what to read this month

‘The Problem with Change: And the Essential Nature of Human Performance’, by Ashley Goodall

It is a brave person who takes on the cult of change, at whose altar most of the world’s corporate advisers and many of their board-level clients like to worship. But this stylishly written dissection of the worst of modern corporate mismanagement has an entertaining crack at tearing down the cult’s false idols.

As Ashley Goodall points out, large-scale change “once triggered, takes on a life of its own”. It rips through the established relationships and rituals that make work worthwhile, leaving discontent and depression in its wake.

The late, great Clayton Christensen comes in for a gentle kicking for inspiring businesses’ obsession with auto-disruption, though Goodall recognises that the “model for improvement” Christensen laid out in The Innovator’s Dilemma metastasised into a damaging fixation with change for the sake of it, rather than advocating directly for it. Rampant consultants and self-interested micro-managers shoulder more of the blame.

Goodall locates the solution in that most maligned of corporate functions, human resources. This, too, is courageous. He draws on his own HR experience, notably at Cisco, in developing innovative ways of measuring employee engagement and encouraging performance. But many readers will respond with a dismissive snort at the idea that HR will ever really become “a full-throated advocate for employees and their interests”.

There is lots of well-phrased wisdom here about the futility of corporate life and how to combat it. Instead of “lofting little slideware balloons up to the executive suite in the hope that something will happen”, Goodall writes that more of us should learn how “to understand and create the conditions for human flourishing — and then . . . step back and let the humans do the flourishing”. Andrew Hill

‘The Venture Mindset: How to Make Smarter Bets and Achieve Extraordinary Growth’, by Ilya Strebulaev and Alex Dang

Should we all think more like venture capitalists? That is the contention of Stanford academic Ilya Strebulaev and technology executive Alex Dang, who argue that by adopting the “venture mindset” of Silicon Valley investors, business leaders elsewhere can be more alive to risk and opportunity. 

With artificial intelligence shaking up a broad sweep of industries, their advice — part self-help and part executive coaching, articulated with extended case studies — is well timed. Executives should ape the defining features of venture capitalists who helped spawn Google, Apple, Tesla and Facebook, they argue. That includes building diverse networks and thinking long term.

Like venture capitalists themselves, however, the authors are full-throated and partial. VCs are “masterminds” who “find and fund the future”, they declare early in the book. In dissecting the success of companies from Nintendo to Zoom, the authors highlight the merits of entrepreneurialism and the willingness of leaders to “pivot” to new business lines and make risky bets. 

These are common features of the success stories told in The Venture Mindset. But they are also characteristic of the majority of VC-backed start-ups that don’t make it. Executives at more established businesses might be disinclined to swallow the authors’ prescription that they embrace failure and encourage internal dissent.

Strebulaev and Dang’s focus on investors is a rare departure from typical founder-centric explorations of start-up success. But it excludes the myriad failed investments, bad bets and blow ups that the venture mindset has also given birth to. VCs accept that nine in ten bets might fail; that logic is not applicable everywhere. George Hammond

‘Get Better at Anything: 12 Maxims for Mastery’, by Scott H Young

Learning is often mysterious. Sometimes it comes naturally, in other cases, it poses challenges. Whether our aim is eventual mastery or just getting better at something, it helps to understand how learning works.

Bestselling author and entrepreneur Scott H Young digs into the fundamental principles researchers have uncovered that explain this. He condenses these principles into 12 memorable maxims that can serve as a guiding framework for our pursuit of improvement.

According to Young, three essential factors contribute to our learning process. First we learn from others (see), then we practise consistently (do). Finally, we adjust and engage to get better (feedback).

The book was written with two audiences in mind. If you are approaching it from the learner’s perspective, it offers strategies and techniques you should employ to achieve better results in everyday activities. Teachers, coaches, parents and others responsible for shaping learning within an organisation can also make good use of tips for how to harness the power of continuous development.

Chapters include real-life examples and exercises that can aid you whether you are studying for an exam, acquiring a new skill at work, or aspiring to get better at a hobby or topic of interest. Curiously, Young argues that broad proficiencies such as creativity or problem solving are tricky to improve. But he says we can enhance our abilities in these areas with practice. “Even when we can’t become the best, we can still be a little better at the things that matter most to us,” Young reminds us. “A little better is often enough.” Leo Cremonezi

‘The Profiteers: How Business Privatizes Profits and Socializes Costs’, by Christopher Marquis

Most economics students will be familiar with the concept of externalities: “the negative side effects of a company’s operations and practices, that are not factored into their profit and loss statements”, in the telling of Judge Business School professor Christopher Marquis. In this engaging read, he brings to life the real-world manifestations of this rather dry term, showing how the public and environment pay the hidden costs of business while irresponsible corporations reap the rewards.

Examples range from industrial carbon emissions that cause climate change, flooding and failed harvests; to discriminatory practices that hold back the marginalised; to vast imbalances in income and returns that entrench inequality. Marquis reserves special ire for greenwashing companies that pretend responsibility while wreaking havoc on the planet and doing little to clean it up. 

At root, he argues, is a shareholder capitalism in which corporations “only engage in activities that increase profits” and limit responsibility for any damage that causes. Yet despite his systemic diagnosis, the book is not despairing. It details many encouraging examples of change, and does not limit itself to radical projects. Marquis argues large investment portfolios, for example, are well positioned to take externalities into account because some companies in them will inevitably be hit by risks created by others’ gains. Other examples include a partnership between trainer manufacturers Allbirds and Adidas to create low-carbon shoes.

Marquis — whose previous book on B Corps argued for the transformative power of purpose-driven companies — suggests we could be ripe for a paradigm shift. Not all readers will be convinced by his optimistic argument that corporate and consumer activism and “commons first finance” will be enough to really shift the dial. But the book makes a strong case that systemic change is possible, and necessary. Bethan Staton

‘The Whole Story: Adventures in Love, Life, and Capitalism’, by John Mackey

John Mackey’s cheerful memoir begins in 1975, with the natural-foods-entrepreneur-to-be thumbing a ride in Texas. At the time he had no idea he would end up co-founding Whole Foods, a global company with 540 stores and $22 billion in annual sales. His account of how he got there is not your usual business book, and has as many twists and turns as you’d optimistically hope for from a narrator with Mackey’s life story. 

It’s a fun read. Mackey argues, with equal sincerity, for the advantages of stakeholder capitalism and “the bliss of complete release” experienced when taking LSD. He is an likeable narrator, recounting the adventure with delight and fascination. 

Yet there is something cloying about this naivete, particularly when complex and controversial business decisions are recounted in the same tone. Recalling clashes with unions, Mackey appears repelled by “adversarial” worker organising: it is, he says, the antithesis of his vision in which management and labour work together as “fellow stakeholders — with openness . . . joy, and love”. Although he later finds some of his hopes are disappointed, his account of Amazon’s 2017 purchase of Whole Foods is similarly incurious about less benevolent instincts of business. Discussion of the “marriage” between grocery store and tech conglomerate boils down to one question: “do you think they liked us too?” 

The framing here is of an intellectual journey to “conscious capitalism”; a personal account of the philosophy outlined in Mackey’s 2013 book of the same name. Mackey is a true believer: in his view not just his “conscious” iteration but the whole “game of capitalism” is “built on the simple, beautiful principle of voluntary exchange for mutual benefit”. His account of coming to this understanding is charming, readable and makes a case for Mackey’s positive impact. But even moderately cynical readers are likely to find its childlike joy frustratingly uninterested in examples where such a rosy vision of the system does not apply. Bethan Staton

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