I forget why, but last week I read My Years With General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan, the guy generally credited with taking GM from the 1920s hodgepodge of bickering car companies to the 1950s unified, profitable Godzilla we know, love and bankrupted.
My Years With GM was published in 1963, three years before American auto sales began their steady decline. Sloan was CEO from 1923-1956, so the book deals mainly with the string of wins the auto industry racked up between WWI ending and the Greatest Generation moving to the suburbs.
The book is apparently considered a classic, and it’s fascinating not only for its sober principles of corporate governance, but for how much of a fucking dinosaur it is. The world has profoundly changed since people like Sloan ran it, and there’s no better embodiment of this change than a 50-year-old book describing a 90-year-old company.
It’s not just what it’s about, but how its about it. Here’s all the reasons Sloan’s book would never get published today:
- It’s written for adults. Today’s business books are required to be punchy, simple and interrupted by headlines and graphics every 13 words so businessmen can read them on airplanes. Getting to Yes, as much as I enjoyed it, has the grammatical intricacy of IKEA instructions.
- It’s long. My Years With General Motors is a positively literary 522 pages. It’s full of intra-company memos printed in their entirety, and contains precisely two charts, both of which contain financial info printed at squinty font size. Even the fucking title is a warning that Sloan is not going to make this easy for you.
- It’s not about the author. Sloan spends precisely half a paragraph on his biographical details on page 19, and never mentions himself again. He doesn’t write about his wife or his hobbies or his hometown. He never uses childhood anecdotes to illustrate his management style. No sentence begins with ‘like my dad always told me…’ or some such. This book is free of folk wisdom. Most modern business gurus put their own narrative at the center of their business success, and it’s jarring to read an entire book that never breaks character.
- It glorifies profits. Sloan is famous for coining the phrase ‘the business of business is business’, and you get the feeling that if he had to sum up his life’s achievement in two words, he would say ‘shareholder value.’ Much of the book deals with Sloan’s dedication to making return on investment the sole criterion for which GM projects were developed and assessed. Considerations like community development, environmental sustainability and GM’s role in relation to the obligations of government are literally never mentioned.
- It doesn’t give a shit about employees. Part of Sloan’s sniper-like focus on profits is also reflected in his evident lack of interest in substantively addressing the aspects of management that deal with the human species. The only individuals mentioned by name in his book are executives, and issues like unions, wages and working conditions are described exclusively as macro issues to be calculated on the basis of costs, never categories that contain actual people.
- It contains no recommendations. Sloan describes his experiences at the company like he’s writing a police report. He never generalizes, he never uses the second person and the words ‘how to’ do not appear in that order for the duration. Sloan just describes what he did at GM. If there are any lessons, it’s up to you to find and apply them.
I don’t know if executives are more enlightened nowadays or if they’re just better at faking it, but at least the business community gestures at the fact that companies are made up of people, and that they impact their consumers, communities and host governments.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about Sloan’s book is that I totally fucking loved it. I started it not expecting to finish, but there’s something about Sloan’s peculiar mix of Don Draper and Harry Truman that made me want his monologue never to end. I never quite agreed with his worldview, but at least I got a tour of it while it lasted.