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Tough Calls from the Corner Office, Harlan Steinbaum

Tough Calls from the Corner Office, Harlan Steinbaum

by Jaime Kelley, Walrus Contributor

Harlan Steinbaum

We have often heard the saying, “Hindsight is 20/20.” There are few places where that statement is truer than in the business world.

Local author, Harlan Steinbaum, a former CEO and founder of St. Louis’ Express Scripts, wrote Tough Calls from the Corner Office from the point of view of a successful and respected businessperson who has taken the opportunity to take a 20/20 look back upon the successes of his career and of other corporate executives.

On January 25 few braved the cold, rainy evening for the Tough Calls book signing at Left Bank Books-Downtown, where Steinbaum regaled us with a synopsis of his book as well as personal anecdotes and insights into some defining moments, critical decision points in the corporate world.

Looking back, Steinbaum recognized that among the many big business decisions he faced, there was one decision that had a pivotal impact on his career, his company, his family and his success–the moment his partners decided they needed to reacquire their company from the diversified conglomerate that had acquired them a few years prior.

In his book, Steinbaum offers an exposé of a wide variety of defining moments and tough calls from 39 leaders in corporate America, many of whom have ties to St. Louis and/or Missouri. He highlighted a few of the stand-out stories, such as the somewhat comical, certainly naïve mistake of Joseph Plumeri that shaped his career. Plumeri, as a law student seeking a part-time job, pounded the pavement in New York City in search of a three-name firms “…because I thought that if a firm had three names it had to be a law firm. What the hell did I know?” (p. 26) Plumeri found himself in the office of Sandy Weill of the firm Carter, Berlind and Weill, only to discover that they were a brokerage firm. Weill offered Plumeri a part-time job, and Plumeri’s mistake blossomed into a successful career in banking and insurance.

Steinbaum shared the story of ESPN’s Bill Rasmussen, a tale about banking on the power of a good idea. In an effort to create a cable sports network in 1978, Rasmussen and his partners pitched the crazy idea of broadcasting opposite ABC, CBS and NBC evening news, allowing for sports news to receive in-depth coverage in a 30 minute spot. Rasmussen reflects: “It was the greatest sports show ever. It still is.” (p. 47). Rasmussen had the courage to let his idea be his most valuable asset: “I took a lot of chances and a lot of risk…One day I looked at my bank book and I had $17.28 in my account, but I was determined to keep going.” (p. 48)

Steinbaum’s book also highlights women at the helm. When Susan S. Elliott graduated college in 1958, she got a job with IBM. Of her 10-week employee training program, only one focused on computers since, as IBM said, she“…wouldn’t need any more training than that because there were not going to be many computers.” (p. 201) Elliott took it upon herself to learn computers and programming. Her defining moment came when she “…became pregnant in 1966, and IBM wanted me to stay at home for three months because I was so ‘fragile.’ I just couldn’t do that, so instead, I started my own business.” (p. 201) Today Elliott’s company, System Service Enterprises (SSE – also her initials), makes business of sharing knowledge, offering  eLearning/blended learning, software application development, and network infrastructure services.

From the naïve Joseph Plumeri, to the risk-taking Bill Rasmussen to the anything-but-fragile Susan S. Elliott, we learn that defining moments are rarely characterized by glory. Steinberg reminds us that it’s often through 20/20 hindsight that our mistakes, times of crisis, heartfelt decisions, and leaps of faith come into focus.

Tough Calls from the Corner Office is available at Left Bank Books.


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