Monday, January 19, 2009

You don't learn to swim until you get into the water

Great Q&A in today's USA Today with 82-year-old Don Keough, who served as president of Coke during the 1980s. He has a book out titled "The Ten Commandments for Business Failure."

A couple of highlights from the interview:

-- On not resting on your laurels: "I've always been afraid of the word success. People, companies and countries can get into trouble when they start to think they're successful. They get arrogant. It's awfully easy to get to 40 and say, 'I'm tired of sticking my neck out. I'm going to play it cool.' It's very easy to be afraid of the future. Don't do it."

-- On being first to admit a mistake: "In corporations, CEO and mistake become a contradiction in terms. If a company's had a bad year, a typical shareholder letter from the chairman will be, 'We had a challenging year.' That's why I like Warren Buffett's honesty. If you read his annual letters, the first thing he'll point out is mistakes."

-- On insulating yourself: "It's easy to get in a bubble and have lunch only with associates and staff. If you don't bust out of that bubble, it's hard to get honest and direct information. During (World War II, Winston) Churchill had people whose only function was to give him bad news. Every day, they had to give out the worst-case scenario. Hitler, until he went into the bunker, thought he was winning the war because nobody was telling him the truth."

-- On remaining curious: "I can remember once when I was in school. I told my mother that I hated one subject. She said, 'That's your problem. That material is very worthwhile. You just have to take a new look at it.' I've lived a long time, I'm an old man. I've always been curious about the future, never spent a lot of time worrying about the past. Kids in school right now have some of the most exciting days in the history of the world in front of them. You don't learn to swim until you get into the water. People need to plunge into life."