Weirdness, growth pains, bad starts

Appearing in In The Black, September 2017


Weird in a World That’s Not

By Jennifer Romolini

Affirm, $30, 304 pages, ISBN 9780062472724

Weird in a World Thats NotSquare 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 Built for Growth

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.Disrupted



Gen Z, new rules, and finding the best

Appearing in In The Black, August 2017


Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace

By David Stillman and Jonah Stillman

HarperCollins, $46, 320 pages, ISBN 9780062475442

Gen Z at WorkDavid Stillman wrote the well-regarded When Generations Collide, and here he teams up with his son to take a close look at Generation Z – people born between 1995 and 2012. The father provides the research foundation and case studies, and Gen Z Jonah offers personal insight and experience.

Having been born into the digital age, Gen Zers take technological advances as given, and are good at adapting to disruption, especially in the form of the shared economy. They are willing to work hard, and if they take the entrepreneurial option of starting their own business they will put everything into it. In fact, one of the traits the Stillmans identify is FOMO, or ‘fear of missing out’ – on anything.

But even if they have avoided the sense of entitlement that defines Millennials, Gen Zers are not going to be pushed around when it comes to recruitment and promotion. Their strong sense of self-belief means that if they are denied opportunities they will simply look elsewhere. They are not particularly loyal but are innovative and clever, and know it. Interestingly, a good salary package is a very high priority for them.

The Stillmans do a solid job of explaining both the upside and downside. This is useful stuff for managers to know. After all, the first of the Gen Zers are already leaving university.



Good People: The Only Leadership Decision That Really MattersGood People

By Anthony Tjan

Penguin, $33, 304 pages, ISBN 9780241245002

Tjan has written extensively about the nature of leadership, especially in the finance sector, and has interviewed scores of successful leaders. Good People distils his findings, and is aimed at people new to a senior management role. He convincingly argues that the core role of a leader is to find and develop other leaders, not just through careful recruitment and promotion but also through constant, active mentoring.

He believes that too many executives see mentoring as a training program focused around skills. Yes, technical ability is important but the best leaders go beyond competence to focus on helping to shape other people’s character, self-awareness and empathy. In the long run, these qualities matter more than skill enhancement.

In mentoring, encouragement and enthusiasm are more effective than admonishment and cynicism. Tjan advises that the relationship should be not one of hierarchy but of respect based on experience. The other side of this coin is that mentors must be willing to reveal some of their own vulnerability, perhaps by explaining what they learned from their mistakes.

Good mentoring means investing time but is a task as crucial as sound financial management. It is good for the company as well as the people involved. In the end, the best mentors recognise that leadership, in its truest form, is a duty and service toward others.



The Business Legal Lifecycle

By Jeremy Streten

Quikmark, $30, 158 pages, ISBN 9780994551405

Many entrepreneurs in Australia start up a business without knowing much about the legal requirements that come with growth and development. This useful book aims to correct that, and Streten draws on his experience as an SME principal and lawyer. It would be a good starting point for accountants who act as financial consultants to clients and want to extend their advice into other fields.

Business Legal LifecycleFilling out the forms to establish a business is the easy part. Knowing your obligations in relation to employees, clients and suppliers is trickier. Contracts are an essential tool but can be a difficult area of law. Streten also delves into the crucial field of intellectual property protection, from trademarks to international patents.

As the business grows so does the legal complexity, whether it involves expansion to new premises, franchising or acquisition. There is likely to be a legal dispute at some point, so an entrepreneur needs to understand how litigation works. Knowing how to recover debts to ensure cash flow is important. When it comes time to move out of the business, there are legal issues to consider as well.

Streten explains all this with admirable clarity, although the book might have been improved by an appendix of specialised resources. But this is a minor point: Streten’s aim is to provide a practical guide, and in this he succeeds.



The New Rules of Work: The Modern Playbook for Navigating Your Career

By Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew

Hachette, $30, 336 pages, ISBN 9780451495679

Cavoulacos and Minshew are the founders of the popular career advice site and between them bring a great deal of experience to bear on their subject. Multiple changes of companies, jobs and career paths is the new normal, so there is a need to know how to build your skills portfolio, plan your steps, and market yourself when opportunities arise. The emphasis of the book is on practical advice, from sifting through the career options to mastering first impressions to possible scripts for job interviews. Networking is a valuable tool for finding and understanding possibilities, and a good mentor is an important asset when it comes to assessing your own worth.

Cavoulacos and Minshew emphasise the need to present your best profile but they point out that any attempt at deception will be counter-productive. Instead, especially when seeking a promotion, you have to be able to communicate what you have done and why you are ready to move up. Being able to say how you stand out from the crowd is critical. ‘Soft’ skills are the key.

