Shift: Inside Nissan’s Historic Revival

By Carlos Ghosn and Philippe Riès
Currency/Doubleday, 2005
256 pages, $25.95

“Is there a manager in the house?” Like a theater owner faced with a sudden medical emergency, Nissan sent out a call for help in 1999. The Japanese automaker had exhausted its strategic and managerial resources and desperately needed a global partner and a new chief executive officer. The call was answered by Renault and Carlos Ghosn, the company’s second-in-command and its Mr. Fix-it — Le Cost Killer, as the French labor unions had begun to call him.

Mr. Ghosn is the ultimate outsider’s outsider. A polymath speaking several languages, he was born in Brazil to Lebanese parents. In his business career, Mr. Ghosn has brought a dispassionate, analytical approach to each managerial problem he has faced. In Shift, Mr. Ghosn gives us a thumbnail autobiography and tells the story of Nissan’s turnaround.

It is generally acknowledged that the best development experiences for managers are tough assignments, demanding bosses, and hardships; Mr. Ghosn certainly seems to have experienced all three. He describes spending the first 18 years of his business career at Michelin, the French tire maker, where he handled a broad range of challenges, including a seven-year stint in the United States integrating the newly acquired Uniroyal-Goodrich operations. At Michelin, we see him pioneer an approach to cross-functional teamwork, and to the rationalization of manufacturing operations, that would stand him in good stead later. When he takes the helm of Nissan in 1999, it’s clear that Carlos Ghosn has been training all his life for this job.

Crisis may not be essential for organizational change, but it is certainly a powerful catalyst. For managers reading about turnaround artists in such situations, there is a certain vicarious thrill: You are the company surgeon; all the stakeholders are finally ready to change; the status quo is no longer tenable, and all the old arguments for its maintenance have been blown away.

It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Ghosn, now elevated to the position of CEO of Renault (while keeping his chairmanship of Nissan), can produce the same magic in a larger organization where a similar sense of crisis is not present.

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