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Conclusion: Making Sense of It All

As I've said a number of times in this feature, there's no simple way to take all the inputs and data points concerning the capability and trustworthiness of a company's management and stir and stir until a useful ratio or figure is generated. (If there were, we'd keep it to ourselves -- perhaps sharing it only with the Nobel evaluation committee.)

But investors can't simply throw up their hands and ignore this information as a result. Why? Because it's the province of executives -- and their press release writers -- to take credit for success and pass failure on to external factors.

"Disappointments are an inevitable part of even the most successful business," wrote legendary investor Philip Fisher in Common Stocks, Uncommon Profits. "If met forthrightly and with good judgment, they are merely one of the costs of eventual success... How a management reacts to such matters can be a valuable clue to the investor."

That excerpt touches on more than just character -- it extends into preparation, expertise, and execution as well. The previously mentioned study from the Corporate Executive Board -- which focused on large companies and the reasons why their revenue growth so often runs into the proverbial wall over time -- suggested that less than one-fifth of the factors responsible for revenue "stall points" are uncontrollable. Instead, the chief reasons for corporate difficulty, the study said, are strategic or organizational in nature.

And guess who's responsible for strategy and organization?

You guessed it -- management. With that in mind, investors shouldn't hesitate to supplement their reading of financial statements with a long look at the ways and means of the people who are responsible for leading the companies that fill those statements with facts. It will almost certainly be time well spent.

Dave Marino-Nachison (TMF Braden) hereby appropriates the nickname "Bing." His stock holdings can be viewed online. The Motley Fool has a full disclosure policy.

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