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Books on Business: Book offers glimpse into life of heroic inventor

Sunday, December 16, 2001

By Carnegie Library's Business Librarians

"At Work With Thomas Edison. 10 Business Lessons from America's Greatest Innovator" by Blaine McCormick. Entrepreneur Press, 2001.

"At Work With Thomas Edison" offers a glimpse into the mind and spirit of the man who transformed American life with his light bulb, phonograph and motion picture projector.

Edison is the ultimate hero for today's entrepreneur. He could invent, manage and promote at the same time. Unlike most other factories that manufactured specific products, Edison's enterprise specialized in innovation, and became known as the Invention Factory. A firm believer in freedom, individuality and experimentation, he attracted the best talent, while dispelling the notion of the lone genius. Surrounded by a group of partners in a rowdy lab with no rules, a pipe organ for group sing-alongs, apple pie at midnight parties and a revolving door of talent, he nurtured the process of innovation. Edison's maverick style had more in common with the young wizards of Silicon Valley in the 1970s and 1980s than the crude foundries and factories of his own era. Ironically, Edison did business with Silicon Valley, then known as Santa Clara Valley, taking advantage of the area's good mercury lode in his development of the incandescent lab.

Edison knew that continued financing was critical for the steady flow of inventions. With his development of the stock ticker, he had earlier established a familiar name on Wall Street. In addition, he located his lab in Menlo Park, N.J., a short railroad trip to New York City and the bankers. He was successful at getting capital not by making big promises, but by achieving small victories with regular reports. To finance the electric light bulb, he first wired his Menlo Park lab with electricity and had the financiers marvel at the scene. He had already carefully courted New York City bureaucrats to allow him to wire Lower Manhattan for electricity. He then wired the city's power station and invited everyone to view the spectacle. His application of the "win small, win early, win often" approach proved that "A little something is better than nothing."

Author Blaine McCormick does a fine job translating the complex tableau of Edison's life, work and accomplishments into a book that is at once engaging and useful. McCormick's accessible style and obvious love for the material make this title an ideal companion piece to his earlier book, "Ben Franklin's 12 Rules of Management." Just as Edison demonstrated passion and enthusiasm for his projects, so too does McCormick, and in so doing he allows one of America's greatest entrepreneurs to pass on his legacy of innovation.

"The Essential Galbraith" selected and edited by Andrea D. Williams. Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

This wonderful collection of works, with annotations by Galbraith himself, demonstrates why he is widely held to be one of the 20 th century's great economists and intellects. Dry, occasionally hilarious and always fearless, John Kenneth Galbraith made his reputation in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an iconoclast whose cutting analysis of consumer culture proved to be influential, however nettlesome it seemed at the time.

Highlights of "The Essential Galbraith" include chapters from "The Affluent Society" (1958), an incisive exposition on the dangers of rampant consumerism, which also served as an unusual source of inspiration for an emerging dissident culture. It's difficult not to experience an unsettling sense of familiarity when reading selections from this book, as it eerily describes a cultural climate not unlike our own, in which consumption is equated with patriotism.

Other highlights include "The Crash," seen as one of the definitive works covering the events of October 1929; two excellent biographical essays -- "The Massive Dissent of Karl Marx" and "Who Was Thorstein Veblen?"; and "The Founding Faith: Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations," a convenient primer for everyone who has dropped the influential economist's name without ever actually having read him. Galbraith's personal introductions offer fresh insights into each piece. Old fans and readers new to John Kenneth Galbraith alike will find value in this fresh presentation of his work.

"In the Company of Women: Turning Workplace Conflict Into Powerful Alliances" by Pat Heim and Susan Murphy. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001.

"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" wonders Professor Henry Higgins in the classic musical, "My Fair Lady." Women in today's workplace recognize that acting like a man can be professionally damaging, but may not be aware of the hidden nuances in woman-to-woman relationships that might be equally damaging. Females are often socially conditioned to share, to avoid confrontation and not to draw attention to themselves or their achievements. These attributes can become serious liabilities when a woman is recognized for her abilities and given increasing responsibility within her organization.

For the unwary woman, the success she worked so hard to achieve can ultimately prove to be her undoing. Women can sabotage other women indirectly through "gossip, spreading rumors and divulging secrets, publicly making insinuating or insulting comments and purposefully snubbing and withdrawing friendship," and they do not hesitate to do so when they believe such actions are justified.

Heim and Murphy set out to discover why so many women believe other women had undermined them at some point in their careers. They discovered an invisible, unstated rule of behavior and gave it the somewhat cumbersome name "power dead-even rule," wherein "the self-esteem and power of one must be, in the perception of each woman, similar in weight to the self-esteem and power of the other." The authors feel strongly that a clear understanding of this rule is essential to women in the workplace.

"In the Company of Women" explores the potential minefields to which newly promoted female managers may fall prey if they fail to observe this rule. When the existing balance of power suddenly shifts, you become vulnerable if you and your former peers have shared secrets and "troubles talk" in the past. Your entire private life can be exposed, warts and all; the Monica Lewinsky/Linda Tripp friendship is cited as a cautionary example.

Additionally, internal company information that comes your way must now be kept confidential and can no longer be shared. Your former peers often perceive this as a violation of the "power dead-even rule." If you become comfortable with the men in the office or spend more time associating with managers at your level, this might also be seen as breaking the rule. When you assume a position of leadership, your employees are no longer your peers, and new boundaries between your professional life and your private life must be established if you are to be effective. It's just not possible to have it both ways.

How then do you preserve a harmonious working relationship with your former friends and keep them from stabbing you in the back when you least expect it? "In the Company of Women" provides an excellent roadmap. Guidelines are provided for learning how to assess and handle a variety of unpleasant situations without becoming defensive or losing your self-control.

Finding a mentor to offer guidance and honest feedback as your career progresses will make navigating treacherous waters easier. If you are expecting a major promotion or if you have recently been placed in charge of former co-workers, then run, don't walk, to your nearest library or bookseller and read this book! You'll find that many of the techniques for improving relationships and communication skills in the workplace can be useful in your personal life as well.

Also recommended are:

"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Statistics" by Sunny Baker, Ph.D., Alpha Books, 2002.

"The Consumer's Guide to Experts" by Susan T. Shay. Kiplinger Books, 2001.

"The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape" by Joel Kotkin. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2001.

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