing with the DOJ on one hand and Bill Gates on the other, which frankly must have been among the most difficult positions any modern executive has endured. The outcome for Bill Gates and Microsoft was exceptional by any known metric, which can be largely attributed to Bob Herbold in my view.

In a recent interview and podcast with the Puget Sound Business Journal (my old stomping ground), the editor asked Bob about his experience at Microsoft and why the company has not been more innovative. His answer was almost verbatim to my own in answering the same question for my late partner Dr. Russell Borland who was on the founding team of Word, and a key person in many of the early products that still deliver most of the profits for MSFT.

Paraphrasing the answer: “It’s very difficult to voluntarily cannibalize two of the most profitable products in the history of business (Office and Windows)”.

Frankly, this reality was not easy for Russell to digest, nor even myself who was an early booster to MS. However, based on fiduciary responsibility that requires quantitative reasoning to guide decision making, a CEO in a public company wouldn’t voluntarily cannibalize such cash cows, and Steve Ballmer hasn’t, so it’s up to customers and innovators–that’s why we need new companies; creative destruction and disruption are essential to our economy.

Unfortunately for the world, when companies who dominate our work environment with commoditized products fail to innovate, and fail to provide easily adaptable tools that enable differentiation and competitiveness, the risk of failure becomes systemic to the entire global economy, acting like a wet blanket to creativity and economic growth. That’s why we spent 15 years creating Kyield—organizations simply can’t afford commoditization of the digital workplace environment, and the world cannot afford not to embrace the rare generational leap Kyield represents.

If you are a senior executive in a mid to large size organization, you will hopefully already have this book, but if not—buy it for all of your managers, then call me and let’s talk about what it will take to install Kyield in your organization so that your organization can execute and optimize the lessons learned:

What’s Holding You Back?
10 Bold Steps That Define Gutsy Leaders
By Robert J. Herbold

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About Mark Montgomery
I am a technologist, serial entrepreneur, business consultant, recovered VC, and inventor with interests that are both broad and deep across multiple disciplines, including organizational management, computing, communications, economics, sociology, science and nature, among others. For the past several years I have been founder and CEO of Kyield, which offers a distributed operating system for achieving optimal yield of executable knowledge across large data networks. The patented AI system core acts to unify networks with adaptive data tailored to each entity with continuous predictive analytics designed to significantly reduce ongoing costs while accelerating productivity, and generally make life more satisfying and productive for knowledge workers and their organizations. We provide popular free white papers, use case scenarios, and other information at http://www.kyield.com .

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