The Entrepreneur as Benevolent Dictator

Michael Feuer's new book, The Benevolent Dictator landed on my desk at exactly the right moment—two months into the launch of my own business enterprise! So as you can imagine, I dove into the book eager to mine some valuable nuggets of wisdom from the mind of a talented entrepreneur who was able to take OfficeMax from very humble beginnings up to its sales in 2003 for $1.5 billion.

Although the book is full of great insights worthy of study and application, the most important take-away for me relates to the role of the entrepreneur as a Benevolent Dictator. Feuer makes it clear that there is no secret sauce; no magic recipe; nor any single piece of sexy advice guaranteed to take your business to dizzying heights of success. Instead, Feuer insists that it comes down to something really simple (though not easy): devising a smart and detailed strategy, and executing that strategy relentlessly. 

Execution, however, requires discipline and a stubborn focus on setting goals and minding the details.  The occasional cracking of the whip comes with the territory. But that doesn't make Feuer a bad guy at all. His heavy hand is always guided by a benevolent sense of service, to customers and employees alike, and by the humility to recognize that he doesn't have all the answers and that the people in his organization are partners who deserve a say in how things are run. 

For me, it's great to see a CEO who is at once strong and assertive, but humble enough to encourage his people to come up with ideas, and to challenge his own when they disagree.

The following passage is my favorite from the book:
As a founder and former CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I have given more than 1,000 talks and speeches over the past 25 or some years. I am invariably asked the same question during each presentation's question-and-answer session: What is a CEO's most important role in the organization? 
The audience doubtlessly expected a pat, text-book-type response–"building a team," "accelerating sales and profits," or "increase shareholders' value." And all of these truly are critically important objectives, each of which provides a barometer of effectiveness and success.
However, my answer to this age-old question was—and still is—"A boss' job is to stir the pot."
I personally disdain the status quo. The trite phrase, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," sets me off. The comment, "Same old, same old" when applied to a business' progress is, as far as I'm concerned, the first sign that a company is heading into obscurity. Getting a start-up venture off the ground with some modicum of success can lull an entrepreneur into a dangerous mind-set where he or she beings to relax a bit and starts "smelling the roses."
Feuer has organized his thoughts on business into 40 lessons divided among the "four phases" of an entrepreneurial enterprise: (1) Start-up (2) Build Out and Put the Idea to the test (3) Constant Reinvention and (4) The Payday. Although the phases are not fully fleshed out, and while some of the lessons are repetitive, overly expansive and superficial, there is some serious red meat in the book.

The juiciest and most interesting lessons are those about using OPM (Other People's Money) to finance your business. Feuer's genius comes through as he describes (in fairly good detail) how he was able to fund OfficeMax's growth in early and later years without having to deal with overly demanding professional investors (venture capitalists). His myth-busting insights on raising capital are easily worth 100X the price of the book!

There's lots of great advice, that although not particularly original or ground-breaking, is presented in Feuer's clever fashion and is ignored at one's own peril. There's solid advice on how to hire effectively, manage projects, test ideas, change course, encourage innovation, outwit competitors and much more!

Although the book sometimes feels more like a promotional tool than a truly heart-felt treatise on entrepreneurship (there are incessant references to Feuer's Max-Wellness venture in the first half of the book) it provides enough valuable information, humor and even some genuine emotion that compel me to recommend it to you.

If you're thinking of starting a business, or if you're in the middle of launching a business like I am, the advice found in the pages of The Benevelovent Dictator may not be inspirational, but it's highly instructional. Follow Feuer's advice to steer your business in the right direction.

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