Archives for category: Books

feminist Fight club

Its not often that someone recommends a book for me to read and that they then warn me about the same book. Feminist Fight Club came with the warning: it is not for the “faint of heart” supporter of feminism.

Feminist Fight Club is not for everyone. In fact, I’m sure it will annoy a number of people. Not so much for its content, but for its tone. It sometimes feels like one is reading the Communist Manifesto. Make no mistake, this is a revolutionary guide for the repressed in both tone and content. As with my caveated recommendation; I agree that not everyone is going to agree with Feminist Flight Club’s view of the world.

I am not one of those people.

This is a handbook for women who find themselves sidelined, un-listened to, and the victims of idea theft, by oblivious and clueless male managers and colleagues. The book makes the assumption that the workplace has evolved beyond the blatant sexual harassment of the “Mad Men” era; but that there is still a long way to go. It is a book to dip in an out of rather than read in one sitting; which is where its tone may become wearing over an extended period of time.

However, there is some superb advice, and insight, dressed up as rhetoric in the book. While the section on meetings can be found from many other sources on meeting etiquette; the book has one of the best chapters I have ever read on holding salary negotiations with a manager – regardless of the sex of either party.

If there is a fundamental problem with the book; it is that in its zeal to evangelize one audience it risks alienating another. What is potentially lost due to this zeal is actually some excellent advice on office politics and the way interactions between colleagues should actually take place. That being said there are not a lot of books that are as “in your face” and confrontational as this one is and that makes it all the more interesting.

From this male view point, Feminist Fight Club did make me re-examine how I have interacted in particular circumstances, and made me more aware of subtle and institutional sexism on television, and one assumes in real life.

This is not a book to convert anyone, it is a book to hone one’s skills, to become a better feminist, a call to arms, or to just become a better person.

sick
When Letty Cottin Pogrebin was diagnosed with breast cancer it was a scary and uncertain time. But what did not help, or helped dramatically, was the response of her friends. Some of her friends knew exactly what to do and what to say. Other friends seemed to have no idea, or said or did completely the wrong things but felt they were being helpful. But worst of all, some friends disengaged completely, as if they could not deal with her illness on any level. “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” is the result of Ms. Cottin Pogrebin speaking to many of the people she met while undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments.

This is a book about sickness and death, but is also a book about friendship and casseroles. About gifts, and conversations. About children and the elderly. And it is about what is useful to most people who find themselves dealing with illness, and what is unhelpful.

Over the years of running a business with a significant number of employees, I have found myself in the position of having to interact with people who are sick, or have sick relatives, but without being able to fall back on deep personal friendships with the people concerned because they are employees. The feeling of wanting to help is tempered by not wanting to intrude, and not always knowing what to say, or what to offer to help. Or indeed how to say anything and not wanting to make things worse, or have one’s motives misunderstood.

“How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” is a book that helps navigate not just the feelings of those who are sick and their immediate relatives, but also of those who are acquaintances. Understanding how people can help if they want to, and how to not help if the wrong kind of help is actually harmful.

Almost like an etiquette book of old, “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick” is a book about dealing with taboo subjects. There are few right or wrong answers, but it does talk about the need for communication and for an understanding of how to listen to the answers that are given. An easy book to dip in and out of, and surprisingly funny in places, Ms. Cottin Pogrebin’s book is the kind of work that should be required reading for almost everyone, but particularly managers. Managers are often are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to illness, particularly serious illness, in a member of their team.

As Ms. Cottin Pogrebin states;

“Empathy plus action equals kindness.”

“How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” may be an odd choice for a business book blog, however, I would argue that it is books such as this that allow managers to show leadership. Management should always be about human connections. Knowing how to navigate some of the toughest interpersonal challenges any manager may face, and understanding the emotions of all involved, should earn “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” a place on every manager’s shelf.

It certainly has a place on mine.

conspiracy

 

Conspiracy is a book that the reader picks up believing it to be one thing, changes into something else while reading, and then turns into something unexpectedly different at its conclusion.
Subtitled; Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, Conspiracy tells the story of the gossip and snark site Gawker’s outing of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel as gay. This sets in motion a conspiracy with Theil using his vast resources to try and find a way take Gawker down. Or at least clip the site’s wings.

