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Nag, Nag, Nag . . . : NONFICTION : MEMOS FROM THE CHAIRMAN, By Alan C. Greenberg (Workman Publishing: $14.95; 156 pp.)

May 19, 1996|John Balzar | John Balzar is a Times national correspondent

When I was tall enough to reach, my mother taught me to turn out the lights. Nobody ever praised her "wit and wisdom" in this regard, although we did think she was a plenty good mom--despite her nagging.

Now, I learn how significant her advice was.

She should have gone into business on Wall Street. She should have written down her ideas: "Turn out the lights when you leave a room." She could have published these thoughts and called it a book and had a swell introduction written about her by Warren Buffett.

Alan C. "Ace" Greenberg is chairman of Bear Stearns. At that job, I'm told, he is pretty successful. He is also a nag and, unfortunately, regards himself to be wildly witty and inspirational at it.

"Memos From the Chairman," I gather, is supposed to be one of these insight books into good management: how to keep the staff focused, make money, that kind of thing.

Now, I don't much approve of ridicule as a form of criticism but sometimes there are few alternatives. The only insight this absurd book offers is into Greenberg's self-importance.

Of 100-plus memos he chooses to publish, covering 17 years, he repeats himself again and again: "Turn out the lights." Of his 10 axioms of success (Memo, July 10, 1990) Nos. 3, 5 and 9 are brief: Cut expenses. He writes that no paper clips or rubber bands will be issued to employees, except one box at the start of their careers. Scrounge and recycle the rest, I guess. Paper clips are Greenberg's No. 1 fascination--metaphorical, I guess. And as for mail that arrives in window envelopes, "it is not against the law to reuse those envelopes."

Remember about finishing your vegetables because there were starving children in Africa? Greenberg coughs up an even sillier nostrum about expenses:

"7,000 years ago the Egyptians were building pyramids and their women were riding in chariots, and getting manicures and pedicures. . . . The Egyptian civilization continued to advance for 5,000 years and then they started getting careless with expenses. Their overhead got out of control and that was that. They have been trying to recover for 2,000 years."

I concede knowing next to nothing about managing. But I know about being managed. And in a responsible job, like investing other people's money, what could be more supercilious than being papered with memos from on high about how it "hurts me to report that I saw somebody throw away a used envelope before it made 22 trips around the office"?

Oh, all right, maybe Greenberg is good at investing and his employees get good bonuses, so what's the harm if he wants to act like their nagging mother? Probably none. Are his memos an inside joke made bearable by his other qualities? Probably so. But it is vainglorious to suppose this stuff is book material. We can only hope up-and-coming executives aren't tempted to emulate him.

As in Greenberg's memo re sick days (May 9, 1990): "No excuse. We will no longer accept your doctor's statement or note as proof. It is clear that if you are well enough to get to the doctor's office, you are well enough to come to work." What a card.

Again, I regret resorting to ordinary ridicule. But you deserve it, Mr. Greenberg. Although in the end, I am softened by the photograph on the back jacket: You and your yo-yo.

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