Review: Know-How

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

Know-HowThis book drew me in by its subtitle: The 8 Skills That Separate People Who Perform from Those Who Don’t. I knew before I even picked it up that it was a book on leading a business – I was familiar with the author, Ram Charan, from his columns on entrepreneurship at Yahoo! Finance.

Still, with a subtitle like that, I was intrigued. There are a lot of specific traits that you can learn from management and use in your daily work that can help you succeed at any job – leadership, teamwork, building relationships, and so on. Adding up that idea, plus that intriguing subtitle, I had to pick this one up and give it a read. I was hoping to gain some insights on some specific skills gleaned from great leaders that anyone could apply in the workplace – did the book pan out, or did it fall into the dangerous gray area of business platitudes that don’t really help anyone? Let’s dig in and take a look.

The Nuts and Bolts of Know-How

1. Know-How
The Substance of Successful Leaders

Charan’s basic argument for this entire book is that there is a set of key skills that can help anyone on the road to success as long as they’ve mastered the skills and have appropriate personality traits to go along with them. Most of these skills can easily be learned, but they do rely on some specific personality traits – patience, an ability to work with others, and a strong work ethic chief among them.

2. The Foundation
Positioning and Repositioning the Business to Make Money

In a nutshell, Charan argues that a successful business isn’t one that is focused on one specific idea, but in fact is willing to change and try different ideas as the market changes. This is one of the big arguments from Built to Last, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. In a nutshell, Charan argues that you should keep trying things until you find something that leads down a successful path – and that it takes strength to abandon failure. I think this is a very important lesson for entrepreneurs, and it’s why I usually suggest that people with a great idea for a small business start off as a side business before getting in over their head. They can use the side business to refine the idea until they hit upon something that works, then go after it full throttle.

3. Before the Point Tips
Connecting the Dots by Pinpointing and Taking Action on Emerging Patterns of External Change

This leads directly into the second skill: keeping track of the larger environment of what’s going on. If the market starts to change, there’s a chance that your formula for success may need to change as well. Try to look for changes as early as possible, and look for analogies of these changes in other areas to see what works in response. For example, if you’re suddenly facing a competitor that’s undercutting you in price, your best tactic is to find out about it as early as you can and then find out how other businesses successfully handled it.

4. Herding Cats
Getting People to Work Toegether by Managing the Social System of Your Business

The biggest skill here is knowing how to get people with compatible skills and goals together. This involves both picking appropriate people and weeding out the ones that turn out to not fit as well. This doesn’t mean that you should crush dissent, but it does mean that you should find people who work together well and eliminate people who are just simply blocking progress for the sake of blocking progress.

5. How Leaders Are Made
Judging, Selecting, and Developing Leaders

Here, Charan points to several ways to find “superstars” within your company – the kind of people that are transformative. For most of us, though, it’s more valuable to look at these traits to see what they’re all about. Mostly, they revolve around setting audacious goals and then achieving them – “superstars” set the bar high, then do what it takes to jump over that bar. People that can effectively do this on a regular basis are the people you need, and you should reward them to keep them around.

6. Unity Without Uniformity
Molding a Team of Leaders

This chapter was the weakest in the book, as Charan seems to believe that team-based work is always the best route to go. That may be true in upper-level management, but in many positions, individual work works the best. The real conclusion to draw here is that you shouldn’t force a round peg into a square hole – in other words, if people don’t work well in a team environment, don’t force them into it if there are ways that they can succeed in a solo environment. A friend of mine once related a great story about this – he worked at a company with a large programming staff that was previously bogged down in hours of meetings each day, a policy very detrimental to the productivity of the staff. The new boss came in, cancelled all of the meetings, and instead just had a giant group lunch each day where everyone talked about their projects in small groups that were in pretty steady flux. The rest of the time, the programmers were left to do their own things. Productivity more than tripled (in terms of code output).

7. The Buck Starts With You
Determining and Setting the Right Goals

Know-How puts some significant focus on defining goals, something I personally value quite a bit. A good goal is one that is attainable through hard work – it needs to be based in reality, but it also requires some significant effort to get there. Charan seems to suggest setting some highly audacious long term goals, then defining metrics and milestones to gauge progress along the way. If you need to, do some adjustment based on the metrics and the milestones. For example, I do this often with my personal finance goals – I set big, audacious goals for the next year or so and then define monthly metrics I need to meet – after a few months, these monthly metrics tell me whether the big goal is realistic or not.

8. It’s Monday Morning – Now What?
Setting Laser-Sharp Dominant Priorities

How do you reach those goals? There are usually a few key things you’ll need to do to make it. For example, with a personal finance goal, you’ll need to both spend less and try to earn more. These should be your constant focus – how can I spend less money? How can I earn a little more? Once you’ve defined the constant things you need to do, keep your eye on the ball at all times. Let those necessary tasks drive what you need to be doing and you’ll be just fine.

9. In the Court of Public Opinion
Dealing with Societal Forces Beyond the Market

In a nutshell, this closing chapter deals with public perception of you. What do people think of you? Is it a positive that puts wind at your back, or a negative that slows you down? Keep tabs on what they’re saying about you, and use that as a guiding tool to change direction when you need to. For example, with The Simple Dollar, I keep very close tabs on the comments and which posts get bookmarked by readers to know what the “good” posts are and the “bad” posts are – that helps me to constantly think about the value I’m giving to readers.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Know-How falls into that “no man’s land” of having solid conceptual ideas, but little practical application. The problem is that business and productivity-oriented books like this thrive on practical application.

Know-How‘s “8 Skills That Separate People Who Perform from Those Who Don’t” do make a lot of sense – that’s not what I’m saying. The problem is that the book is missing that next step – how does one go into work on Monday morning and start implementing these concepts?

Many of the concepts from this book have been nestled in my head, doing something of a slow burn since I read it. I can make that same statement, though, about many books I’ve read in the last few years – and many of them directly connected to day-to-day practical applications that I could start executing right now. Know-How does not.

It’s well-written and worth reading to provide some food for thought, but it’s not groundbreaking. It’s a worthwhile book to look for at the library if such material is valuable to you, but don’t expect it to provide insights that will transform your world.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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