The vehicle that the conspirators ultimately settle on is Gawker’s publication of parts of a sex tape of wrestling star Hulk Hogan that was made without Hogan’s consent. With Thiel footing the bill, Hogan can undertake a long and protracted campaign, encompassing multiple lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions.

Thiel’s motivations are at the heart of the book. Is he out for revenge? Does he feel that a site such as Gawker should be allowed to get away with pushing freedom of speech deep into the territory of invasion of privacy? The book explores these issues in depth, and the nature of conspiracies. This is not, however, a thesis on conspiracy theories. It is rather an exploration of what it takes to construct, and maintain, a conspiracy. It is also a behind the scenes look at how the rich and powerful (all the characters in this tale are rich and powerful by conventional standards) go to war with each other.

Where Conspiracy sets itself apart is its examination of the aftermath of the Hogan vs. Gawker lawsuit and its effect on both the conspirators and the media. Mr. Holiday also uses the case, and Thiel’s motivations, to explore the culture wars and society’s relationship with the media.

Conspiracy is an entertaining and intelligent book. The constant focus on the nature of conspiracy can get tiresome, but this a tale that is rarely told and it reveals a lot about us as a society and the use, and the potential use, of power in the business world. It is a tale that has implications far beyond its Silicon Valley and Hollywood roots.

courage small

The Courage to be Disliked is an odd book.

It uses the literary device of a conversation between two people, which I have used myself and for which I now apologize. I can now see how annoying it can be. The conversation between a philosopher and a young man can at times feel patronizing and is not helped by the ham-fisted characterizations on the audio edition (which was what I was listened to.)

The title is a little misleading, but is really a reference to being comfortable in your own skin and not let what you perceive as the opinions of others dictate your happiness.
The Courage to be Disliked does bring up a number of interesting, and potentially controversial, ideas. The idea of compliments and praise being a form of manipulation, for example, while very interesting is also ripe for abuse.

What the book also does is to introduce the reader to the ideas of Alfred Adler and Alderian psychology. Alder, a contemporary of Freud and Jung, was arguably so far ahead of its time that it is only now that we are really realizing just how important his ideas are.

This is a book about personal development, how we perceive the world and how we feel about how the world perceives us. It has some significant short comings in execution; however, its mission is to bring complex psychological concepts to a wider audience is admirable and it certainly achieves its goals.

The Courage to be Disliked is perhaps hamstrung by the readers preconceptions, given its title and blurb. It does not live up to its press, but that does not mean that there are not valuable lessons to learn from Kishimi, Koga, and Adler.

moments

Any book by Chip and Dan Heath is worth reading and their latest, The Power of Moments, is no exception. For those who do not know the work of the brothers Heath you can check out my review of their first book “Made to Stick” here, and what I consider one of the best business books ever: “Switch” here.

Interestingly, The Power of Moments is very similar, and treads a lot of the same ground, as Scott Strattan does in his books Unmarketing and Unselling; they even use some of the same examples. What makes the Power of Moments seem new and fresh is that level to which it delves to understand moments, why they work, and how they work; as opposed to just focusing on how to create new moments of your own.

An early example of the Power of Moments is to focus on the lack of attention that companies pay to an employee’s first day. What the Heath Brothers point out is companies have a golden opportunity to create a truly memorable first day for new employees; but that more often than not new employees are treated as an impediment to the day’s business. They rightly point out what would a first date be like if we treated it the same way we treat an employee’s first day? Suffice to say we probably would not get a second.

Creating memorable moments is not about delivering the best of anything, or better value than your competitors. Moments are about when clients have expectations and we do something to exceed them. To create moments, we need to give employees license to break the script. To do something for our clients that is unexpected and that creates a memory for them.

