Paging Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend is worth resurrecting. The former Avis chairman, who died in 1998, was best known for his cheeky 1970 bestseller, Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits.

With Jossey-Bass about to issue a new edition, it’s worth taking a look at Townsend’s pithy A-Z handbook, which takes you from advertising (hire the best agency and give them free rein) to wearing out your welcome (Nobody should be CEO of anything for more than five or six years). The book also includes a forward from pal Warren Bennis and essays from some who worked with Townsend.

What I like about the book is its humor--a feature that's decidedley missing from many of the earnest tomes published on management these days. Sure, he makes prescient points ("Two or three more generations of Fords ... will suffice to kill Ford"). But he also evokes a sense that business could be fun. Here's his take on the board of directors:

Directors are usually the friends of the chief executive put there to keep him safely in office. They meet once a month, gaze at the financial window dressing (never at the operating figures by which managers run the business), listen to the chief and his team talk superficially about the state of the operation, ask a couple of dutiful questions, make token suggestions (courteously recorded and subsequently ignored), and adjourn until next month.

The danger, he says, is that their conscience may inspire them to dabble now and then. One solution: serve cocktails and a heavy lunch before the meeting. The slight of an older director asleep will be sure to embarrass everyone into wrapping things up quickly.