Thumbing through the Aug. 31 issue of Fortune magazine, we couldn't help but notice that one of its features sported the byline of Ram Charan. This seemed odd to us because Charan isn't a Fortune staffer or even a journalist; he's a management consultant/guru/author who has been lovingly profiled in the pages of, well, Fortune itself. To be sure, consultants write for magazines all of the time, but this was different from the usual outside-columnist fare. "My (Recovery) Playbook," as the story is headlined, isn't a book excerpt or an opinion piece, but a feature-length, reported story, complete with upbeat quotes from CEOs -- some of whom also happen to be clients of none other than Ram Charan.
That's not exactly scandalous, but it does provide an interesting look at how management journalism -- and management consulting -- are made and how symbiotic the relationship between the two can be. In the piece, Charan interviews four CEOs -- General Electric Co.'s Jeff Immelt, Nalco Co.'s Erik Fyrwald, Avon Products Inc.'s Andrea Jung and Waste Management Inc.'s David Steiner -- "who aren't using a difficult environment as an excuse." As the story's subhead cheers, these CEOs "are ditching the waiting game and writing their own rules for a rebound." And they are doing so, we imagine, with help from Charan, who, by the way, recently published "Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty."
Indeed, a tiny footnote to the story informs that Charan "advises dozens of Fortune 1000 companies including Nalco, GE and Avon." (As for Waste Management, it doesn't say.) That probably makes it a lot easier for Charan to get interviews with these lofty corporate chieftains compared with ordinary journalists (getting into Fortune doesn't hurt either). And then there's the objectivity issue. Charan is more likely to be gentle, even laudatory, with his subjects than a journalist would be. ("Examining their strategies can help you think about where your business is now, and where you want it to be when the economy recovers," Charan writes about his fab four.) After all, these are clients or would-be clients, so why would he risk alienating them with unkind treatment in Fortune -- a magazine Charan knows exceedingly well?
Over the years, Charan has been flatteringly profiled by several publications, including Fast Company ("Man of Mystery," 2004) and Newsweek ("Corporate Confidant," 2007) but Fortune has done the most to further the Charan story. And what a story it is. As depicted in a lengthy Fortune profile in April 2007, Charan is a globetrotting, business-loving, consigliere to the corporate elite who has no family, no real home, no hobbies and no "stuff" to speak of. He travels so light and so often that his two assistants ship any clothes he needs to any hotel he is staying at and he, in turn, ships back his dirty laundry. CEOs can't get enough of him, although it's hard to articulate what he actually does for them. "He lets his clients decide how to use him," Fortune gamely explains. "Sometimes all he does is ask the right question."
The story allows that there are skeptics who liken Charan to Chauncey Gardiner, the main character of the film "Being There." But Fortune is not one of them, as evidenced not only by the hagiographic profile, but by the fact that Charan is now contributing a full-length story to the magazine. It's a good gig for Charan -- a man who, according to the Fortune profile, "has no goals" -- providing him with great exposure and marketing material for retaining old clients and attracting new ones.
With Charan in mind, we had to chuckle when we read about the brouhaha over Mark Penn's recent column in The Wall Street Journal. It seems that Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm that Penn heads, tried to use Penn's column about luxury camping (which did not mention any Burson clients) to drum up new business. Penn, best known as Hillary Clinton's chief campaign strategist, is still writing for the WSJ but the flap over Burson sending his piece to potential clients was covered by The New York Times.
No such controversy surrounds Charan, who is arguably not as slick a marketer as Penn, though effective nonetheless. But his relationship with Fortune is still an enviable one. Warren Buffett better watch out.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.