The power of moments, however, is not just about business to clients. Moments also have value when motivating ourselves and our own internal dialogs and bargains when it comes to setting goals. What the Heath Brothers suggest is that rather than using the traditional SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely), or worse no real goal at all, that we borrow from the gaming world. In computer games, players advance from level to level, and in good games those levels are moments. For example, take the vague goal of wanting to learn play the violin. Even a SMART goal may just be to attend a lesson every week. However, with a level system, things look a little different:

Level 1: commit to one lesson a week
Level 2: Learn to read sheet music.
Level 3: Learn to play a particular song.
… Level 7 / Boss level: Play in a pub in Ireland.

By having an outsized end game, and then having manageable steps to achieving those level with rewards built in creates a sense of purpose. Purpose isn’t discovered, it is cultivated, and purpose trumps passion.

The Power of Moments is not a book about good businesses becoming great, but how to make any business extraordinary. Much like the book.

badblood

Ever get the feeling that the Silicon Valley Startup culture is more con than the pinnacle of new business development? If the answer is yes, or if you are afraid the answer may be yes, then Bad Blood is a book you should read.

Written by the reporter who blew the lid on the Theranos scandal in the Wall Street Journal, when they were still considered the darlings of the healthcare startup world, it is a remarkable story. If it was fiction, the story would have been laughed out of the editor’s office or thrown in the trash. It is a story of just how far networking and connections can get a company when they have a product that has really never worked. Of how the best, and the brightest, can be so intent on finding the next great thing, and of not missing out, that they will overlook almost anything.

But at its heart, Bad Blood is a story about rules and ethics. About how some people break rules and other refuse to. How some discover their own ethical lines, and how others see those same lines and cross them anyway without a second thought.
For those who do not know, Theranos claimed to have developed a spectacular new blood testing technology that only required a tiny finger prick of blood to be able to run hundreds of lab tests. They raised millions in investments but we never really able to get their technology to work properly; if at all. It is claimed that Theranos repeated lied to investors, business partners, and employees. They are, and continue to be, at the center of a number of private lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

As with any book about a still emerging scandal, it does suffer from being a little out of date. Since the book’s publication, the two central characters; Founder and CEO of Theranos Elizabeth Homles, and President Sunny Balwani were both prosecuted by the SEC. The charges were resolved by a complicated agreement with regards to company ownership and a fine; however, in June of 2018 they were both indicted on wire fraud and conspiracy charges by the Northern District of California.

It is obvious from the writing that there is no love lost between Mr. Carreyrou and his subjects; Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani. But this is a minor quibble and, to be honest, quite understandable given the levels to which they pushed back against his reporting.
It is an extraordinary tale for any one in business that raises an interesting question. How does a competitor prepare for, and compete, with a disruptive new technology that does not actually exist? The real victims of the Theranos scandal may not be the investors and employees, but competitors who undoubtedly spent millions, and hundreds of R&D hours, chasing a technology that so far has not worked. Not to mention the consumers waiting for better blood tests while the industry chased its tail searching for Theranos’ secret.

Of course, Bad Blood is also a cautionary tale about the cult of personality that surrounds many entrepreneurs today. It is a book filled with larger than life personalities, chasing larger than life dreams, that leads to larger than life crimes.

Here is a Silicon Valley worthy investment tip: the movie rights should be worth millions.


Any book about Elon Musk stands the chance of being wildly out of date before it hits book store shelves. 

This biography of Musk, by Ashlee Vance, originally published in 2015, already feels a little dated, but it does give a good profile of the man, his companies, and his roots. It is unfortunate then, that while acknowledging Musk’s propensity to be difficult, if not impossible, to work for it does nothing to mitigate the awe that the writer obviously feels for his subject. 

There is good reason for this. 

Musk is a larger than life character who if at a press conference announced; “l’m Ironman,” nobody would bat an eye lid. In fact it is hard to know whether the movie version of Tony Stark is based on Elon Musk or if it is the other way round. 
There is a lack of focus in this book on how appallingly Musk can treat other people. For example, he has been married 3 times, twice to the same woman, and he famously fired his long time assistant, and gate keeper, because she asked to be paid like an executive.  

What shines through, however, is vision. And that leads to an interesting question for Musk and for businesses in general: Can a dramatic and outsized vision, if you are good enough at selling it, make up for short comings in other areas such as management of people, sound business planning, and realistic expectations? 

