Coke’s Don Keough is The Real Thing

You learn more from your mistakes than your successes, the wise old heads say. That sums up the Don Keough view. (I hope he doesn’t mind me describing him as old, but he is 81, has six children and 16 grand children.)

He was also, famously, President of Coca-Cola for 12 years between 1981 and 1993, during which time he oversaw the doomed launch of New Coke. That botched innovation is seen by some critics as one of the all-time great business errors, so we can be sure Mr Keough’s views are based on sound experience.

I spoke to him on the phone last week, before he headed off to Tuscany for a summer vacation with all of the above-mentioned family. He may have been demob happy, but there was still time for a brief but serious discussion on business disasters and how to avoid them.

Mr Keough has just published a book, The Ten Commandments for Business Failure. It is an enjoyable and succinct read (although my colleague, John Gapper, offered a slightly crisper assessment in this FT review). It was a pleasure to have the author take me through its contents in a kind of fireside management tutorial.

“Success breeds arrogance and complacency,” Mr Keough told me. “When Bob Woodruff hosted a party to celebrate 50 years of Coca-Cola, he told the company that they were lucky to still be there, considering the mistakes they had made. He believed that success belongs to the discontented.”

Mr Keough’s book lists ten stupid things leaders can very easily find themselves doing – ironic commandments that will lead to failure. Some are not completely surprising: “quit taking risks”, “be inflexible”, “assume infallibility”. Others are more oblique: “don’t take time to think”, “isolate yourself”, “love your bureaucracy”. And some are especially insightful: “send mixed messages”, “be afraid of the future”, “play the game close to the foul line”.

This last one intrigued me. “The fact is,” Mr Keough said, “if you play on the edge the organisation will step over the line from time to time. It is inevitable. Warren Buffett [a long-time friend and partner of Mr Keough – Berkshire Hathaway remains a key shareholder of Coca-Cola, while Mr Keough sits on the Berkshire board] says: ‘Play to the centre of the court’.”

The one commandment I haven’t mentioned so far puts the journalist in his place. Don’t, whatever you do, Mr Keough says, “put all your faith in experts and outside consultants”.

Mr Keough ended our chat by saying some very nice things about the FT, but in case I was in danger of succumbing to arrogance and complacency he had a final piece of advice before going on holiday: “Now, get your butt in gear!”

It was said with a laugh, of course, but for a second I had a sense of what it must have been like working for the guy.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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