Somewhere amid all the prattle from tenured sociology professor sorts and journalists about wide social trends are investors who, with a keen eye, can make a buck from identifying the few social trends that are a.) real and b.) bankable. The most sizeable challenge to this method of investing is that so many who claim trends are daffy. And to go out in search of substantive trends, you need to read widely and wade through many trend stories -- the worst, most unreliable reports you'll see in journalism. (Before wading, put on your hip-highs. This is an area where anecdotes and hunches based on narrow personal experience rule.) That is why no book is more essential as a rough reference for investors in social trends than Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes. The book, which gets the Business Press Maven "Help" label, should be thought of as a clearinghouse for trend ideas. It is written by Mark J. Penn, the CEO of Burson-Marsteller and the Clinton pollster widely credit with tapping into the "soccer mom" phenomenon. Flip through the book and see where you get ideas. Even if you don't, you'll be entertained, as in the section on how uptown souls are getting tattoos in remarkably high numbers. Penn traffics in the old rumor (neither confirmed nor denied) that former Secretary of State George Shultz has a Princeton tiger tattooed on his backside. He also speculates that tattoos are here to stay and will evolve into 3-D and disappearing forms.
A public company that takes advantage of this particular trend could really -- and I apologize for this groaner ahead of time -- stick it to the competition. Then report, ugh, good same-sore sales. In terms of pedigree in a business leader, The Business Press Maven can't help but side with trailer park and no-business-school over, say, boarding school then business school. And just as a business leader with a background that is something more than paint-by-the-numbers privilege might have a more interesting voice, perspective and ability to take and manage risk than the ivy-covered alternative, so too will an author. That's why I picked up The Education of an Accidental CEO: Lessons Learned from the Trailer Park to the Corner Office, by David Novak, the chairman and CEO of YUM! Brands ( YUM), the restaurant conglomerate. More hope: He wrote the book with John Boswell, who co-authored What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School. And raise my hopes more by reminding me of Warren Buffett's appraisal on the cover that "if CEOs were selected like NFL quarterbacks, David Novak would be a first-round draft pick." It's surprising how many first-rounders in business would not come out of Harvard (dropouts don't count), but I had a brief startle at the title of the book's introduction, "You Never Know What You're Capable Of," just the sort of rah-rah self-actualizing nonsense that mars the vast number of CEO books.
No fear, though. (Or only some.) Novak starts off by letting us know that when he told his wife he was writing a book, she asked who would want to read something written by a CEO no one knew. It's a bit of modesty -- which does not come across as false -- and serves the book, especially set against other intolerably pompous CEO tomes (I won't mention names and books but: Lee Iacocca's latest.) that purport to give you the secret of success while actually putting very little time into the book. The secret of success in that case seems to be implicitly given: Use a lot of platitudes and hope something happens in the outside world (a strike at Chrysler?) to cause a run on the book. But here, although platitude-ese is not foreign language to Novak, he does set out to explain the concept of circuitous success in business, a common though -- perhaps predictably -- uncharted type. Novak started off his rise to the top of corporate America by ... going to journalism school. He managed to forsake business school, which tends to iron the voice of any naturally good business person flat, for journalism school, which tends to iron the voice of any naturally good writer flat. Have no fear, though. Novak knows how to write a lead, even if he did have a co-author and the lead about the trailer parks is a bit of a red herring. Novak, who mentions "changing trailer parks" dozens of times, was actually the son of a government surveyor. Barely one step ahead of the creditors, the whole team of surveyors would settle, then pack up their trailers and go onto the next project site. Novak kept bouncing right into adulthood, from the advertising business to restaurants to beverages and back to restaurants. But he's smart and forthright enough not to claim, in complete aw-shucks fashion, purely accidental success. When the potential for a CEO spot opened up, Novak all but used a claw hammer to get the post, nearly getting canned in the process. An interesting aspect to Novak's less-traveled road of success is the various mentors he met along the way, and you get a sense, probably more than you would with a CEO with a business-school guide map in his mind, how Novak took this aspect of someone he met in advertising and that aspect of someone he met in salty snacks. Though the book gets the coveted Business Press Maven "Help" label by giving us a decent window into a successful if lesser known CEO, there are plenty of flaws. In a section called "Surround Yourself with Opinionated People," I thought readers might get some real live advice on doing something that is easier said than done, especially for a CEO who wants to stave off rivals. But all Novak offers is a love letter to his board. That's yuck, not Yum! All in all, not a great book, but a useful, quick glance look at Novak.