For the moment, Musk seems to be on a roll; however, there are plenty that feel he has built a house of cards and from the stories told of the early days of Tesla are anything to go by, and the economists and manufacturers in Detroit are correct, it certainly could all come tumbling down any day. 

I also wonder how sustainable a company is when it relies on these most grandiose of goals? What happens when the company cannot achieve these goals? 

Elon Musk is undoubtably a unique individual, who has remarkable ambitions and achievements; but companies are built on a scalabile culture – not just vision. Mr. Vance’s book does a good job of profiling the vision, but not so much on the foundations and structures for sustainable businesses.   

creativity inc

 

When I review books, I do so because they interest me, or occasionally I review books because I am following a theme.

I’ve had an interest, the way one has an interest in a train crash, with Disney for many years. This was solidified by reading James B. Steward’s excellent “Disney War” which details the infighting and board room drama of the Michael Eisner years at Disney. With Pixar’s Co-founder John Lasseter recent taking of a six-month sabbatical, from Pixar and Disney Animation, for unspecified “missteps,” reading about Pixar’s culture and management with the benefits of hindsight sounded extremely interesting.

What I did not expect was a candid and practical guide to managing creative people, and the creative process, from an obviously highly talented manager and successful business man. This is also one of the best general management books I have read in years.

Mr. Catmull, with the help of Amy Wallace, have written an extraordinary management book that is honest, practical, and one that does not gloss over mistakes while still celebrating their company’s culture. What could have been just a retelling of Pixar’s, undoubtedly interesting, and dramatic, history instead is a retelling of that history with a guide to the lessons learned and the mistakes made.

Books about the history of companies are often written by, or in conjunction with, the visionary leaders who have fantastic ideas and make great leaps of intuition. “Creativity Inc., however, is written by a working manager: Mr. Catmull. While visionary in his conception of wanting to make the first 3D computer animated movie, his role at Pixar, and later Disney Animation, has been one of the manager who makes things happen, assembles the people, and allows his people to be as creative as possible. He is not afraid to place caveats on things such as employee engagement and feedback, while at the same time obviously taking these subjects extremely seriously.

While the concepts in the book are legion, and makes the book well worth a second reading, Mr. Catmull’s belief that failure is not only to be tolerated but actively encouraged stands out. While many in management circles treat failure as a necessary evil, Mr. Catmull makes a convincing case that failure is not evil at all but an important and necessary part of the creative process. Coupled with this belief in failure, is that while “honesty” has many moral connotations, an insistence on “candor” when giving feedback, from any source, is central to preserving a creative culture.

Getting people to work together, being honest about the short comings of the processes, and considering culture as a constant and evolving thing makes “Creativity, Inc.” a different type of management book. The fact that almost everyone knows about Pixar, and hold the movies they make in high regard, makes this a very accessible book. It also manages to avoid the saccharine quality of a lot of management books that intersect with the world of Disney (Lee Cockerell’s “Creating Magic” in particular comes to mind.)

For those who have become a bit jaded by management books, “Creativity, Inc.” is for you. This is an honest, dare I say candid, tale that teaches us that all businesses should be creative and that unleashing the creative power of our employees, or at least to stop stifling it, is probably one of the best things we can do as managers for our business and our employees.

unbranding

 

I have a really bad habit when reading non-fiction books.

When I come across something I find particularly interesting I fold the edge of the page over so that when I am looking for it at some point in the future, or if I just want to remind myself of what I found particularly fascinating, I can go directly to the information. I used to actually read with a stack of post-it notes and a pen, but that becomes tiresome very quickly- and the books don’t stack well on the bookshelf any more with post-it notes sticking out of them.

I tell you all of this to give some background to my experience of reading “UnBranding, 100 Branding Lessons for the age of Disruption,” by Scott Stratten and Alison Stratten. It is no secret that I have been a fan of Scott’s for a while now and that has inevitably caused me to become a fan of Alison’s too. However, I had an issue with “UnBranding,” and it can be summed up by this picture:

unbranding corners.jpg

For reference the book is face up.

Can you guess my problem was?