The book includes plenty of worksheets, tests, templates and thought experiments, many of them designed to help you understand your strengths and weaknesses. Cavoulacos and Minshew write with American readers in mind but most of what they have to say would be universally applicable.

The New Rules of Work




Living with the dragon

China Matters: Getting It Right For Australia

By Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson

LaTrobe University Press, $30, 256 pages, ISBN 9781863959179


No-one disputes that China matters to Australia, and is going to matter more in the future. The issue, according to China-watchers Gill, from ANU, and Jakobson, of the Lowy Institute, is how the relationship can be successfully managed and developed.

They spend the first section of the book showing how intertwined China and Australia have become through trade. China and the Chinese people appear to have good attitudes towards Australia but their greater emphasis is on assuming a pre-eminent strategic position in Asia and the world. Gill and Jakobson note, for example, that special deals on trade can easily turn into coercive levers when political disputes arise. Businesses should take note of this, even while trying to develop as many connections as possible, building on past successes to move up the value chain. Within Australia, there needs to be more emphasis on learning Chinese in schools and more focus on China from Canberra.

A crucial question that Gill and Jakobson ask is how to hold onto Australian principles while deepening engagement with China. There is no simple template but they put forward some illustrative examples, such as reiterating that Australian citizens of Chinese background are subject to Australian law, not Chinese law. Equally, Australia should continue to speak out about violations of human rights in China, even if it causes discomfort in Beijing. Honesty is an important part of a good relationship.

China Matters should be read by anyone doing business with China. It is not always an easy book, but it is an important one.

China Matters


Glory days

Appearing in the Australian – Review, 1 July 2017

What Happens on Tour, Stays on Tour

Pitched Battle: In the frontline of the 1971 Springbok tour of Australia

By Larry Writer

Scribe, $35, 336 pages, ISBN 9781925321616


1971 is not quite long enough ago to have assumed the neutrality of history but is beyond the clear memory of most people. Presumably, Writer’s intention in Pitched Battle is to reiterate a political conflict of the time before it slips into the mist.

For those not familiar with the period, in the early 1970s South Africa represented the apex – nadir might be the better term – of discrimination, with the system of apartheid dividing the country along racial lines, including in sport. Writer emphasises that rugby union was tied firmly into the Afrikaner political culture, with its emphasis on toughness, grit, and bloody-minded muscle. And the South African team, the Springboks, was very good at it.

Pitched BattleFor the left-leaning group of Australian protesters at the centre of Pitched Battle, operating under the rubric AAM, for Anti-Apartheid Movement, the issue was that a racially-chosen team, representing a racially-based government, should not be welcome in Australia. A central figure was Meredith Burgmann, who provides a good deal of first-hand comment throughout the book (she later became a senior Labor politician). On the other side of the debate were conservative forces arguing that sport and politics should be kept separate, and that singling out South Africa made little sense when teams from communist regimes, for example, were welcomed.

It is hard to not admire the principle and tenacity of the AAM, especially since opinion polls at the time did not show much support for them (although the numbers were often confusing). Drawing on the lessons of the American civil rights movement, they sought to be disruptive but non-violent. Some of their ideas to interfere with Springbok games even had a streak of humour – the plan to use a remote-controlled model airplane to drop smoke bombs on the field would have been something to see, but unfortunately it did not get off the ground.

As the tour got under way the protests gained momentum and numbers, spreading from the sports grounds into the streets and even to the hotels where the South African players stayed. Some of the members of the AAM were not unsympathetic to the players, who had been invited to play football and now could not leave their rooms without being spat on.


One problem facing the AAM organisers was that there was no way to monitor everyone who demonstrated in the name of opposing apartheid. Throughout the Springbok tour, police would confiscate tennis balls stuffed with tacks and broken glass; screwdrivers; knives, and lead pipes filled with gravel. Considering the arsenals of the combatants in the demonstrations and riots that would ensue all over Australia, the injury tolls should have been no surprise.


Writer should, one feels, have given this issue more attention. Who were these people, and what were they trying to do? While his focus on the liberal activists of the AAM gives the book a narrative coherence it means that many players in the story remains offstage. Writer is clearly a highly capable researcher, so why did he not seek to contact some of the radicals?

Unsurprisingly, the violence begat violence, with militants from the far-right as well as thuggish football fans wading in. As the tour ground on – the Boks had a consistent winning record, by the way – the atmosphere grew increasingly poisonous. And then the new-ish Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, upped the ante by declaring a state of emergency, which gave the police almost untrammelled powers. Law and order, and no matter the number of broken bones.

