A little over a year ago, I reached the end of something called the On Purpose CEO Programme. It was a six-month-long sequence of off-site days and learning groups, undertaken with eight other CEOs, and complimented by a number of sessions with an executive coach. By its conclusion I was particularly pumped-up and curious, so I embarked on a reading spree. Since June last year I’ve rinsed through nearly 40 business and management books, including the ones above. Despite some of them being painfully dry, I’ve diligently followed my old studying habits: underlining key passages, scrawling notes in the margins, and writing up my reflections in a journal.
Now I’ve decided that I desperately need a break.
It definitely hasn’t been a waste of time. I’ve picked up some really useful ideas along the way, many of which we’ve been able to apply within Society. Most books in this genre tend to have a lot of flab and filler, but there’s usually enough solid material in there for a decent TED talk, and it’s those nuggets that I’ve been seeking out. But there are three key sins shared by way too many business and management books. And they’ve begun to drive me up the wall.
1. Predictable fetishising
The companies that contemporary business and management books choose to heap praise upon are wearisomely familiar. A few years ago, most authors were worshiping at the altar of Apple. Recently they’ve expanded their pool of case studies to other Silicon Valley firms. But little attention is usually given to how fundamentally unusual most of these businesses are. The vast majority of companies around the world don’t have scope for exciting proprietary technology, seven figure executive salaries, or the sort of marketing budget required to build a household name brand. Silicon Valley firms might be dizzyingly successful in terms of growth and market valuation, but it’s debatable whether their practices should be the sole source of inspiration for the rest of us. If I want to improve my running technique, then there are probably more relevant sources of guidance for me than Usain Bolt’s training schedule. After all, he’s in a completely different category to me and to everybody else too. Those who’ve spent much time working in a B2B environment also know that every organisation has something about it that’s at least a bit bizarre. Total perfection simply doesn’t exist. But the authors of these books are often so slavishly in thrall to the charisma and world-changing potential of these tech wunderkinds that they’re seemingly incapable of applying a critical eye. That’s something I expect they’ll come to regret when some of today’s favoured businesses inevitably crash and burn. After all, it wasn’t very long ago that companies like Enron, Arthur Anderson and Lehman Brothers we’re being similarly feted by the commentariat.
Business and management books often put forward their ideas with a level of conviction that’s positively religious in its fervour. From their printed pulpits, the authors insist that their approach will make all the crooked places straight, and all the rough places smooth. But the reality of business isn’t like that - particularly for an SME, where the margin between success and failure is often precariously small. We forget that dumb luck plays a significant part in how businesses perform. If you’re in the right place at the right time, then your progress can quickly start to appear like fate. But nothing is pre-ordained, particularly for smaller firms. There’s no blueprint that won’t come a little bit unstuck if a colleague’s child is diagnosed with cancer, or if a big client suddenly goes bust. Understanding the fickleness of fate isn’t the same as abnegating responsibility. It is however a comforting salve in bad times, and a sobering check in good times.
3. Neglecting the mundane
Big ideas and big calls definitely matter, but they are only a part of what a leader needs to contribute. All too often the authors of business and management books confidently hold up individual jigsaw pieces and proclaim that they’ve completed the whole puzzle. They romanticise the single destiny-altering decision of a determined and visionary leader. But real organisations usually demand more complicated and nuanced responses than a single big idea or decision can provide. And even when the answer is really simple, the business and management books still usually skip over the implementation phase. But that’s where most of the magic really happens. Once the game plan is agreed and the strategy is in place, is that the end? Not at all. Then begins the hard grind. The day-to-day slog. The search for marginal gains. What Max Weber called “the slow boring of hard boards”.
Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong books. It’s possible there are tomes out there that break the mould. Hopefully someone will soon comment on this and point me towards a few authors who write with humility and who are brave enough to explore contrary or creative viewpoints: What was good about Kodak, Blockbuster and Nokia? What’s worrying about Tesla, Netflix and Next Jump? How could someone like Steve Jobs have been even more effective? What lessons can we learn from markedly different business cultures like those of Japan, China, and Sub-Saharan Africa?
But until something like that falls into my lap, I’m going to return to picking books from the fiction section for a while!