For some reason, I could not connect with the concept of the book, and therefore the ideas did not resonate with me, until page 99. And while what’s on page 99 is important and worth looking up, what was really brought home to me by the story you will find is that the book is actually 100 branding lessons, and 100 examples that give them context.

Why I did not learn this from the title might say a lot about business books in general, but probably more about myself.

Most marketing and business books, and therefore by definition most marketing and business writers (including myself), use their writing to explain concepts and ideas and then throw in a couple of examples to prove themselves right. The Stratten’s turn this on its head. They fill their work with examples of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly of customer service, marketing, and business in general, and then tie these examples together with workable concepts and ideas.

Unbranding, is exactly what it says on the cover. Some of the examples are personal to Scott and Alison. Some of the examples are national media stories that feature the world’s biggest brands. But each one contains a lesson for how to market and conduct better business (or how to adjust your expectations).

In the past, Scott has been accused of retreading over the same territory again and again particularly when it comes to his books. I think this is unfair and to misunderstand the various works and what makes them unique; however, I did have this feeling when I started UnBranding – until page 99 of course.

Having now gone back and reread pages 1 – 98, I can confirm that it really was my issue. There are great things on those earlier pages and the book did exactly explain what to expect and what I should be learning, but for some reason they washed over me. It may have been because of their previous book: UnSelling, which I feel is a bit if a Rockstar – you can read my review here.

While not the Rockstar that UnSelling was, UnBranding is still a great business book with important lessons. Some of these lessons you will have heard before, particularly if have read the previous books: UnMarketing, The Book of Business Awesome / The Book of Business UnAwesome, QR Codes Kill Kittens, and Unselling, or listen to Scott and Alison’s excellent UnPodcast; however, there are still plenty that you will not have heard. Also, having this many great concepts on 21st century branding in one place is useful all on its own.

What makes this book special is not the branding lessons themselves, but the context to understand why they are important. Simple, readable, and relatable, UnBranding is a more mature than some of their other work, but is worth your time now and very much worthy of pulling off the bookshelf in the future reviewing when you think you may have forgotten its lessons.

homo deus

“Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” is the follow up to the internationally acclaimed bestseller “Sapiens.” Both books are remarkable and well worth reading if you want to have a better understanding of our species: where it came from and, perhaps, where it is going.

However, it is Homo Deus, which I think is particularly useful from a management and leadership perspective for its insights into how people made decisions and why. It is also interesting to have a book focus on why small groups of people (under 150 is the magic number) behave so differently from larger groups – even when it is against their own interest. The section that covers the Ultimatum Game, and how this changed the world of behavioral economics is particularly illuminating.

Where the book really comes into its own is when it comes to discussing the myths and fictions that define out world. The stories we tell each other in other words.
“As long as all Sapiens living in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behavior of strangers and to organize mass-cooperation networks.”

The fictions we tell each other (laws, money, countries, economic theories, sports, companies, brands, etc.) allow our world of free thinking humans to work and communicate even when we have no personal relationship. We have a relationship with the company or brand because of the story we have been told and we believe. This also holds true for those who work inside the company.

“Fictions enable up to cooperate better. The price we pay is that these same fictions also determine the goals of our cooperation.” In other words, a company’s mission statement may be about how it’s first priorities are customers service and low prices, and it may have data to back that up, but is that really the yardstick it should be measured? What about the people who believe in the fiction?

By exposing the way humans work together, Harari builds a case for what is to come for Homo Sapiens. To us, now, it seems frightening and dystopian and as the author freely admits, will probably be nothing like he has described. But by giving us a glimpse into why our world of communication works the way it does, he gives us pointers to why might influence us in the future where the network becomes all important.

This is an extraordinary book about people. It is long, but it has a friendly conversational tone for a book that is essentially about scientific theory. While the book deals extensively with religions, and religious though, it might make difficult reading for those who are not used to looking at these matters from a scientific point of view. However, it does make a strong case for how religion and science need each other.

Homo Deus should, along with its predecessor “Sapiens,” be required reading for anyone who works with groups of people, but it should probably just be required reading for everyone.

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