The Janitor and the CEO

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Why are there so few books capable of intertwining business and real life? Thousands of new business titles appear each year, yet most tend to paper over life outside of the office or idealize it in passing. Even memoirs fall into this trap. Fortunately, a new page-turner written by a Houston oil and gas engineer cuts against the grain. Chris Alexander's Be the Beans makes a full-throated case for "outwardly-focused optimism" at home and at work.

We meet the story's main character, Jake Carmichael, as a fast-rising software engineer who gets an impromptu offer to interview for the top job at a firm called LaserTech. If it seems like a charmed life so far, Jake's perch is tech boom-era San Francisco, a period and place in which mediocrity could stumble upon riches. But Jake is the real deal, and seemingly has the good sense to accept the offer that comes out of Austin. With his West Texas-born wife and their children in tow, he heads off with great expectations of CEO life. Then everything starts to go wrong.

Following in the footsteps of the company founder, Jake faces a staff that revered their old boss and has struggled to produce breakthroughs of late. Yet they are motivated to turn things around, as is the new sales executive, a former workaholic who arrives with a wiser perspective from a harrowing bout with cancer. But the company is losing money, and Jake finds himself in the routine of spending each night at the office, searching for a way out of the morass. It's here that he meets Henry Schmidt, an elderly janitor with an unbelievable past who turns out to be Jake's best hope for fixing LaserTech.

The fact that someone of Henry's stature is sweeping floors shows that he has "the heart of a servant," as Jake describes it. But it's more Henry's advice and perspective that affects Jake and his company, as the two begin meeting regularly for lunch or dinner. Henry starts with a warning that explains why CEO's tend to skew older: "In some regards, it's easier for someone in their 50s and early 60s to lead because they have fewer competing interests like young families and the desire to excel and prove themselves. Older leaders are better equipped to enjoy leading because they see it as a journey, not a destination."

Henry, a World War II fighter pilot, organizes the rest of his advice around a concept called ACES - accountability, commitment, excellence, and service. Take it or leave it as an acronym, but together these ideas gradually deliver order for Jake and LaserTech. It begins with the CEO coming being brutally analytical and honest about his mistakes and how they were preventing necesary mid-course corrections at the firm.

The sharpest change Jake makes is firing a senior manager who had been insubordinate and disruptive. The salutary effect that this has shows that one person's presence - and exit - can make all the difference for a small company's harmony. Another staff member with a similar temperament sees the writing on the wall and quickly changes his attitude to survive there. "It's easy to be negative and cynical," the author said in a recent phone interview. "I feel like there's a need for optimism in this world."

This book is as much about Henry - a supporting character in the story - as it is about the protagonist Jake. Henry is 88 years old but still works part-time, and his mentorship is critical to turning around the company. Alexander dislikes the notion of retirement and believes "we've made work a four letter word." He envisions a new model of aging in which people continue to work and consult well after stopping full-time employment. At a time when the labor force participation rate is at an all-time low, when a younger generation seems like it needs a little less hubris, who could object to that?

There have been business books that articulate personal struggle in recent years - Robert Coles' edited volume Minding the Store was one, Alice Schroader's definitive biography of Warren Buffett was another - but Be the Beans is as accessible as any and does it through what might be called a Texas worldview. Heavy on optimism and faith, it's an antidote to modern drudgery.

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