The last leg of the tour was relatively quiet, as if everyone was worn out. The Boks left quietly but it was clear they would not be returning. The story, however, was not quite over. The South African cricket team had been invited to tour Australia. Which brings Sir Donald Bradman – yes, the Donald Bradman – into the book. As the chair of the Australian Cricket Board, he was initially inclined to continue with the invitation but was keenly aware of the devastating consequences of the rugby tour. He contacted Burgmann to seek her views, and there was a significant correspondence between them.

Eventually, Bradman travelled to South Africa, and met with the country’s Prime Minister John Vorster. Vorster intimated that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and therefore incapable of appreciating cricket, which prompted an angry Bradman to ask Vorster if he had ever heard of Garfield Sobers.

One way or another, the invitation was withdrawn, and South Africa found itself effectively locked out of international sport.

Did this constitute a win? The AAM activists seemed very willing to pat themselves on the back but it should be remembered that the apartheid system rolled on for another twenty years. It eventually collapsed due its own internal contradictions and mounting demographic strains, not because its sports teams could not come to Australia. This is a basic point, and it needs examination. The story that Writer tells is interesting enough but there is a yawning hole where the book’s conclusion should be.

Maybe Writer would say it was another brick in the wall, a symbolic victory. Ah, symbolism: is it what politics is really about or the last refuge of the unconvincing? Bit of both, perhaps. In the end, Pitched Battle is not a bad book, but a willingness to cast a broader net, and provide a wider historical view, would have made it a much better one.

New tech, Red Teams, High-flier Women

Appearing in In The Black magazine, July 2017


Megatech: Technology in 2050 

By Daniel Franklin

Profile Books, $33, 242 pages, ISBN 9781781254622

MegatechIt was Winston Churchill who said that the future will be just one damned thing after another. True, but this has not stopped people from trying to foretell what is coming down the road. Franklin is the executive editor of the Economist magazine, a position which allowed him to corral thinkers as varied as Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek, philanthropist Melinda Gates and sci-fi writer Nancy Kress. Each of the 20 essays in this book seeks to extrapolate existing trends, looking not just at technology itself but also its broader implications.

A number of writers point out that past predictions have often turned out to be hilariously wrong, but they nevertheless chance their arm to examine the future of biotechnology and bottom-up patterns of innovation. Others delve into the way technology is likely to affect agriculture (big but risky advances) and energy (renewables look good but there are still bugs in the system). Several contributors focus on the impact of megatech on humanity, including the ethics of artificial intelligence. The tone is generally optimistic but everyone acknowledges that there will be losers from all this fast-wave change.

This is interesting stuff, and enjoyable to read. Perhaps we will reach 2050 and look back at this book and laugh, but in the meantime it offers good food for thought.



Red Teaming: Transform Your Business by Thinking Like the Enemy

By Bryce Hoffman

Piatkus, $33, 279 pages, ISBN 9780349410418

If only we had thought about what might go wrong. It’s a common refrain in everything from failed military campaigns to disastrous product launches. In this fascinating book, Hoffman argues that a ‘Red Team’, with the mandate of questioning assumptions, gaming alternatives, and asking what competitors might do, can do much to reveal crucial flaws.Red Teaming

The idea comes from military and security agencies, although there are a few businesses that have started to apply the lessons, so there are enough cases from which Hoffman can draw lessons. Good Red Teamers are usually people with quick intellects and sceptical perspectives, although they need a firm leader and a clear brief to keep them on track. Hoffman examines cases where Red Teams have helped companies avoid major blunders, as well as cases where, had they been used, disasters might have been averted.

Most of all, there has to be buy-in and support from the top, both for the concept and the team. Senior executives must also understand that Red Teaming is not a way to avoid taking any action but a means to make plans better.


Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World

By Joann Lublin

Harper Business, $50, 304 pages, ISBN 9780062407474

As the business news editor of the Wall Street Journal, Lublin is in a good position to see how much progress women have made in the corporate world in the past thirty years – and how much remains to be done. In Earning It she interviews 52 women who have risen to the top, including Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; and Brenda Barnes, former CEO of Sara Lee. All of the cases are American but there is a sense that the experiences of these women are universal.

Earning ItMost of these stories are about success against the odds, and there are recurring themes of sexism and discrimination. The response of these women was to work hard (harder than the men, several say), know the business to the last detail, and make tough life choices. Lublin often discusses her own experiences as well, giving the book a personal dimension.

