Appearing in In The Black, September 2017
Weird in a World That’s Not
By Jennifer Romolini
Affirm, $30, 304 pages, ISBN 9780062472724
Square pegs, round holes: they just don’t go together. In this part-memoir, part-career guide, square-peg Rolomini advises that people whose resumé is on the unusual side should embrace it rather than fight it. Her early path was marked by failures and setbacks but she eventually learned how to learn from them. She became an expert in customer relations through waitressing for seven years.
She eventually found a niche as editor for the women’s website HelloGiggles. Self-doubt and insecurity nearly wore her down, until she realised that many of those sleek, confident people were faking it. It’s a bad idea in the long term, and good bosses can spot it. Better to admit what you don’t know and can’t do, so expectations meet reality.
Romolini has a tendency to meander off in peculiar directions, and she swears a lot. Yet it is hard to not like her impatience with time-wasting meetings and pointless small-talk. She gives useful advice as well, such as how to write an email and how to drink in a professional setting. She also points out that a few odd people in the mix can be a great help to a company, working against groupthink and stagnation.
This is not a rah-rah inspirational book but there is a valuable authenticity here. It is not for everyone but has much to offer the conformity-challenged.
The Lessons School Forgot
By Steve Sammartino
Wiley, $30, 232 pages, ISBN 9780730343202
Sammartino, who describes himself as “a futurist, a technologist and a born entrepreneur” is very enthusiastic about the changes currently happening to the world of work. He believes that the disprutions caused by digital technology and globalisation raise more opportunities than problems. The difficulty is that society and the education system have not caught up yet, and are still focused on providing skills fitted to fixed work patterns and career stability. The crucial step to becoming successful in business, he says, is to stop thinking like a corporate manager and start thinking like an entrepreneur.
Significantly, he is very aware of risk, and advises that not all of one’s financial eggs should be placed in a single entrepreneurial basket. It is quite feasible to have several micro-business ideas running at once, or even have a start-up on the side while working in a traditional role. Many tech-based enterprises require little capital outlay; indeed, the key investment is not money but time. Inventiveness, energy and a capacity to shape information are the new coins.
Sammartino is more interested in mindset than mechanics, and some of the ideas for businesses he spins out sound like they would be harder to do in practice than he suggests. Nevertheless, he has important things to say about the changing skills base and how understanding the social impact of technology is more important than knowing how the machine works.
Built for Growth
By Chris Kuenne and John Danner
Harvard Business Review Press, $45, 288 pages, ISBN 9781633692763
Kuenne and Danner, academics with solid real-world experience, are interested in the question of what gives a company, especially one in its early stages, its character. Their extensive research tells them that the determining factor is the nature of the founder. They find four distinct “builder personalities”, each capable of creating business success but in different ways.
The Explorer is systems-centric, curious and dispassionate. The Crusader is audacious, mission-inspired and compassionate. The Driver is confident, relentless and focused on the bottom line. The Captain is pragmatic, team-enabling and direct. Kuenne and Danner provide good cases to illustrate their paradigm but they also make the point that the most successful leaders are those who can shift from one type to another as circumstances change – and if they cannot change themselves, will bring in others to lead into the next stage.
Many founders start out as Explorers or Crusaders, and their vision is a major advantage. But it is Drivers and Captains who turn the foundation into an enduring structure. This is interesting stuff, extremely useful when thinking about succession planning and cultural development. Leadership in the modern era is a tricky subject, and the framework provided here is a good place to start to understand it.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble
By Dan Lyons
Atlantic, $28, 258 pages, ISBN 9780316306096
This book is about what happens when people with no experience and little sense are given a huge amount of money to create … well, the author is never entirely sure. Some sort of marketing software, apparently.
Lyons had been a technology editor and thought he understood the industry. When he joined a start-up called HubSpot, he quickly realised that he was wrong. The company had burned through $100 million of venture capital and had a valuation of $2 billion but had never come close to turning a profit.
There was a ‘wall of candy’ for employees and a range of other benefits, including unlimited leave. People were hired for no clear reason and fired with equal vagueness. No, not fired: they were said to have “graduated”. Despite all the perks, when the IPO took place not much of the money trickled down.
Along the way, Lyons recounts strange practices such as taking teddy bears to meetings (to represent customers) and creating “lovable marketing content” (ie, spam). The emphasis was on revenue growth, not profits. When Lyons eventually departs, he wonders if this is really how capitalism is meant to work.
As it happens, HubSpot went on to do quite well. The founders and investors made a lot of money. So while Lyons provides a story of irony and dark humour, someone else had the last laugh.