Towards the end of the book, author David Cote wrote that the book was originally pitched as a memoir but the publisher declined it, saying that he was not sufficiently famous. It became a business book instead. Tellingly, Winning Now, Winning Later reads like a memoir of Cote’s time at Honeywell and the book was better for it.
The book chronicles David’s time as Chairman and CEO around 2002 till retirement. He took over an organization that is seemingly laden with organizational and regulatory baggage, struggling to find its footing, and rife with infighting. The book is vaguely chronological but organized into four topical parts, with each chapter honing in on a specific executive function (e.g., making numbers, business threats, people) and telling his stories related to that function. The end of each chapter helpfully provides a checklist of questions that I can ask myself when I happen to become the CEO of a multinational conglomerate.
Being the leader of an organization the size of Honeywell is, by all accounts, not a widely shared experience at all, which makes this book an enthralling read. It provided a rare first person perspective from the man who is simultaneously most powerful and yet only have broad levers at his disposal. I’ll say this, none of the suggestions in the book are novel or ground breaking. It really is common sense; have a culture of accountability, face problems head on, measure the right things, hire good people, and invest wisely. What sets this apart is that the book provided a compelling case because it was implemented in Honeywell and the results are plain for all to see.
The difficulty in business books is always in how to implement them effectively in the readers context. The stories in books always read as inevitable because by the time the book is written the counterfactuals have been long pruned from the tree of possibilities. However, the exercise for the reader is to implement generic advice in the face of a barrage of reasons and excuses. As Cote astutely points out, it can be more than tempting to maneuver to make numbers, avoid conflict with authorities, preserve relationships and satiate ego, greed, and all the other human psyche things. People take easy ways out with the best of intentions, after all, my situation is unique. It takes immense discipline, bordering on psychopathy, to be able to stick the landing. In the opening paragraphs, the book asks the question on whether leaders should be focusing on short term or long term goals. Cotes says yes, “and that will only happen if you as the leader demand it at the outset and accept no compromises.”
I spoke to a friend who worked under Cote’s reign and he confirmed the intensity of his leadership. Paraphrasing, “He may not be the most pleasant person to work for but he was effective. David deserved every bit of compensation that he was afforded”.
At the epilogue, Cote talked about his younger days, where the unexpected birth of his son really kicked his butt (he was aimless for many, many years) and set him on a path that led to him being one of the most respected CEOs in America. It is heartening to learn that Cote started from a humble beginning and I would love to hear more about how he navigated his career.
Hopefully in our world today, anyone can still apply themselves hard and receive this opportunity.