These women are admirable but younger women might have trouble with the idea that the answer to sexism is to out-play the sexists. Lublin’s advice regarding harassment – avoid the men doing the harassing – might also rankle. Nevertheless, there are many inspiring stories here, and without these pioneers there would not be a path for others to follow.



The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Piatkus, $33, 283 pages, ISBN 9780349412481

In the war for talent many people are fighting unarmed, says Chamorro-Premuzic, a HR consultant who specialises in scientific analysis of recruitment, promotion, and retention issues. There are plenty of tools available but many senior executives ignore them, trusting their gut even after it has been repeatedly wrong.

Chamorro-Premuzic notes that psychometric testing has developed to a very sophisticated level in the past decade, and he provides a good round-up of the academic research. He also cites analyses of corporate performance which shows that a relatively small number of outstanding people are responsible for the organisation’s success. The key is to locate them early and nurture them to bring out their best. Unfortunately, many companies fail at measuring job performance and so have little idea of who has solid potential.

Chamorro-Premuzic supplies some important metrics, noting that the common attributes of good performers are likeability, ability and drive. Psychometrics are useful at the recruitment stage but for promotions better tools are formal interviews, performance assessments, and personality tests. In particular, strong performers respond well to structured coaching, with measurable improvements in results.

Some organisations might find Chamorro-Premuzic’s ideas hard to apply but his basic thrust is sound. After all, good management requires good measurement.

The Talent Delusion



Lost and Found

From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories
By Mark McKenna
Melbourne University Press, $35, 251 pages, ISBN 9780522862591

1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings
By Nick Brodie
Hardie Grant, $30, 294 pages, ISBN 9781743791608

From the Edge

The study of Australia’s early history can be a tricky field. There have been more than a few polemicists who have eschewed true research, instead searching for any bits and pieces that can be spun into a black-armband version of events. But thankfully there are still some historical writers who believe in the value of primary research. There is, indeed, much to say about Australia’s early (white) history, and many important things to understand about the interactions between the new arrivals and the indigenous peoples.

McKenna, with a number of well-regarded books under his belt, finds some remarkable stories. In one, he examines how a group of five British sailors and twelve Bengali seamen staggered ashore at Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria in 1797, after a shipwreck in Bass Strait. Short on luck and options, they decided to walk the 700 kilometres along the coast to Sydney. On the way they encountered several Aboriginal tribes; they would have soon perished without their help. Astonishingly, three of them made it (although they were rescued by a fishing boat forty kilometres from Sydney). It is a remarkable story, and it is surprising that it is not better-known.

Other ventures into the unknown were more deliberate, such as the attempt to found a “new Singapore” at Port Essington in West Arnhem Land in the 1840s. It lasted for a decade but never really had much chance. There are still a few remnants of the site although the main legacy was introduced animals, such as buffaloes, pigs and wild dogs.

At least, there, the white would-be settlers tried to understand the indigenous people. But at the Burrup Peninsula the early relationship, based on the pearling industry, was exploitative to the point of slavery. McKenna acknowledges that gas companies now working in the area try to be sensitive but he wonders if industry and indigenous cultural heritage can be compatible. He points to some remarkable rock art, such as the millennia-old thylacine engraving on Angel Island, and notes that it is entirely unprotected, even while remains of a nearby European settlement barely a century old have been carefully preserved.

Perhaps the most significant chapter in the book deals with Cooktown, established at the place where the damaged Endeavour came ashore for repairs. The event was recorded in detail in Aboriginal lore, and comparing those records with the writings of the ship’s officers illustrates the size of the gulf of between the cultures.

In fact, north Queensland saw some of the most horrific violence of the settlement period. But when McKenna speaks with elders and other representatives of the indigenous people of the area around Cooktown, who are entirely aware of the consequences of the Cook landing, he finds little bitterness. Instead, there is an admirable desire to cast aside victimhood and look to the future.

This shows something significant about the methodology of the book: McKenna’s willingness to get down to the roots, to get his hands dirty and his skin sunburned. He certainly did a huge amount of academic research in libraries, working through old journals and musty records. But he also walked through the area along the south-east coast and hiked through difficult country to get the feel of the places he writes about. He is sympathetic to indigenous people and the bad historical hand they were dealt but he also recognises the values of Euro-Australian culture, and he appreciates that there has been a sustained push for better understanding in the past several decades.

How far that understanding can go is an open question: reading this book, there is a feeling that perhaps the chasm can never be truly bridged. But digging into stories beyond the official history is a way forward, and can provide an important extra layer to the national consciousness.1787

In 1787, Brodie challenges the notion that European history in Australia began with the British, although he is looking in a different direction, to pre-Cook discoveries and encounters. It is not new to say that Cook was not the first white person to see and land on the Australian shore but Brodie provides a far richer picture.

