Book Review: Losing It! By Bill Lane

Book Review: Losing It! Behaviors and Mindsets that Ruin Careers: Lessons on Protecting Yourself from Avoidable Mistakes, by Bill Lane 

Bill Lane was the speech writer for Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. This hardly qualifies him to dispense cutting edge business advice, but he does offer some fascinating insights into the moral and ethical ambiguities of big business. He was retired (fired) from the company at the age of 57 around the time of Jack Welch’s departure, so his insights are those of a middle level employee.

His basic premise is “never lie.” We all know this is true because our mothers told us so, but Lane makes a powerful point that telling the truth – however painful – is the only way to live. Once you have crafted your first lie, the next one has to be that much more elaborate, and eventually you are caught in a web of deceit that will only end in tears.

Once you have told your first lie, you are drawn ineluctably towards what he calls “Calhoun’s line” – in reference to Dave Calhoun, former vice president at General Electric, and Lane’s mentor. Calhoun’s line is that line in the sand, the moral tipping point, from which return is all but impossible.

Lane talks about his own experience with Calhoun’s line while he served in the US forces in Vietnam. First it was a case of creative accounting, then it progressed to even more creative accounting, until finally he found himself being confronted with torture by his colleagues of an innocent Vietnamese man. This was his Calhoun’s line, from which he bolted. There is a point in most people’s lives when they are confronted with a fork in the road – the one is the path of righteousness, the other the path of damnation. Taking the path of righteousness takes more courage and resolve, but is the only path to follow.

Many good and bright people do not progress in business because they find themselves on a slippery slope to unethical behaviour. Lane says his own career never went any further because he started to take it easy, slipping into autopilot.

His advice: stop the whispering and denigration of the company’s leader around the water cooler. That’s the behaviour of losers. Rather sign on to the leader’s vision for the company and give it 100% backing.

“The best advice I can give anyone in management… (is to) strive endlessly to expand your responsibilities and never stop, never coast, never get comfortable, no matter how many people tell you how great you are and how well you are doing.”

Another piece of wisdom: learn every aspect of the business. If you are an executive at Caterpillar, learn how to operate an excavator and clear a fuel blockage. Jack Welch’s success was due in no small measure to his ability to micro-manage. He was hands-on. The Titanic went down, says Lane, because Captain Edward John Smith was nowhere near the deck when he needed to be. He was too busy “having his ass kissed by his adoring passengers at his dinner party.”

There are lessons here aplenty for anyone who feels their career needs a jump start.