I just read a terrific business book, and that provides me a great opportunity. While telling you about the book, I can also tell you what makes any business book a standout. Rob Goffee (top) and Gareth Jones (below) just published Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes To Create An Authentic Organisation [link].
I have had the pleasure of meeting both of these top thinkers, and their partnership in researching and writing has been a solid and fruitful one. They both have experience in the academic and business worlds, and this shows in the quality of their work. So, why should anyone read this, or any, business book?
There are many books published each year on topics such as accounting systems or team building. Hopefully, they are solid books, but they are seldom great. That’s because a top business book immediately engages the reader with a proposition that is a grabber. Goffee and Jones, for example, hit the reader with this on page 2: “Imagine that you have been challenged to design the best organisation on earth to work for.” Nothing minuscule about that thought. And, at a time when so many polls show how workers are frustrated and turned off with their workplaces, it’s not only a timely topic but one that leaders have to deal with or suffer even higher turnover rates than they already have.
A good business book offers a structured way to think about the argument.
The reason people still recall (and cite) the best works of Drucker, Prahalad, Collins, Hamel, Porter and a few dozen others is that their books were built with the reader in mind. Just as In Seach of Excellence had eight points, so Goffee and Jones go beyond a Table of Contents and provide a mnemonic to help the reader both anticipate and remember the major points of their argument. In this case, the authors tell the reader to expect a major chapter on each of their six points: Difference, Radical Honesty, Extra Value, Authenticity, Meaning, Simple Rules — or, if you will, DREAMS. Taken to an extreme, such mnemonics can be artificial and awkward. In the best cases, the structure becomes memorable either because of such a memory aid or because of unique, powerful phrasing (Can anyone ever forget Jim Collins’ “BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goals”? You can even Google the term!).
A good business book is based on brilliant thinking, quality research, or both.
Every once in awhile, classic thinkers come along such as Peter Drucker or Charles Handy, whose writings are more akin to essays than to a research. Modern readers by and large favour books that are based on compelling data derived from surveys, polls, or extensive interviews. Goffee and Jones do, indeed, acknowledge that their technique for preparing this book was based on intensive interviews — but they go a step further. They provide throughout the book a series of diagnostic instruments (statements that the reader and/or work teams can assess on a scale of 1-to-5). This is a gutsy way to have readers self-test the accuracy of their argument. Putting the reader’s own firm to the test throughout the progress of the book immediately encourages the reader to share thoughts with others and also motivates the reader to continue with the rest of the book so as to get a full assessment of his or her own company.
A good business book provides emotional affiliations.
Stories about leaders and companies go way back in the literature of management and leadership. A friend of mine told me about a copy of a one-time periodical, Business Digest, that he owns. It goes back to 1937! And in it are articles that contain personal stories and quotes that capture the essence of the point the author is trying to make. I believe that this technique is used for two reasons. First, it allows authors to call “witnesses to the stand” to provide backup for assertions the author made. It’s as if the authors are saying, “Hey, you don’t have to trust me. Here’s someone who will back me up with his own personal observation or story.” Second, and more importantly, when authors provide a glimpse of a real person in a real enterprise who demonstrates the point under discussion, there is a strong possibility that the reader will affiliate emotionally with the person featured on the page.
Goffee and Jones have packed their book with stories, and it’s funny how a few of them will dominate one’s thinking long after finishing the book. For example, I am still impressed by the authors writing about “a young African American catering manager in a US business school who had been given the daunting task of building a catering outlet, from scratch, that would attract students to work, play, and learn together.” Sure, the authors write about CEOs of major corporations; but this testimony is about how a young entrepreneur lived her values and her dream. These kinds of stories are precisely why skeleton outlines of best business books never catch the flavour of the real work, much as even the best movie review can’t grab your throat or heart the way a stunner movie can.
A good business book exhibits strong ideals, but not fantasies.
I am going to share Why should anyone work here? with enthusiasm with friends, students, and clients. It’s a standout, but it’s not a fairy tale. That’s because Goffee and Jones carefully include a section titled “Caveat Emptor” (Buyer Beware) that spells out the many ways that their DREAMS approach to overhauling organisations can fail. They describe how leaders can make promises they can’t keep, or try to do too much at one time, or allow one DREAMS element to clash with another. They practice what they preach when they call for radical honesty. Toward the end of the book, they say this:
The dream organisation, then, is also the high-performing organisation.
But don’t for a moment imagine that engagement is the panacea for our organisational ills. It may yet come to be seen as another superficial attempt to increase the discretionary effort of employees. If engagement is to lead to really significant change, it must be allied to a more fundamental rethink of our organisational lives.
They go on to state that, to their minds, it’s organisations and not employees holding back the promise of the future. Yet, it’s their blunt talk paired with their compelling argument that gives the whole book a hard-as-varnish coat of credibility.
I will be a better leader for having given a few hours of reading time to Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. In the final analysis, that’s the main reason to read a business book.