The Spanish were among the first to reach the area, with a small fleet sailing west from their colony in Peru in 1605. Their aim was to reach the Spanish colony in the Philippines but they were happy to explore, giving islands and other features names as they found them. In fact, one of the ship captains was Luis Vaes de Torres, after whom the Torres Strait was named.

This fleet found indications of a vast – and inhabited – southern continent but it was the next wave, sailing eastwards and southwards from Asia, that started to fill in the blanks on the map. There were Dutch entrepreneurs looking for trading opportunities, French explorers looking for adventure, and English seafarers looking for, well, whatever wasn’t nailed down. Ships from Asian countries also visited the islands around Australia and the mainland, pushing the known frontier forward. At the same time, other explorers were finding the southern and eastern edges of the continent. But it became clear, when indigenous peoples were encountered, that the new land did not offer much in the way of economic opportunities, at least not the type being sought. One cannot help but think that Australian history could have turned out very differently, if there had been a little nudge here or a small accident there.

Taken together, these two books offer a more expansive version of Australia’s history, and both authors deserve credit. If there is an obligation to understand the past as a means of interpreting the present, this is good place to start.

Brewing beer, organising quality, and making teams

Appearing in In the Black magazine, June 2017


Business for Punks: Break All the Rules – the BrewDog Way

By James Watt

Penguin, $25, 256 pages, ISBN 9780241290118

The UK-based company founded by Watt, boutique beermaker BrewDog, started with thirty thousand pounds and now has a turnover of fifty million, so he must be doing something right. When he started, Watt says, he could not find any books useful to a gung-ho entrepreneur, so he threw away the concept of business plans and simply charged ahead. Belief in the product, his team, his “firecracker” marketing, and his capacity to innovate have been the ingredients for BrewDog to make a profit in every year of its life. Plus a huge amount of grinding work.

Watt presents himself as a no-nonsense hard man (he was formerly captain of a North Atlantic trawler), and he advises that keeping control of the firm has to be the first priority. The chapter on dealing with banks is illustrative: the trick is to find one person who is willing to link their own career to your company’s progress.

There is a good deal of anarchic hyperbole here but underneath there is another set of messages: know the finances to the last cent, deal with staff conflicts quickly and decisively, and carefully analyse new markets before expansion. So perhaps Watt is not so unconventional after all.

One way or another, it is a remarkable story, and proof that there can be many paths to business success.



The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough

By Subir Chowdhury

Crown Business, $40, 143 pages, ISBN 9780451496218

Chowdhury is a respected management consultant specialising in the area of quality, and in the course of his practice he realised that there was a marked difference in the improvement experienced by his clients. So he went back for a closer look. The answer, he concluded, was not process but culture. If people do not care about their work, the organisation, and their peers then, over the long term, no amount of process change or better customer relations really matters.

This is the sort of thing that seems obvious once you have heard it, but the issue is in the details. It is often a matter of small things, from keeping the workspace tidy to supporting employees who want to try something new. Chowdhury calls this a “caring mindset”, characterised by four conditions: truthfulness, including when the truth might be painful; empathy, which centres on active listening; accountability for one’s actions; and resolve, including passion and determination but also encompassing humility and a willingness to allow change.

It is for leaders, whether at the CEO level or the team level, to put these qualities into practice. Not always easy, but it eventually filters into all corners of the organisation.  Chowdhury provides illustrative cases, and one can see how the lessons can be applied. The Difference might not be revolutionary but it is a solid, insightful, and practical piece of work.



Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power

By Michael Mankins and Eric Garton

Harvard Business Review Press, $49, 256 pages, ISBN 9781633691766

Teams are crucial tools for many companies but there is often a nagging feeling that they do not work as effectively as they should. Mankins and Garton, partners at Bain & Company, marshal a great deal of research data to discuss the issue, and conclude that the main reason for team ineffectiveness is institutional factors that impede activity and drain energy. Too often, senior executives want updates and reports when they should let the team do its job. A related issue is the flood of emails, which is a constant distraction.

At another level, Mankins and Garton believe that not enough thought is put into the selection of team members (a part of a broader shortcoming of senior managers regarding HR in general).  Allocating human resources is as important as allocating financial resources, and should be recognised as such.

Mankins and Garton make some useful suggestions, including a clear policy on internal communications, training for meetings, and organisational re-design to clarify lines of responsibility. They also provide a diagnostic test to determine where a company most needs improvement.

A properly-managed team, especially where members’ skills complement each other, can be a real competitive advantage. A poorly-managed one is an expensive waste of everyone’s time.