Confessions of an Accidental Businessman: It Takes a Lifetime to Find Wisdom

by James A. Autry

James Autry worked his way up from copy editor of Better Homes and Gardens to president of the magazine division. This memoir gets off to a slow start talking about his childhood and military service, but it gets more interesting when he starts to focus on his publishing career.

There are some memorable lines in this book:

  • “Don’t make long-term decisions for short-term reasons.”
  • “The only thing worse than a person who quits and leaves… is a person who quits and stays.”
  • “Remember that burnout is not a crisis of time so much as it is a crisis of the spirit.”
  • “Humor beats a bitchy memo every time.”

“So often in business, the ego gets supported by knowledge and information, then wisdom becomes lost. So does common sense. And wisdom and common sense are the difference between managing and leading.”

Indeed, ego is a recurring theme. “The only way I ever figured out to predict the difficulty of introducing a new idea was to determine how many egos would be threatened by the change, with each additional threatened ego making the chances for failure exponentially greater.”

“The point, of course, is to take our work seriously while not taking ourselves so seriously. If your people are not having fun, you are not making it as a manager and you likely are taking yourself too seriously. I truly believe that people will take their work more seriously if they are enjoying what they do and enjoying the community of people with whom they do it. In other words, they do better work if they are having fun.”

Aside from enjoyment of the work itself, Autry writes about the value of off-site events. “These gatherings are about celebrations: of one another, of what we have accomplished, and of what we do together. Oh yes, we might do some learning and goal-setting and planning while we’re at it… I came to realize the serious business value of such meetings and came to consider them an investment in morale and productivity… Still today, I tell managers everywhere to avoid the trap of feeling that these events are in any way a waste of time and money.”

Autry writes about a challenge he had when he was promoted to managing editor. “I had to earn the respect of those senior editors and that my authority would become frayed around the edges if I tried to push it too far with them… I had to find a way to work with them so that the copy could keep flowing, on time and of high quality. I stumbled into a technique that served me for years: I simply asked them how they’d like me to work with them. I also asked how I could help them keep their departmental production going smoothly. The results were amazing—another defining moment in my development as a manager.”

When promoted to lead the special interest publications division, he eliminated rigid rules. “If as a manager you have not had the opportunity to lift the burden of nit-picking bureaucratic policies and procedures off the backs of good people and then stand back and watch them work, you have missed one of the most inspiring management experiences of all.”

“My management style… settled after a while into a pretty simple formula that worked for a long time: Be sure people were clear about what we were going to do and what we were trying to accomplish, then identify the people who were having trouble and try to help them.”

There is a chapter on mistakes and blunders. “The business world is filled with retro-visionaries who will look backward and analyze what went wrong, but there are damned few who can call it ahead of time.” He says that smart executives have a fall-back position when taking a risk. “In other words, they live by the rule of never risking a mistake they can make only once.” He adds, “Business cannot grow without some strategic miscalculations.”

He says the worst mistake of all is The Do-Nothing Mistake. “Lord only knows how many companies simply languish themselves to death… And we build cultures of fear in which managers put more effort into ensuring that they do not make mistakes than into doing something that might be productive.”

Autry says to expect the unexpected and be ready to embrace change. “I believe the only way to be ready is not to be ready—not to burden ourselves with a mass of contingency plans and quick moves but simply to pay attention, expect the unexpected, and go with it until we find our opportunities in the chaos that change brings.”

“We frequently underestimate ourselves, we frequently know more than we think we do, and our instincts and judgment are more reliable than we think.”

Autry, James A. Confessions of an Accidental Businessman: It Takes a Lifetime to Find Wisdom. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1996. Buy from

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One thought on “Confessions of an Accidental Businessman

Comments are closed.