A PROPER WAY TO RUN A COUP

Now for the business management lessons we can learn from last week's failed Soviet coup.

You may recall that business consultants wasted no time after America's quick victory in Operation Desert Storm. Before the sand had settled, it seemed like every guru with a letterhead - from the Big Six to the little guys who crank out four-pagers from their offices-in-the-home - had published a set of management dos and don'ts based on the gulf war.One Boston outfit said President Bush won the conflict through superior ''networking;" a New York shop found fault with Saddam Hussein's ''negative motivational technique."

After reading that stuff, one might have thought that Mr. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf fought the war with decision trees, options matrices, management by objectives and all those other B-school bromides. Maybe so. But you don't need an MBA to understand McCarron's Lesson No. 1 from the gulf war: Don't pick a fight with someone 100 times your size. Send cash, please. No checks.

Now to the case at hand.

What were the management errors committed by Gennady Yanayev, Valentin Pavlov and their group of eight plotters? And what sound business techniques were applied by Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and the reformers?

(If the coup had succeeded, consultants would be drafting answers to the flip side of those questions.

We'll start with Mr. Yanayev, Mr. Pavlov and the don'ts. Screw-ups are always easier to spot:

Don't try to run a complex organization by committee. That hasn't been tried on a professional level since the '65 Cubs, and they finished eighth. Go with a strongman.

Don't leave your opponent in place after you make your move. Assassination is bad form, but you've got to remove the incumbent from the seat of power. Coup plotters isolated Mr. Gorbachev but left Mr. Yeltsin in his office, where he used phones and fax machines to rally support. For further reference, consult "The Prince," copyright 1513 by Niccolo Machiavelli. See Chapter VIII, particularly the passage: "In taking a state, the conqueror must arrange to commit all his cruelties at once." (Eat your heart out, Tom Peters.)

Don't fail to develop a credible message that the public can believe. Among Mr. Yanayev's first declarations was that Mr. Gorbachev "is very tired after these many years, and he'll need time to get better." Vladimir Lenin wouldn't have tried that one on the serfs, much less the hip young Russians who camped outside Mr. Yeltsin's office wearing stone-washed blue jeans and listening to Sony boomboxes. Business lesson: Stay in touch with your market.

Don't skimp on contingency planning. Things can go wrong. Not every corporate strategy succeeds. Stockholders get restive, and a wise CEO always has a "golden parachute" written into his or her contract. People who know how to play the power game - such as the Shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos - always kept a fast car running at the curb and a few gold bars in a Swiss bank. Yanayev & Co. didn't even have the foresight to book a night flight to Havana.

The coup plotters committed a few more don'ts, but in the interest of space, we'll move on to the good guys. Thoughtful managers can learn much from the staying power of Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin:

Do take a vacation from time to time, but leave someone back at headquarters who can handle an unforeseen crisis. If that someone should happen to pull your chestnuts from the fire, lavish praise on him upon your return. You can always undercut him later.

Do maintain friends in high places who will rise to your defense in a pinch. In Mr. Gorbachev's case, those long walks and linked-arm toasts with Mr. Bush paid off handsomely when Mr. Bush pledged full support. Note, too, that Mr. Bush's support got even fuller Tuesday, after it became apparent that Gorby's side was winning.

Do hang on for as long as you can, no matter what threats the new boss makes about cleaning house. This axiom, long known to Chicago precinct captains and career clock watchers, has been slow to win acceptance in the executive suite. There, the grand gesture of resignation still is fashionable. And yet, if the guys who ran Salomon Brothers hadn't resigned a few hours before the Soviet coup, they might have used the distraction to ride it out . . . or at least buy time to sweeten their severance.

Do fire disloyal subordinates and replace them with those you trust. But don't get carried away, because the corporation could disintegrate while your inexperienced friends grope for the controls. Even Eisenhower kept a few collaborators around in '45.

Do announce, after a hostile takeover fails and you've regained power, that you will stay the course toward your original goals. Then quietly re- examine what you're doing and change direction, because if you had been making the right moves, the coup would not have been attempted in the first place.

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