In the case study Mr Finder describes a dilemma facing Cheryl Tobin, the newly installed chief executive of a big aerospace firm. She starts to suspect that her colleagues have engaged in massive corruption to win contracts. Does she dare initiate an internal investigation that could tear the firm apart Ms Tobin is also a central character in Mr Finders new book, Power Play, which was released earlier last week. In the novel her main concern is not corruption but an executive retreat on a remote island that goes horribly wrong.
The attraction of using the HBR to plug the book is simple: Mr Finders three most recent novels, all set inside big companies, have won him a sizeable following in corporate suites. Jeff Immelt, boss of General Electric, is a fan. Some of the worlds top businessmen have helped him with his research, including several former bosses of Fortune 500 companies.
A graduate of both Yale and Harvard, Mr Finder took up novel-writing after flirting with a career at the CIA and taking a stab at journalism. He had written a non-fiction book about links between American businesses and the Soviet Union but had been unable to use some of the most fascinating material he had picked up, since his sources wanted it to remain off the record. So Mr Finder wove those titbits into a political thriller instead. After three more novels on political themes, he decided to set his next book in the world of business.
A lot of intelligence officers now work as in-house security officers for major corporations, Mr Finder says, and Id ask them, What could a bad guy do inside a company His recent novels draw in part on their responses. In his first corporate thriller, Paranoia, which appeared in 2004, an executive at an IT firm resorts to corporate espionage. His next book, Company Man, about the boss of a struggling manufacturing firm, was ahead of its time in that it cast a private-equity investor as the bad guy back in 2005. Last year Mr Finder published Killer Instinct, set at a Japanese-owned plasma TV manufacturer, in which control of the companys security system is used to advance the protagonists career and destroy his enemies.
There are many novels set in offices and boardrooms. The appeal of
Mr Finders books lies not in the majesty of the prosethey are airport novels, not Pulitzer candidatesbut in the plausibility of their plots and the accuracy of their depiction of corporate life. Ive not seen anything that I think is total BS, that couldnt happen, says Skip Brandon, co-founder of Smith Brandon International, a corporate-intelligence company. The business community is pretty interesting, with all sorts of characters which he brings to life with a level of realism people can relate to, says Bill Teuber, of EMC, a data-storage company.
Business journalism may provide plenty of facts and figures, Mr Finder argues, but it seldom gives readers much of a feel for corporate life. Fiction, in his view, can provide a more accurate picture than anything found in newspapers or management literature. At any rate, Mr Finder is convinced that corporate insiders talk more candidly to him than they do to reporters.
He has found big companies remarkably willing to provide background material. For Paranoia he talked with high-ups at Apple, Cisco and Hewlett- Packarda computer-maker whose subsequent involvement in a real-life case of corporate espionage may not have come as a surprise to Mr Finders readers. For Killer Instinct, NEC helped him to understand what it was like to be an American working for a big Japanese electronics firm.
Confessions of an axe-man
Mr Finder still suffers from some predictable literary prejudices: for instance, he confesses he finds it difficult to present bankers as sympathetic characters. But for the most part he is refreshingly keen to depict businessmen as motivated by more than greed and fear. In Company Man, the hero is a boss who has to fire many of his workers. Mr Finder asked several company bosses what it felt like to lay people off. He says they would see nothing but downside in discussing such issues with a reporter. But they treated him like a confessor, describing how agonising it was, how their kids had been ostracised, beaten up, how one CEO had a glass of wine thrown at him in a restaurant.
Not all firms are keen to confide. Mr Finder says that when he was preparing his tale of corruption in the aviation industry, Boeing refused flatly, saying Whats in it for us Lockheed Martin, by contrast, co-operated; two of its top executives are among the expert commentators on the fictional case study.
Mr Finder thinks that lingering embarrassment about a series of improprieties uncovered at Boeing earlier this decade accounts for the difference: Lockheeds scandals are 20 years in the past.
For Boeing, corruption is much more recent and painful.
Mr Finder believes that even businessmen might learn a thing or two from his books. The kidnap experts he consulted about Power Play, for example, expressed concern that bosses do not think enough about security when they take their top lieutenants on bonding retreats. As he says of the novels grisly plot, If I can think of it, the bad guys have already thought of it, so the guys who run companies should think about it too. Instead of running around in the woods, executives might find it safer and more useful to curl up with a good book.
The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007